Why learn how to smoke fish?
I'm not usually into 'smoked fish' that you buy in shops and supermarkets, and often from foodservice suppliers.
I'm very wary of deep orange or yellow coloured food items with a pungent smoky stench, a 3 month shelf life and a list of additives that could equip an embalmer with the mummification needs of Ancient Egypt.
As home smoking and the artisan smokers know, the best way to smoke is using real wood.
Care must be taken to not over-smoke. You want to enhance the flavour of the main ingredient and not overpower it
To set up an actual smokehouse it can be expensive – and if you believe the ads on TV and magazines, you apparently need to spend a fortune to smoke things properly at home too. In actual fact, you don't.
I saw a funny tweet the other day – "When did sales become a dirty word?"
I think it becomes a dirty word when something you don't need gets shoved down your throat like Ron Jeremy during a shoot every time you try to do something.
I appreciate the need for people to make a buck, but there really is so much garbage being peddled that just isn't needed.
You don't need smokers, bags of wood chips, fancy barbecues or hand tools. Just a couple of items found in most kitchens and homes.
The very basics require:
- a metal tray, pan, wok or baking dish that you can sit over the gas burner
- a rack, or wire netting, or tray with holes in that you can rest the food to be smoked over the smoking tray
- something sexy to smoke with (some natural, untreated, non-toxic wood, bark, tea leaves, coconut husks etc – more on that further down)
- A lid, or matching tray/dish, or some aluminium foil to cover everything with
- Something to smoke. Fish, chicken, meat, vegetables – they are all fair game. For this example I'll use fish
To keep it simple, shred your bark, or wood or cones onto the pan or roasting tray.
It will mark the tray, probably forever so use an old one – not Grandma's favourite brand new polished chrome Gucci roaster!
*Note to commis chefs – Ask the boss before you use brand new GN trays too, or you may learn how to get a pan thrown at you by Chef.
How to smoke fish
Scatter the shredded wood, top it with the rack a few inches above – or across the top – add your fish or meat or veg, and then cover with foil (or something)
In this example, I used the hairy wooden husks from mature coconut. Grab a coconut and try. Tastes great. Tastes of wood smoke – not too much coconut taste.
- As mentioned, cover with foil, set over a burner on the stove, and then turn up the gas/flames very high.
- You won't have it on high for too long – but you need to have it on high until the wood starts to 'catch'.
- When the wood starts smouldering the foil will start to puff up, or you'll see wisps of smoke appear from any cracks between the tray and whatever you are covering it with.
When this happens, and the smoke starts, then turn the flame down low enough to keep it smouldering and smoking gently.
Too low and the smoke will stop – the wood will stop smouldering.
Too high and the smoke will be thick, dark and bitter.
Don't chew your nails and overthink it. Just turn up the gas!
When you see smoke, turn it down and adjust it every now and then to keep the stream of smoke slow and steady.
When turned down, it should be like the photo below – flames just touching the base of the tray.
After 5-10 minutes you should have enough flavour and colour to stop smoking.
Be careful with fish. The tray I used here was quite small, and I was 'hot smoking'
With this piece of red snapper, I smoked for around 7 minutes and the fish was nicely smoked and still raw in the middle.
It has a great flavour, sexy, not too overpowering.
To finish cooking it goes into the oven or under a salamander grill for a few minutes more.
You can smoke the fish a day or two before you need it, keep it stored in the chiller at 1-4 degrees C, and then finish in the oven when required.
Later today we also did some salmon fillets – again, these need to be done with care – so the flavour and colour are great, but the salmon not cooked past rare (if finishing later) or medium rare (if eating straight away)
these got about 6-7 minutes, also over coconut husks, and they came out 'bleu' – about 20 degrees in the middle and cooked around the outside only.
They needed about 3-4 minutes under the salamander grill to finish them after they were cooled and rested.
1 minute on high to crisp and blister the skin, and 2-3 minutes resting to finish cooking through
The concept of smoking is simple.
You have cold smoking, which merely infuses the food with smoke without cooking it.
To achieve this, you need to control the temperature so that not too much heat builds up.
A classic example is your 'normal' smoked salmon.
The easy way to do it is to have your smoking wood shredded, grated, or in small bits. The container should be large enough so that heat doesn't build up too much, and the heat applied locally – just enough to smoulder the wood
The other way is hot smoking.
This is where the food is cooked and smoked at the same time.
The fish I did above were hot smoked.
This is easy to do at home or with makeshift tools in a kitchen as pictured above.
Steaks, lamb racks, venison, lamb rump, chops, chickens, chicken breasts – all are easy to do.
Steaks and red meat are a lot easier as they are less likely to overcook at low smoking temperature.
Smoke for around 10 minutes, and then remove from heat and remove the cover.
Allow to cool, and finish in the oven until done as you like.
Chicken must always be well done – cooked through.
Fish is best cooked through, except salmon, tuna and hiramasa / hamachi kingfish all of which should be medium or less.
What to smoke with?
- In Australia I used ti-tree, paperbark and Banksia cones. All have great flavours. All great with lamb, beef, fish
- Hickory and mesquite chips are US classics. Also great – if a little overused.
- Any commercial wood smoking chips can be used
- In the tropics, guava wood is REALLY nice. Avoid mango tree wood as the sap is a bit pungent
- Coconut husks is a favourite of mine – easily available in every country I've been to, and tastes great
- Smoking with tea leaves: Try tea leaves mixed with dry rice, some lime leaves and a little brown sugar. Put this on foil on the base of your smoking tray.
Tea leaves are great with salmon and duck (and probably a million other things – but these two are classics)
- In the Middle East I used apple or cherry shisha for smoking lamb. OMFG! It just ROCKS! You'll worship me if you try it!
- In short – make sure that what you smoke with is non toxic. Sawdust is not a good move as it is often made with treated wood – or a source you can't be sure about. If you can't identify the wood as non toxic, don't use it.
After the work is finished, enjoy a stunning meal.
Tonight's dinner special was the fresh Tasmanian salmon fillet smoked over coconut husks.
We served it on new potatoes sauteed with onion and rosemary.
We topped that with peeled roasted capsicum straight from the oven.
Salmon on top, with some asparagus spears.
For garnish, some confit shallots and some semi dried tomatoes made just hours before.
Sauce? It didn't need any – the salmon was so moist and delicious and pink through. A drizzle of balsamic reduction balanced out the flavours through. Anything heavier would have been sacrilege.
And the snapper?
It ended up in a childhood memory from Devonport in Auckland.
Smoked snapper pies with white parsley sauce and a little shredded mature cheddar.
Yes, they were great!