How to hot smoke fish

Hot smoking fish is often seen as a bit of an art, requiring all kinds of special equipment. In fact, anyone can achieve subtle, smoky results at home with nothing more complicated than a wok or bread tin, as BBQ expert Marcus Bawdon explains in this simple step-by-step guide. 

The classic: hot smoked salmon.

1. Choose your fish
Just about any fish can be hot smoked, but the best and to my mind tastiest are the oily fish, as the oil takes on the flavour of the smoke so beautifully. My favourites are salmon (the classic), mackerel (probably my favourite fish, either fresh or smoked), trout (more delicate, but still delicious) and smaller fish such as sardines. Feel free to experiment: shellfish can work brilliantly and hot smoked mussels are a revelation.

2. Assemble the kit
To hot smoke, you’ll need two things: heat and a lidded container where the smoke can drift over the fish. A charcoal or gas barbecue, with the temperature kept low and the lid on, is perfect, but a lidded wok or bread tin with a few holes poked in the top will work just fine too. Or you can get yourself a stove-top smoker or hot smoking cabinet, like the ones made by Bradley.

DIY contraptions often work just as well as professional equipment
DIY contraptions often work just as well as professional equipment.

3. Prepare the cure
Curing fish is a great way to firm up the texture and add some extra flavours. The simplest cure, and the one I use most often, is a 50:50 mix of granulated brown sugar and coarse sea salt or rock salt (avoid fine salt – it gives an aggressive cure that leaves the fish too salty). Feel free to experiment by adding more flavours to the basic cure. Coarse ground black pepper, lemon, lime or orange zest, herbs and spices all work well. Just stick to one or two so the flavours don’t get muddled.

The easiest way to do it is to lay a sheet of clingfilm down, sprinkle on a layer of the cure, place the fish on top, and sprinkle over some further cure. Generally a handful of cure will be enough for a couple of small fish, a mackerel or a salmon fillet steak. Wrap the fish and cure up, and place in the fridge overnight. Remove from the fridge, rinse off the cure, and pat dry with kitchen towel. Place back in the fridge uncovered for a minimum of 6-8 hours to allow the pellicle to form – this is a sticky, salty surface layer that helps the smoke particles stick to the fish.

4. Try different wood chips
Think of the smoke itself is another kind of seasoning; as with any seasoning, it’s easy to overdo it and overpower the fish. Here’s a list of my favourite woods for smoking fish:
• Oak: the classic bold flavour, great with mackerel and salmon, but easy to overdo
• Beech: the best all-round wood light, subtle and fragrant, doesn’t overpower
• Apple: mild, fruity, wonderful!
Get  yourself some smoking wood chips, which are widely available (or you could experiment with making your own). Wrap them up in a foil parcel, then pierce and put it on the coals or near the burner if you’re using gas so it can smoulder and smoke.

Oak chips give a great flavour, but take care: it’s easy to overdo it.

5. Or experiment with tea
An alternative to wood chips, tea creates a really unusual rich, musky smoke. To tea-smoke salmon, cure a couple of fillets as explained above. Line a wok with a layer of tinfoil (so that you don’t ruin it), and then add a handful of long grain rice, a handful of demerara sugar and a handful of loose leaf tea (I like lapsang for extra smokiness, but most teas will work well). Add another layer of foil, but make a few small holes in it so the smoke can get through. Lightly the oil the skin side of the salmon, and place it on the foil.

Pop the lid on and turn the heat on to medium for a couple of minutes until smoke starts appearing. Turn the heat to low for 10 minutes, then turn it off altogether and leave the wok in place for another 10 minutes, so the fish can absorb the smoke. The fish should be perfectly cooked at this point. Make sure you lift the lid off outside if you have sensitive smoke alarms! The fish can then be enjoyed as is with a salad, or flaked into creamy pasta (see below) or a nice risotto.

Tea-smoking mix: long grain rice, demerara sugar and loose leaf tea
Tea smoking mix: long grain rice, demerara sugar and loose leaf tea.

7. Watch the temperature
Too high temperatures will dry the fish out – you should be aiming for around 70-80°C. At this temperature, it will take about 40-60 minutes to smoke smaller fish such as mackerel or salmon fillet steaks. Larger fish will take a few hours. Always make sure your fish is cooked right through.  To manage the temperature on a gas barbecue, turn your burners right down low or just have one side running. On a charcoal barbecue, just use a small pile of lit lumpwood charcoal. And whatever you’re using, keep the lid down!  

6. Do the plank
Another great and really simple technique to try is plank smoking. Just place the fish on a soaked wood plank, then put the plank on the grill of the barbecue on a low to medium heat. As the base of the plank chars, it will release the smoke and the fish will cook gently in the indirect heat.

Plank smoked red mullet (left) and salmon (right).

8. Wait a little
If you can restrain yourself from eating it straight away, the fish will benefit from 6-8 hours in the fridge for the smoke to mellow and permeate. Wrap it up well, otherwise everything else in the fridge will smell of smoke too. Vacuum packed, smoked fish will keep a week or two. Or you can freeze it for up to a couple of months.

9. Eat it!
Now for the exciting bit – eating it. I like my smoked fish used in dishes like the pasta below, or if you’re using mackerel, just put it under a medium grill for a few minutes until the skin crisps and the fish is warm through.  

Hot-smoked mackerel: just heat it through and crisp it up under the grill.

Hot smoked fish pasta
This is a lovely simple recipe that showcases the smoky flavours of your home hot smoked fish. Salmon, trout and mackerel all work well.
Gently sweat a couple of finely chopped garlic cloves in a large pan, add the zest of a finely grated unwaxed lemon and the flakes of smoked fish. Add a good few tablespoons of creme fraiche.

Meanwhile add some fresh egg tagliatelle to boiling salted water and cook until al dente. Drain and add to the creamy fish along with plenty of freshly cracked black pepper, a sprinkle of finely chopped flat leaf parsley and a little finely grated Parmesan.

Salmon, trout and mackerel are all delicious stirred into a creamy tagliatelle
Salmon, trout and mackerel are all delicious stirred into a creamy tagliatelle.

Marcus Bawdon is a dedicated foodie and barbecue enthusiast who blogs at CountryWoodSmoke. He’s also author of the iPad-friendly e-cookbook Smoky & The Woodpit, which features 20 meat, seafood, flatbread, pizza and pud recipes – all made on the barbie. It’s available via Books on iTunes for £1.99 or as a Kindle edition from Amazon for £2.05.