About Salting and Smoking Fish

About Salting and Smoking Fish
By Chuckwagon smoking fish

Allow me to defend the volume of salt in my recipe, then I’ll give you a couple of tips to make it more palatable. The truth is, we have more trouble with bacteria in fish than other meats. Why? Because bacteria love moisture, and fish is made up of 80% water – compared to beef which is only 60% water. Believe it or not, the natural salt content in the flesh of fish is very low. Nature provides it with only 0.2 to 0.7 per cent salt. (That’s only two-tenths of one per cent).

Fat Content of Fish
Okay, next let’s check out the fat content in fish because salt volume must be adjusted accordingly. All fish may be smoked but the “fatty fish” absorb smoke more readily, remain more moist during the smoking process, and taste better having more flavor.

  • • Lean Fish (2.5% fat or less) include: cod, flounder, grouper, haddock, hake, halibut, perch, pike, pollock, porgies, rockfish, snake eels, snapper, soles, tuna, whitting, et al.
  • Medium Fat Fish (2.5% to 6.5% fat)
  • Fat Fish (6.5% or more) include: bluefish, carp, freshwater eels, herring, mackerel, mullet, sablefish, salmon, shad, trout, whitefish, et al.

Brine Strength vs. Brining Time jump back to top
Please realize that the stronger the brine, the shorter time period of brining is required. However, we prefer a stronger brine because fish host an uncommonly high quantity of bacteria biologically. Stronger brines often include those of 70 to 80 percent strength. The secret of not loading up on salty flavor is to shorten the duration of the soaking period. Salt penetrates fish flesh rapidly and brining times may be kept relatively short. No more than one or two hours will do the job, and depending upon the thickness, often much less time is needed.

However, a person should not use a brine stronger than 80% for fish because a white residue is left behind. There is a contrasting thought here. Many folks use a weaker brine for a longer period because indeed, a more uniform salt penetration is achieved using a weaker solution for a longer period of time.

Be sure to use only kosher or canning salt without any iodine added, as an iodized salt will cause the brine and the fish to be bitter.

One last thing. Fish that is smoked, MUST be salted or brined first for safety reasons. Salt simply improves the flavor, texture, and strength of the flesh, while preventing the growth of bacteria.

Hot versus Cold Smoked jump back to top
Here are two recipes for “hot smoking” fish. One is more spicy than the other. When hot-smoking fish, the flesh gradually becomes cooked. Because fish begins to cook at 85°F. (30°C.), the temperature in most American “cold-smoke houses” is less than 85° F. (29°C.) and often much lower in order to prevent spoilage. In Russia and many parts of Europe, the upper limit has been 71°F. (22°C.).

Because cold smoked meat and fish products are not cooked, cold smoking is an entirely contrasting process from hot-smoking as the heat source is remote and the smoke is “piped” into the smokehouse from several feet away, giving the smoke time to cool down. Most often, the cold-smokehouse is elevated higher than the heat source, or the smoke is forced inside by a fan.

Cold smoking is a drying process usually involving many hours for several days or even weeks. Products are not smoked continuously as fresh air is usually allowed into the smoker at regular intervals to allow time for complete penetration of smoke deep into muscle tissues. As moisture leaves the meat, the product will become biologically stable at points below Aw0.85 and will become naturally rigid.

“Chuckwagon’s Chokin’ Smokin’ Potion”
(Bland Curing Brine For Hot-Smoking Fish) jump back to top

  • 2 gallons water
  • 1-1/2 lbs. uniodized salt
  • 1 lb. white sugar
  • 4 level tspns. Prague Powder #1
  • 1-1/2 oz. black peppercorns (crushed)
  • 1 oz. bay leaves (crushed)

This bland brine allows more prominent fish flavor to shine through. Heat the brine to 100°F. and stir it. Remove the pot from the heat and soak the fish in the brine no more than two hours before rinsing it in cold running water. A thin fillet may require only 15 or 20 minutes in the brine. Make no mistake; a fish fillet will be over salted if it is immersed for the same time period in the same brine as a large fish.

Brining Time Guidance jump back to top
Here’s a rough guide for hot-smoked fish:

  • Half-inch fillets – 15 minutes
  • One-inch fillets – 30 minutes
  • 1-1/2” fillets – 60 minutes
  • Entire fish – 60 minutes to 120 minutes
    * Note that times are doubled for “cold smoked” fish.

I like to soak it in cold water twenty minutes before rinsing it again to eliminate some of the harsh salt flavor later on. Hang and drip-dry the fish three hours in a well-ventilated area while a pellicle develops. Place the dry fish into a smokehouse and introduce light alder or hickory smudge at 120° F (49° C.) for a period of several hours. Taste the fish to determine the intensity of smoke flavor. Continuing heating, (with more smoke if desired) gradually increasing the smokehouse temperature to 140° F. (60° C.) Hold this temperature until a glossy, mahogany finish is developed on the surface of the fish in about three more hours.

The partially- cooked, wholly smoked fish is then gradually cooled in open air for six hours before being refrigerated. Do not be concerned that the fish may not be entirely cooked through. (Sushi is served raw). However, smoked fish indeed, remains a perishable product and should be refrigerated and consumed within thirty days. Try smoked, flaked, trout in your favorite green salad.

Boulder Mountain Smoked Fish (More Flavorful Curing Brine For Hot-Smoking Fresh-or-Saltwater Fish) jump back to top
This “more spicy” brine allows less prominent fish flavor while creating an interesting taste due to the lime juice and honey with soy. The first step (as above) is to remove excess blood in the fish by placing fillets into a solution of two gallons of water saturated with four cups of uniodized salt. Allow the mixture forty-five minutes to filter out excess blood before rinsing the fillets completely in fresh, cold water. Next, prepare a brining solution.

  • 2 gallons water
  • 1-1/2 lbs. uniodized salt
  • 1 lb. white sugar
  • 4 level tspns. Prague Powder #1
  • 1-1/2 oz. black toasted peppercorns (crushed)
  • 1 oz. bay leaves (crushed)
  • 2 Tbspn. garlic powder
  • ½ cup honey
  • 1/3 cup lime juice
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup Worchester Sauce

Heat the brine to 100°F. stirring it occasionally. Remove the pot from the heat and soak the fish in the brine no more than two hours before rinsing it with cold running water.

Brining Time Guidance (re-visited)
jump back to top
A thin fillet may require only 15 or 20 minutes in the brine. Make no mistake; a fish fillet will be over salted if it is immersed for the same time period in the same brine as a large fish. Here’s a rough guide for hot-smoked fish:
• Half-inch fillets – 15 minutes
• One-inch fillets – 30 minutes
• 1-1/2” fillets – 60 minutes
• Entire fish – 60 minutes to 120 minutes
* Note that times are doubled for “cold smoked” fish.

I like to soak fish in cold water twenty minutes before rinsing it again to eliminate some of the harsh salt flavor later on. Hang and drip-dry the fish three hours in a well-ventilated area while a pellicle develops. Place the dry fish into a smokehouse and introduce alder or light hickory smudge at 120° F. (49° C.) for several hours. Light applewood smoke is also another popular choice.

Taste the fish to determine the intensity of smoke flavor. Continue heating, (with more smoke if desired) gradually increasing the smokehouse temperature to 120° F. (49° C.) Hold this temperature until a glossy, mahogany finish is developed on the surface of the fish in about three more hours. Be careful not to overcook the fish. If it remains undercooked a bit, it will be fine. (In many cultures, fish is eaten raw.)

The partially-cooked, wholly-smoked fish is then gradually cooled in open air for six hours before being refrigerated. Remember, smoking absolutely does not cure meat or fish. Smoked fish is perishable and it should be refrigerated and consumed within thirty days.

Best Wishes,
Chuckwagon

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