One of the most delicious things you'll ever cook on your smoker is a nice piece of fish. But smoked fish can be one of the most frustrating things you cook, too. It's easy to smoke fish incorrectly and end up with an expensive piece of dry and tasteless meat. We're going to show you the right way to smoke fish today so you'll be confident that you can get professional results every time.
We love smoking steel head trout, muskies, and especially sauger but today we are going to smoke a beautiful fillet of fresh, wild-caught King Salmon. This beautiful fish is in season throughout the late spring and early summer and is caught wild from Alaska to Northern California. It is the largest and fattiest salmon species which makes it ideal for smoking.
Farm-Raised vs Wild-Caught
Farm-raised fish is easier to find in stores nationwide because the artificial conditions mean the fish is always in season. There are reasons to choose one over the other and the decision comes down to your personal choices for your family. We always try and select wild-caught because it's a healthier fish with less risk of cancer-causing toxins, antibiotics, and diseases. The flavor of wild-caught salmon is better and there are no artificial colors commonly used to give farm-raised salmon the red-pink color they can't develop naturally.
Fresh vs Frozen
This is another area you'll see lots of confusing information about. When we're grilling fish, we always strive for the freshest, never frozen fillets we can find. But when it comes to smoking, you'll get better results buying a previously frozen fillet. Ice crystals cause cells in the tissue of the fish to burst which allows for flavors to better penetrate the meat and prevent drying while smoking.
How to Smoke Fish
Getting smoked fish that is moist and flavorful requires a few tricks you don't ordinarily need to do when smoking other types of meat. We'll walk you through the process we use at home to make sure the salmon we smoke comes out perfectly cooked and delicious.
Making a Cure
The day before you are going to smoke your fish you will want to take a few steps to set yourself up for success. Make sure your fish is defrosted, rinsed clean, and trimmed. Leave the skin on, but make sure all scales are off. A cure is also called a brine and it's the biggest trick to getting perfectly smoked fish.
Brine Recipe with Fresh Herbs
The ideal ratio for making a cure for salmon is four tablespoons salt, five tablespoons sugar, and four cups of water. This basic cure is whisked together until the salt and sugar have dissolved completely. This is a great opportunity to add flavors to your fish. A few dashes of soy sauce and a healthy swig of white wine are great additions to a salmon cure. We are going to add a few sprigs of fresh parsley and dill to our brine. These classic flavors give the smoked salmon a delicious herb flavor.
Instructions for the Brine
Place the fish in a large zip top bag or a bowl with a sealing lid. Pour the curing brine into the bag and gently work it around the fillet. It should be submerged completely. Keep the salmon in the refrigerator for eight hours maximum. Remove your fillet from the brine and let it drain.
Drying the Salmon
Next, you want to place the salmon skin-side down on a plate and put it uncovered in the refrigerator for four hours. The cold, dry air circulating in the refrigerator will create a shiny skin on the surface of the fish. The skin helps hold moisture in the fish during the smoking process. The salmon is now ready for the smoker.
Smoke the Fish
We are going to use our Big Green Egg to smoke the salmon. The BGE lets us use lump hardwood that will create a delicate smoke flavor while making it reasonably easy to keep the temperature sufficiently low. For our salmon recipe, we are going to use lump Western Red Alder charcoal. This is the traditional wood that's been in use for smoking salmon forever. We'll also add a little apple wood chips to increase the flavor profile.
Start with the smoker at around 150 degrees. It's essential that you get the temperature as low as possible to prevent overcooking the fish before the smoke has a chance to flavor the meat.
Place the fish skin-side down on a solid cedar plank and put it on the lowest grill in your smoker. Insert a probe into the thickest part of the fillet. Close the lid and ensure the grill temperature doesn't creep up and ruin your fish.
Finishing the Smoked Fish
After two hours you will increase the temperature to about 175 degrees. You'll want to keep an eye on your thermometer probe. The fish is fully cooked when the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees. Making sure you hit the proper internal temperature is more important when smoking at low temperatures like this because of the increased chance that bacteria can grow. Finishing your salmon at this temperature should take another hour and a half to two hours.
Rest and Season the Fillet
Remove the salmon from the smoker and let it rest for about 15 minutes. A short rest will help the texture of the fish relax and gives an opportunity for juices to reabsorb. We like to spritz a little fresh lemon and a pad of butter on our smoked salmon when we serve it hot. Smoked salmon will keep for several weeks when properly stored in the refrigerator. We like to use vacuum seal bags for storing smoked fish.
Other Fish to Smoke
That's all there is to smoking a perfect fillet of fish. You can smoke almost anything you catch. We like to use light-colored fish with a delicate, sweet flavor. Sea bass is a good choice for a flavorful smoke fish and it pairs well with roasted vegetables. Halibut has a great texture that takes smoke flavor well. We like to use solid fruit wood with this light, flaky fish.
Smoked Fish Recipe
- Wild-caught King Salmon or any other fish fillet, clean and trimmed.
- 1/4 cup Kosher salt
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 4 cups water
- Fresh herbs according to taste
- Alder wood or fruit wood for smoking
- Cedar plank for cooking fish
- Rinse and pat dry fillets.
- Mix salt, sugar, and water until combined. Add parsley, dill, and other fresh herbs. Reduce salt and water if using soy sauce and white wine.
- Immerse fillet in brine and refrigerate for up to eight hours. Drain but do not rinse.
- Place fillet on a plate to drain and put in the refrigerator for four hours until the skin is shiny and dry.
- Start the smoker and get the temperature to 150 degrees. Don't let the temperature exceed 165 degrees during the first two hours of smoking.
- Place the fillet on a cedar plank on the lowest grill in your smoker. Smoke for two hours at 140-155 degrees.
- Increase the grill temperature to 175 degrees. Continue to smoke the fillet until internal temperature reaches 165 degrees. Don't under-cook smoked fish.
- Remove from smoker and let rest for 15 minutes.
You can use the tips in this article to smoke fish perfectly. There are lots of tasty ways to use smoked fish from eating it as a protein-packed and nutritious snack to blending it with cream cheese and spreading it on crackers or bagels. We hope you get the chance to share your delicious smoked fish with friends and family.
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