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How to smoke fish as a beginner?
What is the best wood for smoking fish and how to smoke fish as a beginner? For the hundreds of years before refrigeration existed, curing and smoking fish has been an ancient preservation technique. Every fish caught would get packed with salt to help draw out internal moisture, then hung up over smoke at a low temperature in order to continue further drying. This method adds months of shelf life to the “jerky like” fish by aiding in eliminating bacteria.
Today, smoked fish is considered a delicacy. It can add another subtle layer of flavour or be intense and overpowering, all depending on your preferences. There are two main smoking methods: hot smoking and cold smoking. In those main categories there is a wide variety of source material on what types of wood to use, temperatures for smoking and what you need to start smoking. You may also be wondering, what types of fish should I smoke? First, I’ll explain how to effectively use smoking as a cooking method.
When you are hot smoking fish you are cooking, not just imparting a layer of flavour. Hot smoking is when you cook at temperatures between 70-80C in order to completely cook the flesh. You will not need any additional cooking once your smoking is complete and it should only take a few hours. With hot smoking, you are not drying or preserving the fish in the same way as when you cold smoke. The result is something that has great smoked flavour but a shorter shelf life. This is a simpler form of smoking than cold smoking and requires less equipment. Commonly, hot smoking can be done in a barbeque and is placed directly with the wood for smokiness.
Before smoking the fish, a cure or brine is generally used to add another subtle layer of flavour and help retain moisture. These cures or brines can be made up of anything from simple salt and sugar, to herbs, spices and wine. The flavours in the cure or brine will not be overpowering, but more so add an indirect flavour to compliment the fish.
Common types of hot smoked fish are larger pieces of fish with skin on that will be served immediately after smoking. An example would be if you want to serve a filet of fish for dinner, so you smoke it and serve it hot once its ready.
Here is an example of Hot Smoked Salmon.
Cold smoking is done over many hours or up to several days, depending on the desired outcome. It is done at a much lower temperature than hot smoking, usually 25C. There is usually more equipment required to cold smoke and the fish is placed in a chamber separate from the burning wood, which is then filled with smoke. Although it does require a special smoker and can’t be done in just a barbecue, cold smoking is a fairly simple process.
Just like hot smoked fish, cold smoking the fish is cured or brined beforehand. Spices, salt, sugar or maple syrup can all be used. It is then placed in the unheated chamber for a few hours (or longer) which is connected to the wood smoke. The chamber gets filled with the smoke and the fish gets imparted with a wonderful light smoked flavour.
The most common ways we see cold smoked fish today is with smoked salmon, or a variation of this called salmon candy, which is heavily cured with maple syrup.
Here is an example of Cold Smoked Salmon.
Types of Fish for Smoking
Nearly any type of fish can be smoked, but some hold up better to the smoke than others. It can be easier to smoke a large piece, such as a side, filet or whole fish that has skin on. I suggest doing multiple large pieces of fish, if you’re going through the effort of smoking, you may as well have a lot of smoked fish.
Fish found in cold lakes and seas are the best for smoking. They contain the most fat which insulated the delicate meat and contributes to the natural flavour of the fish. These oily fish are as follows:
- Sea Bass
- Sablefish/Black Cod
Here is a tasty recipe for Smoked Tuna.
What is the best wood for smoking fish?
Types of Wood for Smoking?
The wood used is critical, as it is the component that will impart the most flavour into the fish. Some woods are powerful, while others are subtle. Different types of wood will produce different flavours, and different types of trees have unique compositions and burning points. You can use larger chunks of wood or smaller smoking wood chips.
The larger chunks of wood will have a long slow burn and release a consistent stream of smoker over a period of time. Whereas the wood chips will burn hot and fast, giving off a quick burst of heat and smoke.
For further detail on what types of wood not to smoke with check out Char Broil. The following list of what flavour each type of wood gives off is credited to them.
- Alder is a very delicate wood with a subtle sweet flavour. It’s commonly used when smoking salmon, but it goes well with all fish, pork, poultry and light-meat game birds.
- Apple is very mild with a subtle sweet, fruity flavour. This smoking wood is ideal for poultry, beef, pork, game birds, lamb and some seafood. Not recommended for smoking fish.
- Cherry wood has a sweet mild, fruity flavour that is very versatile and can be used with pretty much anything.
- Grape Vine wood has a tart, fruity flavour that work well with poultry, small game birds, lamb, pork and sausage, but use it sparingly or the tart flavour may be overwhelming. A small amount of this wood added to other woods could be a great addition to smoking fish.
- Hickory smoking wood creates a sweet, yet strong bacon-flavour; the smoke can be pungent however it adds a nice strong flavour to meat and fish cuts. Especially popular with pork and ribs. I recommend using Hickory if you’re smoking your fish with mustard, the combination of the two is delicious.
- Maple has a mild and slightly sweet flavour. Maple is perfect with smoked salmon and most fish.
- Mesquite wood has a strong and earthy flavour that is ideal for dark meats. If you’re smoking with this type of wood, you should cut it with Maple wood.
- Mulberry smoking wood has a flavour like apple that is ideal when smoking poultry, fish and pork.
- Oak has a medium smoked flavour that is stronger than apple and cherry, but lighter than hickory or mesquite. It is great by itself, but works well with apple, cherry or hickory woods. Being the most versatile wood to smoke with I highly recommend having a strong supply to smoke your fish with and making blends with other woods.
- Olive wood has a similar flavour to mesquite but is lighter. If you want subtle smoked flavour olive wood is recommended.
- Peach and Pear woods and similar and they infuse a sweet, fruity flavour like most fruit woods. They are both great for grilling fish.
- Pecan wood is the strongest of the fruit woods, but milder than hickory and mesquite. Pecan is ideal when grilling poultry but will infuse a nice flavour into your fish.
- Walnut has a strong and bitter flavour. Use walnut for heavy meats, not recommended for fish.
Aaron Franklin is the owner and Chief Firestarter at Austin’s Franklin Barbeque, widely regarded as one of the most influential pit masters in the United States. He received a James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: Southwest in 2015. Here is a video of him breaking down what types of wood to use and why.
Smoking Fish at Home
It all sounds overwhelming. Smoking your own fish at home is surprisingly easy, it just takes patience. Smoking anything usually takes a whole day to do for the perfect end result. If you already have a barbeque then you’re set, simply make a tin foil basket, add your wood chips and light them on fire. Or you can heat your chips up in a pan until they catch fire, then dump them into your foil basket. Just make sure your chips are getting a decent source of indirect heat and that your barbeque lid is closed, to maintain good smoke.
If you are a more advanced smoker, I recommend purchasing your own smoking device. There are some affordable ones available on Amazon. With these smokers it’s easer to place larger pieces of wood inside, in order to do longer smokes. For an in-depth video on How to Smoke Fish at Home.