By Mike Stines, Ph. B.
Smoking food is a cooking method that has existed since man discovered fire and found his smoke-filled cave also served to preserve fish and meat. Smoking was also used to prepare food for storage over the winter when fresh meat and seafood wasn’t readily available. In the Pacific Northwest Native Americans smoked fish using alder sticks stuck into the ground alongside a fire or on a drying rack over a smoldering fire.
Commercial smoking of seafood began on a large scale in the 1800’s with scores of smokehouses opening in Brooklyn, New York bringing salmon in from the west coast and later using North Atlantic salmon. Unfortunately heavy commercial fishing of salmon almost drove the fish into extinction. Today most salmon comes from the Pacific Northwest or the North Atlantic while some is imported from Chile and Norway.
Cold-smoked salmon – sliced very thinly and eaten raw – is an elegant dish. Lox (smoked salmon that is also cold-smoked) is more heavily cured and is often eaten on a bagel with cream cheese, red onion and capers. Kippers are cured and smoked herrings, very popular in Britain for breakfast and lunch. Residents of Scotland’s village of Findon are credited with creating finnan haddie (smoked haddock that is either poached or broiled after smoking and served hot) that was originally smoked over peat. Halibut, sturgeon and fish roe are usually cold-smoked while eel, trout, bluefish and mackerel are hot-smoked and can be eaten without further cooking.
There are two ways of curing seafood: using a brine solution or a dry cure. Most store bought smoked salmon is brined. The smoking process also varies (as does the smoking of meats) and two methods are used: hot-smoking or cold-smoking. The main difference is the length of the smoking and the temperature used for smoking. Cold smoked seafood tends to be slightly smoky and oilier while the hot-smoked version is much drier with a stronger smoke flavor.
Temperatures for cold smoking are typically between 68 to 86 degrees F. At this temperature range foods take on a smoked flavor but remain relatively moist. Cold smoking does not cook foods and frequently takes days of smoking.
Hot smoking exposes food to smoke and heat in a controlled environment. Although foods that have been hot smoked are often reheated or cooked, they are safe to eat without further cooking. Hot smoking is done between 126 to 176 degrees F. while barbecue, also called smoke roasting or pit roasting, is traditionally done at 225 to 250 degrees F.
Most any kind of wood can be used for smoking as long as it’s non-resinous. Typical woods are fruit woods, alder, oak, maple, and hickory. Salmon is usually smoked with alder.
Although any fish can be smoked, fish with higher oil content (salmon, mackerel, sturgeon, bluefish, trout, eel, herring or smelts) are better suited as they absorb more smoke and remain moist during cooking.
Use only fresh fish that has been kept clean and cold. Salmon are split with the backbone removed or filleted; bottom fish filleted; herring and smelts are headed and gutted. (Herring are also traditionally split for kippers.) Rinse the fish with running cold water to remove all traces of blood.
Basic Fish Brine
4 cups cold water
1/4 cup (2.5 ounces or 70 grams) kosher salt
1/4 cup dark brown sugar, packed
2 bay leaves
1 stalk celery, sliced
1/2 cup chopped yellow onion
2 cloves garlic, smashed
Bring two cups of water to a simmer over medium heat. Add the remaining ingredients and stir until the salt and sugar dissolve. Remove from the heat and add the remaining cold water. Cool the brine to 40 degrees F. (Use one gallon of brine for every four pounds of fish.)
If you don’t want to make your own brining solution or want a variety of flavored brines, Hi Mountain offers several brine mixes including a trout brine, gourmet fish brine and Alaskan salmon brine.
Place the fish in a non-reactive container and add the brine. Cover and refrigerate.
Brine 1/2-inch thick fillets for two hours, one-inch thick pieces about six hours, and 11/2-inch thick pieces overnight. Brining times can be adjusted to give the fish a lighter or heavier cure. Brining pickles the fish so the longer it brines the saltier it will get.
Another option is to dry cure the fish instead of using a brining solution.
Basic Dry Cure
1/2 cup (5 ounces or 140 grams) coarse kosher salt
1/2 cup dark brown sugar, packed
3/4 teaspoon cracked black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons dried lemon zest
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
1/2 teaspoon dried ginger
Combine all the ingredients in a mixing bowl and mix well to combine. (This cure will keep in a closed container for six months.)
Liberally apply the cure to both sides of the fish. Place in a non-reactive container and cover. Refrigerate for six to eight hours.
After brining or curing, rinse the fish with cold running water.
Place the fish skin side down on a cooling rack over a half sheet pan and refrigerate overnight allowing a pellicle to form on the surface. The pellicle, a sticky lacquer-like layer, will seal the surface and prevents loss of natural juices during smoking.
Prepare the smoker for 150 degrees F. smoking and smoke the fish using the wood of your choice to an internal temperature of 140 degrees F. (Generally 1/2-inch pieces are smoked for an hour; one-inch pieces for two hours and 1 1/2-inch pieces for three hours.) Use an instant-read thermometer such as the Thermapen to assure the fish is properly cooked.
Once the fish is smoked, wrap the cooled fish with plastic wrap. It will keep in the refrigerator for a week or frozen for up to six months.
(Editor’s note: Mike Stines is a professional chef, culinary instructor and author. He holds a “Doctorate of Barbeque Philosophy” (Ph. B.) degree from the Kansas City Barbeque society. His award-winning book – Mastering Barbecue (Ten Speed Press, 2005) – has been called the “go-to” book for BBQ knowledge. His website is CapeCodBBQ.com.)