April 01, 2020
Smoking is a popular cooking method for many home chefs. Smoking fish creates a beautifully moist fish with a unique rich smoky flavor. The smoked flavor comes from the wood smoking chips used in specialized grills called smokers. You can also create a smoker out of your backyard grill using wood chips and a smoker box.
Historically, people in fishing communities learned how to smoke fish in a smoker as a means of preserving the fish for long-term food storage. When they learned to smoke fish, it was for survival. From those cultural roots, smoking has become a popular culinary technique to enhance the flavor and texture of our favorite types of fish.
Not all wood chips are the same when it comes to smoking. Certain types of wood should never come near your smoker. Softwoods such as Cyprus, elm, redwood, fir, or spruce contain resins that leave residues on your smoker and create a thick, unpleasant smoke that can leave toxic residue on your meat. For this reason, you must use store-bought wood chips or planks specifically for use with smokers so that you can be sure the type of wood you are using is safe for smoking.
When it comes to smoking meats, nothing is off-limits. Fattier varieties of fish will absorb more smoke flavor and be far less susceptible to drying out during cooking. A good saltwater brine for 15-30 minutes before smoking can help keep your white fish or shrimp from becoming dried out during smoking. You can smoke fish fillets or smaller pieces of fish, but if you’re looking to impress your dinner guests, try smoking a whole fish. The skin over the entire fish helps protect the meat, and your fish will retain more moisture with the skin intact.
Whether you are cold smoking your fish or hot smoking your fish, the smoking process takes a little longer than other methods for cooking fish. For that reason, it’s best to smoke fish with higher fat content. Fish like salmon or black cod won’t dry out during the longer cooking times used with smoking because of their oil content. You can still smoke other types of fish. You may want to use a smoke fish brine for leaner types of fish such as cod or halibut. You can also reduce your smoking time for lean fish. Keeping in mind that the longer you can smoke your fish, the stronger the smoke flavor will be.
Fish that are native to deep cold waters are the best types of fish for smoking. Fish from deep cold waters are going to have a higher fat content to help them survive at cold temperatures.
Best Types of Fish to Smoke:
- Salmon: Salmon has a higher fat content that keeps it moist during smoking. Coho salmon is one of the most popular varieties for smoking.
- Black Cod: Also known as sablefish, black cod is a better and more sustainable alternative to sea bass. Black cod is called butterfish for its buttery flavor and high oil content, making it a perfect contender for your smoker.
- Mackerel: Mackerel is a rick flavored fish with a higher oil content that keeps it moist during the cooking process. Mackerel is a popular fish for cold smoking.
- Trout: Trout has a mild flavor and delicate texture. Trout is a low mercury fish making it a healthy choice for home smokers. Smoking Trout whole helps the fish retain its moisture and soft texture during the smoking process.
- Tuna: Tuna is a firm texture fish with a flexible flavor profile. Tuna blends perfectly with a variety of flavors, making it an excellent choice as a fish for smoking. Smoking is one of the most popular ways of preserving tuna worldwide.
- Sturgeon: Sturgeon is a leaner fish with a firm texture, similar to poultry. Smoked is one of the best ways to enjoy sturgeon.
- Bluefish: Bluefish is best when eaten fresh. A strong-flavored fish, bluefish has a firm texture and edible skin. Smoking bluefish with the skin on helps the fish to retain its moisture, and the skin is good eating too!
- Rockfish: Rockfish is a mild-tasting fish with a sweet and slightly nutty flavor. Although a leaner fish, rockfish is excellent when smoked.
How Long Does It Take to Smoke Fish?
How long to smoke fish depends on your meal goals. Are you looking for long term storage of your fish, or do you want a delicious tasting smoked fish for tonight’s dinner?
There are two ways to learn how to smoke fish. It’s important to know the difference when searching for smoke fish recipes. The two methods we’re talking about is cold-smoked fish and hot-smoked fish. Both of these methods refer to the smoked fish temperature.
Cold Smoke Fish vs. Hot Smoke Fish
Home chefs learn how to cold smoke fish when they are looking to cold smoke fish for long term storage. Many adventurous salmon dip netters learn how to cold smoke fish at home after bringing home salmon from dip netting. Cold smoking requires lower temperatures and longer smoking times. With cold smoking, you’re essentially dehydrating your fish, similar to making jerky, but with the added taste and texture from the BBQ wood chips. We recommend that you attempt cold-smoking only after you’ve done adequate research and have all of the necessary supplies. Cold smoking does require special equipment and can’t be recreated on your backyard grill. Cold smoking requires a much lower smoke fish temp, which involves more food safety precautions than hot smoking. Cold smoking usually consists of a salt brine or salt curing of the fish while it smokes to help prevent the buildup of harmful bacteria.
With cold smoke white fish recipes, the smoker temperature does not rise above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Rather than cooking the fish, you are dehydrating the fish to remove any bacteria-causing moisture. The oils in the fish remain, leaving your cold-smoked fish moist and delicious. Cold smoking requires specialized smokers or smoker attachments that can reach consistently lower temperatures for 12 or more hours.
Hot Smoking Fish:
Hot smoking is the easier of the two methods. Hot smoking still involves lower than usual temperatures for cooking fish. However, you are using temperatures that will bring the fish to a safe internal temperature for immediate consumption. To illustrate to you how long it takes to smoke fish, check out the cooking time chart below.
Salmon Cooking Time:
Cold Smoked Salmon
Hot Smoked Salmon
12- 18 hours at 70°F-90°F
2-3 hours at 175°F -200°F
10-15 minutes at 400°F-450°F
Hot smoking is one of the best ways to smoke fish for the beginner smoker. With hot smoked seafood, you get a beautiful moist textured fish, with a lovely flavor infused into the fish by the smoker wood chips.
Both ways of smoking seafood are best when combined with a good brine. You can dry brine your fish with a salty dry rub, or you can wet brine your fish using a simple brine recipe. Brining fish doesn’t take long. You can successfully brine fish in as little as 15-20 minutes.
Simple Seafood Brine (Wet Brine):
- Four cups of filtered, cold water.
- 1/4 cup of good-quality sea salt.
- Two tablespoons of sugar
- One tablespoon of vinegar (white wine, red wine, or even balsamic vinegar)
- Two tablespoons of good-quality extra virgin olive oil.
- One teaspoon of course ground black pepper
- Two cups of ice
**You can add other flavors to your brine, such as sliced onion, garlic, or even orange or lemon slices. Choose flavors that compliment your fish. **
Directions for Seafood Brine:
- Combine all of the ingredients except for the ice, stir until the salt and sugar dissolve.
- Add your ice to chill the bring.
- Combine your brine and seafood of choice in a Ziploc bag or large bowl. Refrigerate for as little as 15 minutes and up to an hour before smoking.
How to Smoke Fish:
The smoking wood chips are the magic makers when it comes to seasoning and flavoring your smoked fish. While there is no best wood to smoke fish, the different kinds of wood chips for smoking will yield a different flavor into your fish.
So, let’s talk about cooking with wood chips.
Wood Chips for Smoking Fish
The wonderful smoky flavor of smoked food comes from the slow burn of grilling with wood chips over low heat. A successful smoke recipe requires soaking wood chips in water for an extended time before cooking. The saturated wood chips for the smoker burn slowly, creating more smoke than flame, which imparts the woods’ smoke flavor into your fish as the wood chips smolder.
A large bucket filled with water is perfect for soaking your wood chips overnight. Many people keep a bucket of wood chips soaking in water next to their smoker just in case their wood chips burn down too quickly.
How long to Soak Wood Chips?
Ideally, you should prepare ahead of time so that you can soak your wood chips for 12-24 hours. Thoroughly soaked wood chips smolder rather than catch on fire. The smoke released from the slow smoldering wood chips is aromatic and imparts its flavor into your fish. Not all wood chips smell the same, and they give off a different taste into your fish. Depending on the type of fish, the recipes, the seasoning you use, and the kind of wood chips you’re smoking with, you can create a considerable variety of flavors in your fish.
Wood Chips for Smoking:
There is a wide variety of wood chips for smoking fish. The best wood chips for smoking fish have sweet aromas and fruity undertones to compliment your fish. If you’re wondering what’s the best wood chips for fish, it all depends on your smoked fish recipes.
Once you get to know the individual flavors of wood chips for smoking, you can experiment a little with blending wood chips for smoking. Hickory, cherry, hard maple, and Applewood is a popular combination for all-purpose smoking.
- Cedar Wood Chips: Cedar wood chips are one of the best wood chips for smoking fish, especially fatty salmon. Cedar wood chips are not the same as cooking salmon fillets on specially prepared cedar planks. Cooking salmon on soaked cedar planks allows the salmon fillets to absorb some of the flavors of cedar directly from the salmon planks. The smoke from burning or smoldering cedar wood can be irritating and even allergenic for some people. Cedar planks, however, are widely popular for cooking salmon. Sometimes chefs soak cedar planks in wine, sake, or cider instead of water for smoking salmon fillets. Cedar is the best wood chips for smoking salmon.
- Applewood Chips: Applewood smoke imparts a mild slightly sweet smoke flavor to the meat. While most famous for smoking poultry or pork, applewood chips for smoking fish are mild enough for the delicate flavors of fish. Applewood chips for smoking are the most popular as a wood chip to blend with stronger flavored woods to cut the intensity of more robust flavors such as hickory or mesquite wood chips.
- Jack Daniels Wood Chips: Jack Daniels wood chips are cut from the oak whiskey aging barrels used to age Jack Daniels. Bourbon wood chips impart a slight bourbon whiskey flavor to your meat. Oak has a strong smoke flavor, but it does well with fish, especially fatty fish such as black cod or salmon.
- Hickory Wood Chips: Smokers use hickory wood chips for smoking heavier meats such as beef or pork. Hickory is too potent for smoking poultry or fish by itself but works well in a blend. Hickory would be a popular choice for cold smoking fish for a classic jerky flavor in your smoked fish. Hickory wood chips for smoking are sold by themselves or in pre-made wood blends.
- Alder Wood Chips: Alder is probably the best wood chips for fish. Alder smoke has an earthy sweet aroma and flavor and is perfect for smoking salmon and other fish, even for smoking shrimp. The best wood chips for smoking fish would be alder and applewood chips in a 50/50 blend.
- Pecan Wood Chips: Pecan is another strongly flavored wood similar to hickory. Pecan imparts a nutty flavor in its smoke, which compliments the fruity flavors in other types of wood. Combine Pecan wood chips with applewood, peach wood or cherry wood for a new taste and aroma combination. Pecan tends to be slow burning wood, but it does impart a pungent flavor and is best in a blend.
- Mesquite Wood Chips: Mesquite is one of the most potent flavors for smoking. Typically reserved for smoking beef and ribs, mesquite works well when blended with mild woods such as oak, alder, or apple. Mesquite is a fast-burning wood, so be sure to soak thoroughly and keep a close eye on your smoker when smoking fish with mesquite wood chips.
- Pimento Wood Chips: If you’re looking for authentic jerk flavors for smoking, pimento wood is the answer. Smoking fish using a jerk marinade and pimento wood chips would give you classic jerk flavors that anyone would love. Pimento wood chips are difficult to find locally, and you may have to resort to ordering them online for your smoker. Pimento wood comes from an allspice tree. Allspice is a staple ingredient in any jerk recipe.
- Cherry Wood Chips: Cherry wood is a mild, sweet-tasting smoke with leaves a slightly tart flavor in your meat. Cherry wood chips are versatile and can work with any time of meat or fish. Ideally, cherry wood chips should be blended with a neutral-flavored wood such as oak. Cherry wood chips combined with Jack Daniels, oak wood chips, is a must-try blend for smoking.
- Peach Wood Chips: Peach wood chips are perfect for smoked white fish recipes. Peach wood chips are also one of the best wood chips for smoking fish. Peach is also an ideal wood chip for blending with bolder flavored woods such as mesquite or hickory.
- Orange Wood Chips: Smoking with orange wood chips creates a sweet citrus flavor in your food that blends perfectly with seafood, especially salmon. Orange and salmon is a flavor combination that every seafood lover should try. Orange wood chips are mild and slightly sweet, but they can be challenging to find locally. You may have to order orange wood chips online.
- Maple Wood Chips: Maple is a mild and sweet flavored wood used for smoking. While maplewood is famous for smoking bacon, it’s also the number one choice for smoking Sturgeon. Maple wood chips compliment the flavors of hickory and applewood when used in blends.
Where to Buy Wood Chips:
- Big box stores (Outdoor/garden centers)
- Home improvement stores
- Hardware stores
- Grocery stores (spring and summer seasons)
- Online: Especially for harder to find woods such as pimento, peach, and cherry wood chips.
The best wood chips for smoking fish come in small bags. If your smoker is running too hot, or your chips haven’t soaked long enough, you can burn through wood chips pretty quickly. Be prepared by having at least 2–3 bags of wood chips on hand, more for cold smoking where you’re looking at 12-18 hours of smoking time.
Once you get the hang of smoking, it’s a relatively easy cooking process. While you can successfully smoke fish on your standard backyard grill, it’s best when done on a smoker specifically made to maintain lower grilling temperatures for longer periods.
We offer a variety of fish that would be ideal for smoking. Our seafood is wild-caught and flash frozen to maintain its perfect flavor and texture. We ship our seafood directly to your door over dry ice to guarantee it arrives still frozen.
Order your favorite fish today, and let’s get smoking!
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