There are some key points when hot smoking fish, with a few techniques and temperatures you can use. Hopefully, I can share some of the successes I have had over the years.
We will also talk about the different equipment for hot smoking, you can use.
To say I love smoked fish is a super understatement. More often than not I catch and cook.
I also buy and hot smoke salmon & plenty of other species. I searched far and wide and couldn’t find a decent guide for all the various fish smoking, so I thought about sharing.
Over a few decades of hot smoking experiments, reading many books and eating heaps of fish. Here is the overview of how I hot smoke fish.
How to Hot Smoke Fish:
- Acquire fillet or whole fish
- Cure or brine fish
- Form the pellicle – protected cool area or fridge
- Choose wood (with low resin/smoking wood types below)
- Smoke the fish (Equipment below)
Equipment shouldn’t be an issue, tin foil and a wok/pot can work. Using a small setup or a large one. Investing in a smoker for me was about getting consistent results and being low maintenance.
Smokey flavors work so well with many varieties of fish. And of course, once you get the hang of it, it’s way better then anything bought in a shop.
Full Details about How to Smoke Fish
1. Choosing Fish (or other seafood crustaceans)
Knowing your fish is sustainable is, of course, important, our choices decide the future of the fish populations.
- Sea bass
White Flesh Fish
- Orange roughy
When choosing fish (or catching it), oily fish tend to retain more moisture and take up smoke flavor well. They don’t overcook as easily as white delicate fish. Both will turn out awesome, just do it!
If you get this fish with the skin on, it will hold the flesh together better when smoking and cooking. Oily fish are healthier in terms of OMEGA 3 & 6 richness which is good for us! And it seems to take on wood smoke very nicely too!
2. Curing or Brining the Fish – Short Version.
This is a topic on its own, but I just want to give the basics.
Basic Dry Curing Recipe
- 2:1 ratio non-iodized salt / natural raw sugar – so for every 5 grams of salt I will use 2.5 grams of sugar
- (add herbs/spices if you want)
You want enough cure to dust over all sides. So it depends on the size of fish portion/fillet or whole fish. I find 1-2% salt for the total weight of the fish to be useful.
For examples, fish fillet 9 oz/ 250g – 1.5% salt = 3 grams (just over half a teaspoon). 1.5 grams of raw sugar.
I use accurate scales a lot, especially for dry curing meat, I highly recommended this since salt granules has different shapes/sizes, therefore 1 teaspoon of Morton salt is completely different to 1 teaspoon of kosher salt.
For an idea of recommended accurate scales (life-changer for many cooks around here), here is a page of a few decent ones I put together.
Using finer salt (sea salt) will mean faster penetration. Most people seem to prefer coarser salt though. If you are overnight curing – coarser salt like kosher salt is a good choice. Below are some examples of how much I sprinkle.
Some people like to wrap the fish in cling film/plastic wrap/glad wrap – I prefer to not use single-use plastic, so I just use a shallow dish or plate. Depending on moisture content it may draw out some of the moisture in the fish, therefore that is why you want something to catch the liquid.
I prefer not to use more
Basic Wet Brine Recipe
Easy Ratio 5% Salt to Water
50 grams/1.8 oz sea salt/kosher salt to 4 cups of water (1 Litre)
15 grams/1 tablespoon of salt per cup of water – approx
You only just need to submerge the fish, so you don’t need gallons or liters unless you are doing a big batch of fish.
You might need to place a clean weight on top, like a plate or something.
Length of Time in the Brine
As a rough
Trout Fillet 1/2 inch 13mm 30 min-4 hours
Salmon Fillet 2 inch thick 8 Hours / Overnight – 4 hours minimum
Kippers/Sardines smaller fish fillet 10 mins to an one hour is fine
Rinse with water thoroughly and then on to forming a pellicle.
As you can see above, it’s not a big issue if you leave it in brine for longer. But generally overnight is definitely long enough for thick fish (definitely not more than 2 days).
Fish is less dense
Optional – (add fresh herbs/bay leaf / peppercorns / white wine / dried herbs to suit).
Note – Its harder to form pellicle from a frozen fish, therefore its harder for the smoke flavor to impart its vapor (it is not the smoke, its the gases from the smoking that has the flavor).
The weight/volume of salt can vary but this will give you a good guide, based on the 5% ratio. If you are doing larger volumes of smoked fish often you may want to experiment with stronger brines.
You may want to consider a salt tester, which floats to show how accurate your level of salinity is. You should only look at these if you are doing seriously large batches of fish.
You can soak the meat in fresh water, after
3. Pellicle Formation – Cool Area Protected or Fridge
Put fish on a non-reactive rack or /wooden skewers for air flow. Stick it in the fridge or a ventilated area. Another option is inside your cool protected smoker with if
If it’s a whole fish hanging it can work really well. There are some basic techniques needed so the head doesn’t fall off when hung.
To get a dry tacky protein formation on the meat, it just needs a little bit of time
4. Choose Wood (Hardwood With Low Resin)
You really don’t want any resin wood. Many soft and hardwoods can be used to smoke meat. Non treated wood is the key if you are making your own, you don’t want any chemicals embedded in the wood. If you buying smoking wood this won’t be a problem, heaps of stores stock it nowadays.
For smoking fish – fruit or nut wood is ideal – these are hardwood types (deciduous trees – means not even green ie. they lose leaves every year)
No Softwoods (evergreens/coniferous trees) – forget about it
Smoking Wood Selection
Sawdust, wood chips, wood chunks, planks – so many options. Note sawdust will burn fast, I tend to soak it for 20 mins. Bigger sizes and volume can work better without soaking in water.
I have been working through a large pile of grape wood which I chipped, it has worked really well for many smoking meat projects.
Avoid these Woods is generally the way
Cedar Cypress Elm Eucalyptus Pine Fir Spruce Sycamore
- any wood that has high resin and oil is best to avoid
Lots of opinions around about wood, I like to keep it simple so I wrote an easy guide if you want to check out the post – here it is.
Smoke on a wooden plank! Buy it, find it or make it – it’s a novelty to smoke a fish on a plank. It’s a subtle smoke unless you’re adding another smoking box to the mix, but does make a great presentation for friends and family.
Soaking the plank for 30-60 mins and your good to go. If the plank is slightly larger then the fish, the smoke around the edges will flavor the fish (very subtle).
Big planks don’t flavor with smoke much, due to the distance it creates from the burning and smoking to the fish. A big board can make an eye-catching serving board though.
Plank cooking woods I have used (basically any smoking wood):
5. Different Ways to Hot Smoke the Fish
In short, there are two main ways fast higher temp or slower low temp.
Direct Heat below methods are
- Wok/Pot smoking -indoor smoking option
- Portable Smoker – Just in an
- Tube Smoker – Gas grill or Kettle grill retrofit
Indirect Heat methods mostly are ‘Low & Slow’ below:
- Electric/Gas Smoker
- Pellet Grill Smoker
- Kettle Smoker (snake method)
- Any other dedicated smoker with indirect heat
If you want to find out what I reckon these are the easiest smoker to use, please find a rundown here.
Just add some hot water (with spices or herbs if you want) or marinade so the smoking area can keep moist if you are doing a longer indirect smoking session.
Direct Heat Hot Smoking
Tea Smoked Wok/Pot Stove Top
You can have some real fine with this traditional Chinese style, the tea smoke is completely different flavor to wood smoke, the addition of sugar also gives is caramel & aromatic spice flavor.
- Essential Equipment – pot, lid aluminium foil & tea/wood
- This can make the kitchen very smokey! Depends on the mixture
- Recipes & techniques over here
- For a basic quick video (basic video I did it’s pretty bad!), I put one on youtube to help here.
Great device for easy smoking, I use a portable smoker a lot! Simple to set up for a quick smoking session. For many friends who want to try smoking, this is what I suggest, not much of an investment either.
On a gas element or BBQ grill, this is an easy and fast way to get smoke flavor into your fish. Can be limiting if you want to hot smoke a big fish. But, I have sometimes just cut up the fillets to fit inside the smoker.
This way tends to be quite a direct heat so keeping an eye on it is important. But for under 20-minute smoking, it’s fine – ie. trout, salmon or 1/2 inch fillets
- Essential Equipment – Portable Smoker & a Heat Souce (BBQ gas grill, propane burner, some come with denatured alcohol burner)
- Use it for camping, fishing or fast hot smoking session
- Portable Smoker favorites of mine: sausage (straight in, chorizos), fish fillets, whole fish & pork chops
- Not for indoor use, too much smoke – porch or backyard is perfect
The design needs to be well sealed to get some good intense smoke, for more info on these portable smokers, I wrote a few more details here.
Great gadget you can use to add to a gas grill or kettle grill it creates either hot smoking or cold smoking option (as pictured cold smoking some salami). As long as you have a decent burner torch to get one end going and let it smoke. Alternatively, you can use a burner on your gas grill to get the wood going in the tube.
- Essential Equipment – Pellet tube & Kettle grill or BBQ Grill for the indirect heat source
- Woodchips or wood pellets can be used effectively
Can be used on Kettle or your gas grill BBQ, the bonus also is that is can be used for cold smoking, in the right conditions (see here for a full cold smoking post.
For more info on pellet tubes, I wrote about my favorites here and why.
Indirect Heat Hot Smoking
Electric Smoker – Easy Beginners Choice
Can’t go wrong with one of these if you want the dedicated smoker, since it is a true set & forget option. It’s not what the passionate offset charcoal BBQ smoking crowd like.
But when it comes to cost, convenience, and ease of use. For smoking fish, you just see the thermostat and in goes the fish. If you want some electric smokers suggestion, here’s a write-up.
Gas Smoker – Same as Electric Without Thermostat
Same idea as the electric but with propane/gas as the fuel type.
Remember, hot smoking is really cooking/baking the fish with some smoke happening at the same time. So it’s all about having a go, and if you love smoked goods -maybe investing in some gear is necessary.
(Gas Grill Budget Option) Wood Chips Foil Wrapped
Wrap a handful or two of wood with tinfoil/aluminum foil, poke some holes in it like this.
You then want to place it directly above a burner. When you use a hooded BBQ, depending on the heat of your BBQ, you might need to get close to the burner. The gas grills don’t hold the smoke in too well because they have to let the heat out from the hood, but this can work for a super simple smoking method.
There are a whole bunch of smokers out there, but I want to focus on the easiest to use and one of my favorites, the kettle grill. I talk about how easy it is a bit in this post about… easy to use smokers!
I use the ‘snake method’ which looks like this.
Then the fish can look like this, after 2-3 hours.
If you want to read a full post on salmon smoking, please find it here.
For Recommended Gear, I went into a bit more detail on useful hot smoking equipment on the below pages:
Portable Smokers (for direct smokers for gas grill or any outdoor heat source – fish fillets, sausages, red meat, chicken etc. whatever you can fit in it)
Tube & Pellet Tube Smokers (add to gas grill, charcoal, electric or you can easily use them for some cold smoking action)
Easy Electric Smoker (thermostat controlled smoker (an oven with smoke basically – smoke anything in one of these, versatile and reasonable price which can be used for so much…turkey, ribs or salmon – indirect smoked low and slow)
How Long to Smoke Fish?
The key to success is making sure the fish is cooked through, this means you test it by how easily it flakes off the fillet (pull a fork through it and see if it’s flaking or raw).
A digital thermometer is useful, it’s cooked at 150°F/63°C (commercial smokers would want the internal temp to remain at this level for 30 mins, personally if it’s cooked – its done for me)
Hot Smoking Tip – when salmon is done, it may ooze some white stuff, this is albumin and it is just protein – nothing to be concerned about (highly likely to see this with Salmon).
Fast Direct Hot Smoking (Wok or Portable Smoker)
If the fillets are thin or they are small fish, it can take 6-8 minutes.
For thicker fillets of salmon, hake or monkfish – this could take 15 minutes.
Making sure the temperature is low after the smoking as start is really important.
Indirect Smoking (or Low & Slow)
Of course, depends on thickness. You don’t have to get picky, but 230-280°F / 110-140°C is a good target for a 60-90 min hot smoking or less. Trout fillets take me 15 -20 mins for light smoking.
|Light Smoking||270-340°F / 130-180°C||Under 1 Hour|
|Medium Smoking||210 – 284°F / 100 – 140°C||1-2 Hours|
|Intense Smoking||180 – 250°F / 80 – 120°C||2-5 Hours|
Having a thermostat controlled smoker (electric or gas) will be the way of getting the most success here if you want that convenience factor (set & forget).
If you want a decent gadget to make the whole smoking fish project easier, here is a page to go over the pros and cons of a few digital thermometers I can recommend.
Basting is an option if you are looking at a long smoking session, say over 1-3 hours+. Baste with honey if you want sweet glazing, also you can use hard fresh herbs as a brush then throw it on the smoking wood.
I tend to eat smoked fish immediately either on its own or in a recipe. Also, if you put in the fridge for a day or overnight -it tends to taste smokier (In a container or else the fridge will smell pretty smokey).
You may find grey meat between skin and meat the of fish sometimes depending on species, this is fat deposits full of omega 3 fatty acids. This is just meaty fat that doesn’t have the same pigment color as the rest of the fish.
Serving Hot Smoked Fish
Works very well with something creamy, like cream cheese or avocado.
Many pasta options can be absolutely delicious.
Make a hot smoked fish dip! Superb sharing food.
Here are some other suggestions:
- Make a pate, something creamy like cream cheese and some zest
- With eggs or with eggs benedict
- Make some smoked fish patties
- In a quiche is a great idea
- If you haven’t tried kedergree, give that a go (smoked fish eggs, curry, rice, and spice)
Can I Smoke Fish in an Oven?
This can be
Check it out here, tea smoked fish in a wok/pot
How Long will Hot Smoked Fish Last?
One week in the fridge. Vacuum packed it will last up to 3 weeks. If it is not refrigerated, hot smoked fish is the same as cooked meat and will not last unless kept in a cool area. If it has been salt cured or brined it can last a few more days then non-hot smoked fish.
Thanks for dropping by, I’ve been passionate about meat curing for decades.
I Hunt, Fish, Forage, Buy, Butcher (Wannabe Norcini), Make, Savor (I’m not a Saviour), and love curing and smoking meat.
Learning and consuming in a circular fashion, I am always interested in what is happening around the curing and smoking world
Seeking the passionate behind the passion.
Just purchased a second hand charcoal kettle smoker and I found your post very helpful. Just about to give it ago with a bit more confidence than I did before I read this, many thanks
awesome Elise! Glad to hear it!
I smoked some tuna, as a dry run for Father’s Day 2021 ( Please excuse the pun ) with your suggestions and step-by-step advice it turned out great . Planning to have the kids over next Sunday I know the smoked fish will be a big hit it will be a great addition to the table. Many thanks Cliff
Hey Cliff, thanks for the comment – sounds like you nailed it! Nice! Tom