There are two basic ways to smoke fish and seafood: cold smoking and hot smoking. Cold smoking involves smoking up to and typically not over 90 degrees F. This results in a RAW smoked fish (think of lox). If you want the fish cooked, then go with hot smoking where the internal temperature of the fish reaches at least 160 degrees F, which actually cooks the meat.
There are five basic steps for proper hot smoking fish. Each must be followed carefully to ensure a safe product to eat after smoking; fish preparation; brining; drying the surface; smoking (cooking the fish); and storage. While the actual smoking times may take longer depending on the size of the fillets or fish, all fish should be heated to an internal temperature (use a thermometer) of 160 degrees F (minimum) for at least 30 minutes. This ensures the fish is completely cooked. Always check the largest or thickest piece of fish when testing the temperature with a thermometer. This temperature should be reached within 6 hours of smoking. After reaching the 160 mark for at least 30 minutes, you may continue to smoke it in your smoker for additional flavor at temperatures of 140 degrees F or greater.
For proper food safety, clean and gut the fish in a different area than your preparation area for smoking. Fresh fish needs to be thoroughly cleaned to remove all blood and viscera. Uniformity is key when filleting the fish and cutting it up to ensure even salt absorption and even smoking. When cutting up the fish, leave the skin ON the fillet. During cleaning, keep the fish cool; never let it sit around for extended periods prior to brining and smoking.
While hot smoking cooks the fish, the salt inside the brine is what actually preserves it. You need enough of the brine to completely cover the fish. A typical strong brine – adequate for most fish, is 1 part plain salt (not iodized), or table salt, to 7 parts water. Dry salting can be used in place of liquid salt brines, but brines will give a more uniform salting. Chill the brine down to 38 degrees F or lower BEFORE using it on the fish. Place the fish inside the brine to completely cover each fillet, and let the fish brine for at least 30 minutes and up to 3 hours. An average ratio for brine to fish is 3 parts of brine to 1 part fish. You will need a lot of brine for smoking large fish (or many small ones) so make sure you have room in the fridge for chilling the brine and for the actual brining part.
Basic Strong Brine Recipe
- 1 part plain salt – not iodized
- 7 parts water
There are many different recipes for brines – some add flavor as well as provide enough salt for preservation. After brining, a quick rinse with fresh water will remove excess salt from the surface and get the fish ready for drying.
Drying the Surface (Forming a Pellicle)
Drying the fish before smoking gives a nice coat for the smoked fillets to help seal in moisture, and provides a better looking finished product – this is called forming a pellicle. After rinsing the fish from the brine, let the surface air dry, about 30 minutes for most fish. Using a fan will aid in getting the outside dry before smoking.
Below shows optimum cooking/smoking times and temperatures after brining and drying the surface.
This is the actual flavoring with smoke and cooking part. The fish needs to reach at least 160 degrees F for 30 minutes within about 6 hours of placing it in the smoker to begin with. Bringing the temperature up too fast results in cooking the fish too fast and the juices boiling out of the fillets and crusting on the surface, which isn’t very appealing in the finished product. Getting the temp up too slowly may result in spoilage. If the home smoker cannot get the temperature up to what you need, bring it inside into a preheated 300 degree F oven, and bake for at least 30 minutes (getting the fish at that 160 internal temp mark for 30 minutes).
When the fish is smoking, remember to use the proper wood for smoking. Always use hardwood, such as fruit woods, maple, oak, or hickory, and avoid conifer wood such as pin, fir, and cedar.
After smoking the fish, cool completely. Wrap in foil and store in the refrigerator at or below 38 degrees F (out of the danger zone). Smoked fish will keep this way for about 10 days. If not eating immediately, wrap up first in plastic wrap then foil, or use a vacuum sealer and store in the freezer. Properly wrapped smoked fish will store in the freezer for about 2 to 3 months.