A guide to smoking fish.If you like to cook your catch we hope this guide to fish smoking is useful!
What is smoking?
Smoking is a method of preserving food using a combination of heat, salt and smoke. Today, with the widespread use of fridges and freezers there is not a real need to preserve food in this way and the process would have died out years ago if it wasn’t for one thing – smoked food tastes delicious!
It is widely believed that smoking food and fish was a process discovered by chance rather than design. The preferred method ancient fisherman would use to preserve their catch would be to use a combination of wind, sun and salt. Using these three resources, a well salted and dried piece of fish could be kept indefinitely and required only a long soak in fresh water to become edible again.
You can picture the scenario, after hauling in a bumper catch, a group of fisherman hindered by rain and lack of wind are desperately trying to dry their catch over the open fire. They soon discover that fish dried in this way will not only last longer but take on a delicious smoky flavour. In these ancient times any method of food preservation that helped keep food for longer would have been a welcome discovery.
In addition to this there is one very important factor for the permeation of smoking throughout modern culture – fish preserved through smoking require less salt which was a highly valuable commodity. Even in these days people had to think of their profit margins!
How does smoking work?
Smoking preserves food because it dries it out and kills off bacteria. It does this because some of the chemicals in the smoke have anti bacterial and antioxidant properties. Smoking is split in to two distinct categories – hot smoking and cold smoking.
These two techniques produce very different results and it’s important to know the difference! For each technique the fish is salted before hand to extract moisture and allow the smoke to permeate the natural oils.
Salting Before Smoking
It is essential that for both these techniques fish are salted before smoking. For hot smoking you can either salt the fish dry by just covering it with a layer of salt or you can submerge the fish in brine (salted water). We find it much simpler and easier just to cover the fish in dry salt. For small fillets you can use a good quality sea salt but for larger fish you may find it cheaper and quicker to use a finer table salt.
Cover the piece of fish you intend to smoke in a layer of salt. After you have left the fish for the correct period of time you should wash the salt off straight away with cold water and then pat dry with a kitchen towel. You should notice a slight change to the texture and appearance of the fish as the flesh firms up.
Below is a guide to how long you should leave it depending of the size of fish you are smoking.
Small Fillets / Tiny Fish – 15 mins
Normal fillets / Small Fish – 15 – 25 mins
Large Fillets / Medium Fish – 25 – 45 mins
Very Large Fillet – Whole side of large fish – 45 – 90 mins
Hot smoking is a combination of heat and smoke. This process cooks the fish at the same time as smoking it. The most common wood is Oak however Beech, Apple and many other woods are used.
You will find vac-packed hot smoked Mackerel in most supermarkets however the taste can vary drastically. Unfortunately many of these smoked products are injected with dye and brine as well as liquid smoke to cut costs and increase profit margins – yours will always taste better!
Hot smoking is a quick way of smoking fish. A fillet taking only 10 or 15 minutes.
Commercial hot smokers such as the Snowbee portable smoker are widely available. You can also smoke your fish on the BBQ and it’s straightforward to build your own hot smoker.
Cold smoking, as the name suggests is a process which involves no heat. The fish is salted then hung in a smoke box to which an attached pipe will deliver a constant stream of cold smoke. The process doesn't’t cook the fish with heat, instead the cooking process uses a combination of salt and the chemicals within the smoke to cure the fish. Again, the most common wood is Oak however Beech, Apple and many other woods are used.
You will see cold smoked salmon in large flat packets in most supermarkets however the taste of this fish is usually terrible compared to home cold smoked fish due to the shortcuts they use in the process to increase their profit margins.
Cold smoking will normally take at least 24 hours of continuous smoking
Commercial cold smokers such as the Bradley Smoker are available however they are expensive to buy and only represent good value for money if you smoke lots of things at the same time. More common would be to build your own cold smoker however this requires a fair bit of space and an area where the constant smoke will not annoy your neighbours!