Smoking Fish
Smoked fish is a New Zealand tradition. The smoked fish most of us know and love best is the fish we smoke at home, either in a purpose-built smoker in the back yard, at the beach house or beside the lake, or in one of those ubiquitous metal smoking boxes every family seems to own.
The simplest smokers use a small container of methylated spirits to heat sawdust inside a metal box, over which the fish is arranged on a wire rack. Similar designs dispense with the spirit heater and fit over the barbecue instead.
Hot smoking, as this method is called, is quick, simple and delicious. It works for all types of fish, shellfish and small pieces of meat, but the heat produced inside the box cooks the food, which needs to be eaten immediately.
Cold smoking takes longer and is more complicated, but it preserves fish and other food for later consumption.
Preparing the fish
Fish meant for smoking is generally cleaned but left whole, though you can successfully smoke fish fillets, cutlets and steaks. Fish are ‘split’ by filleting just one side, leaving the skin along the backbone connecting it to the rest of the fish. This exposes the flesh to the curing agents and smoke.
Larger fish are cut into pieces that are not too thick – thick pieces take longer to smoke and may never get hot enough for safe eating. The skin is left on as it helps hold the fish together as it smokes.
Before food is smoked, it is treated with flavour-enhancers and curing agents – raw sugar and rock salt, plus whatever else the creative smoker dreams up. Proper curing is vital if the food is to be smoked slowly (cold smoked) and stored for later consumption.
For a simple hot smoke, a mixture of salt (rock or sea salt, not iodised table salt) and brown sugar, perhaps with the addition of some aromatic herbs and spices, is rubbed onto the flesh side of the fish.
For a cold smoke, brine is used. Salt and sugar are the two most important ingredients. Liqueurs and various herbs, spices and fruits may be added to the curing mix – whatever takes the cook’s fancy, providing there’s sufficient salt. The fish is then allowed to steep in the brine for a minimum of 12 hours. Many anglers have their own secret recipes, but you can find plenty of tried and true brine recipes on the internet.
Making smoke
The most popular smoke source in New Zealand is manuka sawdust, which is allowed to smoulder atop a heat source. All sorts of other timbers can be used as chips, flakes or sawdust. Fruitwoods are popular – some would say superior – as is hickory, the most used smoking timber in the USA.
Whatever smoke agent you use, the key is to ensure the right temperature and that the smoke is not too ‘wet’ or acrid. The residue from such smoke leaves a bad taste and may be carcinogenic.
Control the heat
Hot smoking cooks the fish, so there should be plenty of heat in the smoke box. As a rule, hot smoking takes no more than twenty minutes or so, depending on the thickness of the fish. Hot-smoked fish is best eaten hot and it should be piping hot when it comes out of the smoker.
Cold smoking still requires enough heat to raise the internal temperature of fish to 70°C. Too much heat, however, and the flesh will cook, which means it must be eaten immediately. If fish starts to fall off the hooks – fish in larger cold smokers are usually hung off hooks in several tiers – the temperature inside the smoker is almost certainly too high.
In many smokers the heat can be controlled with air dampers, or by regulating the amount of fuel to the burner. Adding combustibles (sawdust, chips, wood), controlling airflow, or adjusting the distance between the combustibles and the heat source will adjust smoke density and composition.
To achieve good results, home smokers generally rely on a vigilant, experienced operator and simple adjustments – like covering the windward side with a tarp or blanket on a windy day, or protecting the smoker from rain.
Take your time
A cold smoke is an all-day affair. Ten or twelve hours of controlled smoking are needed to ensure properly cured product.
Commercially made electric smokers are far simpler to use and guaranteed to give perfect results every time. Available in a variety of sizes from small to more than big enough, they produce perfect, safe smoked food every time. Whichever way you go about it, smoking fish is fun. And the smoked fish you prepare yourself always tastes the best.