For thousands of years before refrigeration was invented, our ancestors used various smoking techniques to preserve fish. This allowed them to travel with the fish and store extras for later use without a freezer.
For those of us living off the grid, this ancient technique gives us the same benefits as our ancestors.
Properly smoked fish can be easily stored in a cellar or similar storage area, and the smoke adds layers of taste and flavor to the preserved fish. Today, there are dozens of ways to preserve a fish, with variations in smoking temp, time, wood, and method.
This article will give you an introduction to how to smoke fish and the best methods to use.
Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
Table of contents
- What is Smoked Fish?
- Why You Should Smoke Fish?
- Best Wood Chips for Smoked Fish
- How to Hot Smoke Fish In a Smoker
- How to Cold Smoke Fish In a Smoker
- How to Smoke Fish Without a Smoker
What is Smoked Fish?
Smoked fish is the result of curing fish with salt or brine and then smoking it in either hot or cold smoke to add flavor and draw out additional moisture.
You can smoke any type of fish, but fattier fish tend to do better in the smoking process. The higher fat content helps absorb the smoke flavor and aroma, adding more flavor profiles to the meat.
For smoking fish, you want to choose a type of fish with over 5 percent fat by body weight. Popular choices include salmon, whitefish, sea bass, and tuna.
Why You Should Smoke Fish?
Smoking fish has many benefits, whether you live off the grid or not.
However, if you’re going to the trouble of smoking fish, you should aim to make a large amount all at once. So if you’ve had a bountiful catch one day, it makes sense to smoke most of your catch for preservation.
What if your family doesn't like smoked fish? Learn how to can fresh fish to preserve it and round out your food supply.
Smoked and cured fish has a much more stable shelf life than fresh fish and a different taste than dried fish.
It can be stored in a cellar for weeks, if not longer. Plus, it gives the fish a smoky flavor and any other flavors you add in the process.
If you have a large amount of fish and know you can’t eat it all before it goes bad, you should definitely smoke it.
Best Wood Chips for Smoked Fish
When choosing wood chips, you want to choose a sweet, mild type of hardwood. Examples of these types of wood include apple, cherry, alder, and hickory.
Pair these with fresh herbs and citrus aromatics to perfectly complement the flavor of the fish. The mild flavor of these woods won’t overpower the other flavors, giving you a balanced taste.
Traditionally, Alder woodchips have been used to smoke salmon. Something about the combination just works.
For other fish, I suggest using applewood to get started. It just seems to work with everything. It works as an all-purpose smoking wood and is mild enough to avoid overpowering other flavors.
How to Hot Smoke Fish In a Smoker
If you already know how to use a charcoal smoker, try using it for fish. This might seem like an obvious thing to start with, but make sure you fully clean the fish and remove the head.
Next, make your brine solution with the following:
- ½ cup of salt
- ½ cup of sugar
- 1 quart of water
Mix the brine solution in a large bowl until dissolved.
Place the fish in the mixture and ensure it remains fully submerged in the brine.
Let it sit for 8 to 12 hours or even overnight.
For thinner pieces of fish, 8 hours should be sufficient. Once done, remove the pieces from the brine, rinse them, and pat dry.
You will smoke your fish for about four hours total.
Set your smoker to 150 degrees Fahrenheit for the first hour, and then increase the temperature to 200 degrees Fahrenheit for the remaining three hours.
If you have thinner slices of fish, you likely only need to smoke it for 3 - 3.5 hours, so make sure you keep an eye on it.
Once you think the fish has cooked through, check the internal temperature to ensure it has reached a minimum temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
If so, you’ve successfully smoked your fish.
How to Cold Smoke Fish In a Smoker
Cold-smoking fish requires a few different steps than simply hot smoking. Before you attempt cold smoking, make sure you have the right smoker.
Many smokers can’t get to a low enough temperature for cold smoking. You need a smoker that can be set as low as 78 degrees Fahrenheit.
Once you’ve determined whether you have the right smoker, prepare the fish. Clean the fish and remove the head. Next, you will apply the salt to start the curing process.
As a general rule of thumb, you should use salt weighing 20% of the total weight of the fish.
So for five pounds of fish, use a minimum of one pound of salt.
Make sure the fish is completely covered in salt. The salt will begin drawing moisture out of the fish. Let it sit covered in salt and refrigerated for about 24 hours.
Once you’re ready to begin smoking, rinse off the fish and make sure all the salt has been removed.
Set your smoker to 78 degrees Fahrenheit, and place the fish inside. Choose your favorite woodchips, and smoke the fish for 6 - 8 hours.
Since this method doesn’t cook the fish, you will find the fish has a tasty raw-like texture, full of smokey flavor.
After smoking, you can vacuum seal the fish and freeze some to use later.
How to Smoke Fish Without a Smoker
If you don’t have access to a smoker, you can still enjoy the unique taste of smoked fish.
Other ways to smoke fish include using an oven, a grill, or a campfire.
How to Smoke Fish In an Oven
To smoke fish in an oven, you will need liquid smoke, available at most grocery stores.
To start, fully clean the fish and remove the head.
Place the fillet in a large bowl with 4 ounces of liquid smoke per fillet.
Salt and pepper to season.
Next, cover the bowl and place it in a fridge or cold cellar for 6 - 8 hours.
Remove the fish and rinse them clean.
Set your oven to 160 degrees Fahrenheit, then place your fillets on a wire cooling rack in the oven.
This will allow full air circulation around the fish.
Leave in the oven for 6 - 8 hours.
Once the internal temperature of the fish is around 160 degrees Fahrenheit, it will be safe to remove.
Let it cool, and enjoy your tasty meal.
How to Smoke Fish On a Grill
Using a grill to smoke fish provides an easy alternative to a smoker.
Simply follow the same preparation steps as you would for hot smoking the fish in a smoker.
Clean it, and prepare the same brine for the fish to soak in.
Let the fish soak in the brine for 8 - 12 hours. A few hours before you’re ready to smoke the fish, soak your woodchips in a bucket of water.
When the fish is ready to be removed from the brine, rinse it clean. Remove the woodchips from the water and wrap a few handfuls in an aluminum foil pouch.
Use a fork to make a few dozen small holes in the foil. Place the foil near one of your edge burners on your barbeque, and turn on just that one burner to medium heat.
Then close the lid and let the woodchips heat up enough to create smoke.
Once the smoke starts to fill the barbeque, turn the heat down low enough to reach a grilling temperature of roughly 160 - 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
Once you’ve reached 160 degrees, place the fish on the grill as far away from the lit burner as possible.
Check your pouch every 30 minutes or so, and add more woodchips when necessary to keep the smoke flowing. Smoke the fish for about 2 hours, depending on the size and thickness of the fillet.
How to Smoke Fish On a Campfire
To smoke fish on a campfire, follow the same cleaning and brine solution mentioned in the hot smoking section.
Build a campfire with hardwood, and let it burn down until you have a good base of coals and not a lot of flames.
Then place two rocks on either side of the coals.
Skewer your fish with some small twigs or skewering rods, and place each end of the skewer on one of the rocks, suspending the fish above the coals. Make sure they're about 6 - 8 inches from the coals.
Position tinfoil directly on top of the coals, and place soaked woodchips on the foil. The heat from the coals will make the woodchips start to smoke, without burning.
Rotate the fish every 15 - 20 minutes, and make sure the coals don’t die out.
You can add some woodchips directly to the coals to keep them burning without large flames.
For an average-sized fish fillet, leave it over the smoking coals for an hour to cook through. Once done, kick back and enjoy.
Smoking fish is a great way to preserve your catch and add some extra flavor. Our ancestors have used this method for centuries, and it's still beloved by many.
Next time you have an abundance of fish, try smoking some and freezing it to keep for later use. Also, smoked fish gives you a unique ingredient to add to various recipes and dishes.
If you've smoked fish before, or are just getting started, let us know how it turns out and what your favorite recipe is!
How Long Does It Take to Smoke Fish?
It depends on which method you use to smoke the fish.
If you hot smoke the fish in an electric smoker, it will take about 3.5 - 4 hours of smoking.
If you cold smoke the fish using a smoker, it will take 6 - 8 hours.
What Kind of Fish is Good For Smoking?
Use a fish with high-fat content.
These include Salmon, Mackerel, Trout, Tuna, Sturgeon, Bluefish, and Sea Bass, among others.
Does Smoked Fish Go Bad?
Yes. Depending on the type of smoking method you use, you will have different shelf lives. If your smoked fish is sealed and refrigerated, it will last for about 3 weeks.
How Should I Store My Smoked Fish?
If you have a vacuum sealer, use it.
If not, find a way to seal it as tightly as possible with the air removed. Once packaged, put it in the freezer until you have a craving!
What Temperature Should I Get The Fish To?
The internal temperature of the fish should reach between 160 - 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
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