Smoker Tips

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Remove the fish from the brine, and rinse each piece under cold water. Gently pat dry with paper towels, and lay the pieces on a waxed paper to air dry for about one hour. Smoke the fish for two hours in a smoker heated to 200 degrees. Use your favorite wood chips or chunks when smoking.
General tips:
Place fillets on the smoker grid. Close vents, or place lid on smoker. Regulate vents, if possible, so that heat stays at around 110 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Leave the fish 1 to 2 hours or longer, checking periodically and, if possible, replenishing fuel or smoking medium as necessary.
Any fish can be smoked, but species high in fat (oil) such as salmon and trout are recommended because they absorb smoke faster and have better texture than lean fish, which tend to be dry and tough after smoking.

Use seasoned non-resinous woods: hickory, oak, apple, maple, birch, beech, or alder. Avoid: pine, fir, spruce, etc. or green woods. If heavier smoke flavor is desired, add moist sawdust to the heat source throughout the smoking process.

Control heat by adjusting air flow.

Control temperature:

  • Hot-smoking–90°F for the first 2 hours; 150°F for remaining smoking time
  • Cold-smoking–80-90°F for 1-5 days or more
  • Lox–70-80°F for 1-3 days

Preparing Fish For Smoking

Use only freshly-caught fish that have been kept clean and cold. Fish that have been handled carelessly or stored under improper conditions will not produce a satisfactory finished product. Do not use bruised, broken, or otherwise damaged flesh.

If you catch your fish, clean and pack them in ice before starting home. When you get home, store the fish in the refrigerator until you are ready to prepare them for smoking.

Different fish species generally require specific preparation methods. Salmon are split (backbone removed); bottom fish filleted; herring headed and gutted, and smelt dressed. The following preparation steps can be applied to any fish:

  1. Remove scales by scraping against the grain with the dull edge of a knife.
  2. Remove head, fins, tail, viscera.
  3. Wash body cavity with running cold water to remove all traces of blood and kidney tissue (dark red mass along the backbone).
  4. Split the fish by cutting through the rib bones along the length of one side of the backbone.
  5. For large fish, remove the backbone by cutting along the other side of the backbone to produce two fillets or boneless sides. For small fish, the backbone can be left attached to one of the sides.
  6. Cut the sides of large fish into uniform pieces about 1½ inches thick and 2 inches wide. Small fish halves can be brined and smoked in one piece.

Preparing Brine

Prepare a brine of 3½ cups table salt in 1 gallon of cold water in a plastic, stainless steel, or crockery container. Red or white wine can be substituted for a portion or all of the water, if desired. Stir the salt until a saturated solution is formed.

Spices such as black pepper, bay leaves, seafood seasoning, or garlic, as well as brown sugar, may be added to the brine depending on your preference.

Use 1 gallon of brine for every 4 pounds of fish. Brine fish in the refrigerator, if possible.

Keep the fish covered with brine throughout the brining period. A heavy bowl can be floated on the brine to keep the fish submersed, but do not pack the fish so tightly that the brine cannot circulate around each piece.

Cold-Smoking

  1. To cold-smoke fish, follow steps 1-6 under “Preparing Fish for Smoking.”
  2. Brine ½-inch-thick fillets for ½ hour; 1-inch-thick fillets for 1 hour; and 1½-inch-thick fillets for 2 hours. Brining times can be lengthened if the cold-smoked fish are to be preserved for long periods of time.
  3. After brining, rinse the fish briefly in cold running water.
  4. Place the fish skin-side down on greased racks in a cool shady, breezy place to dry. The fish should dry for 2 to 3 hours or until a shiny skin or pellicle has formed on the surface. A fan will speed pellicle formation.
  5. Place the fish in a homemade or commercial smoker. The temperature of the smoker should be kept at about 80°F, and should never exceed 90°F. If a thermometer is not available, the temperature may be tested by hand. If the air in the smoke-house feels distinctly warm, the temperature is too high.
  6. Smoke the fish until its surface is an even brown. Small fish that are to be kept 2 weeks or less may be ready in 24 hours. Salmon and other large fish will require 3 to 4 days and nights of steady smoking. To store longer than 2 weeks, smoke all fish a minimum of five days; for larger fish, at least a week or longer.
  7. The smoker should not produce a lot of smoke during the first 8 to 12 hours if the total curing time is 24 hours, or for the first 24 hours if the curing time is longer. When the first part of the smoking ends, build up a dense smoke and maintain it for the balance of the cure.
  8. If cold-smoked fish has been brined for at least 2 hours and smoked for at least 5 days, it will keep in the refrigerator for several months.

Hot-Smoking

  1. To hot-smoke fish, follow steps 1-6 under “Preparing Fish for Smoking.”
  2. Brine ½-inch-thick fillets for about 15 minutes, 1-inch-thick pieces about 30 minutes, and 1½-inch-thick pieces about 1 hour. Brining times can be adjusted to give the fish a lighter or heavier cure.
  3. After brining, rinse the fish briefly in cold running water.
  4. Place the fish skin-side down on greased racks in a cool, shady, breezy place to dry. The fish should dry for 2 to 3 hours or until a shiny skin or pellicle forms on the surface. The pellicle seals the surface and prevents loss of natural juices during smoking. A fan will speed pellicle formation.
  5. Place the fish in a homemade or commercial smoker. For the first 2 hours, the temperature should not exceed 90°F. This completes the pellicle formation and develops brown coloring.
  6. After the initial 2-hour period, raise the temperature to 150°F and smoke the fish for an additional 4 to 8 hours. The length of time will depend on the thickness of the fish, and on your preference for dry or moist smoked fish. Generally, ½-inch-thick pieces are smoked for 4 hours, 1-inch-thick pieces for 6 hours, and 1½-inch-thick pieces for 8 hours.

Store hot-smoked fish in the refrigerator

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Neil Taylor
Full time kayak fishing guide, Neil was an advocate for conservation since before the time he started guiding. Outdoor writer, speaker and radio show host, Neil connected closely with Captain Mel Berman and did many positives with Mel to promote ethical angling. After Mel passed away, Neil managed www.capmel.com and eventually became that web site’s owner.