When I started to catch a few fish in my early years, I got interested in cold smoking and over the years I have worked out better ways to cols smoke fish. I have tried a whole bunch of techniques and different equipment with some results being epic wins and some failure to learn from.
The biggest lesson is, you want light cold smoke not bellowing towers of smoldering wood.
So I’ve learned a lot about cold-smoked fish from different countries around the world I have been lucky enough to visit. Always learning and gathering ideas along the way.
It really doesn’t have to be complicated when it comes to cold smoking, but the key thing is your curing and drying the fish out with an environment that has cold-smoke running through it.
I have written a full guide on cold smoking and also the difference between hot and cold smoking here. But specifically this is about the best cold smoking gear I have used for making fish.
What is the Best Cold Smoker for Fish? Light and gentle cold smokers are the best for fish. Either you can hang or lay the fish on racks for cold smoking. The best cold smokers for fish allow airflow and an environment with a higher humidity assists also.
My suggestion for the simplest, easiest and best cold smokers are (drumroll please):
- Pellet Tube Smoker
- Maze Style Smoker
Probably the biggest reason why I like these simple apparatuses is they are portable, flexible and reliable and I’ve used them in many different tasty smoking scenarios!
I wrote a page about recommended pellet tubes & maze smokers I like here.
Probably the biggest thing you need to figure out for a cold-smoked fish is where you’re going to be cold smoking for just flavor we can be cold smoking for preservation.
Cold smoking preservation takes quite a bit longer but it’s pretty cool to have something that doesn’t need to be refrigerated because these days we rely pretty heavily upon refrigeration and freezing our foods.
But if you’re after like a cured kind of like Gravalax, or Lox with cold smoke flavor thats a cool starting point, and you can just consume those delicious slices within a week or so.
Some of these chambers I use this type of smoker in are,
- Old Kettle Grill BBQ
- Commercial Hot Smoker Chamber (Switch off obviously)
- Large Card Board Box
- Gas Grill BBQ
If you want just an overview of the different way of smoking, I wrote a beginner guide as well just going over a bunch of smoking techniques.
My First Cold Smoker
Was actually a smoke generator which is a vertical metal tube you fill it with would, more than likely wood pellets.
You get the wood pellets burning through a hole on the side, there is an air pump that uses the venturi effect to pull the smoke into through a tube into the smoking area. It’s adjustable, so you have a variable pump for air flow.
I’ve bolted one of these on to my old barbecue kettle grill or used it to pump cold smoke into my large five-burner gas grill barbecue.
The reason why I’ve mentioned this second is that I think still for anyone starting out wanting something simple a pellet tube will be cheaper and much more versatile to use.
But if you want to control the level of smoke, smoke generators are awesome!
If your looking for the 'ducks nuts' (that means a very good bit of equipment). A smoke generator can be used as a cold smoker, or adding smoke to indirect cooking which equates to a form of 'low & slow' bbq or making smoked ham and some much more.
The inventor of smoke generators was Smokai, it's a simple device that uses the venturi effect and a variable air pump to control the amount of smoke you are pumping.
I have a range of cold smoking options, and the Smokai is my favorite.
By far the smokai is the most efficient cold smoker I've come across because you have control.
It also burns very clean, which flavors the food exceptionally well. I've been using smoke generators for over 10 years, and this one is the ducks nuts.
Check out this review I did of the Smokai Smoke Generator here.
You can stick a pellet tube or a maze smoker straight into your smokehouse with enough room and clearance and this will give you a nice consistent smoldering smoke.
Best Setup for Cold Smoking Fish
Here is just a quick rundown of how I generally setup cold smoking my fish for the best results.
Once I’ve done a full salt curing or wet brining of my fresh fish, and whether it’s freshwater fish or ocean fish it doesn’t really matter.
It’s normally the time of the year when the humidity and moisture level are a little bit higher at night time, normally around 70-80% sometimes 90%.
This is something I learned and read about and in a commercial cold smoking book which really upped my game when it came to longer forms of cold smoking more weight loss, but still a level of moisture in the finished product.
The temperature is normally well under the 86°F/30°C which is needed for cold smoking.
It’s more around 10 to 20°C at night. So before I go to bed, I get a torch burner, and for five minutes get the wood smoke pellets inside the pellet tube going.
Making sure that there’s some good airflow going through smoking chamber here is an example of my very basic kettle grill set up I took some photos of giving you an idea of my incredibly basic setup (air holes at the bottle of the kettle grill let the smoke flow in).
I know it’s going to be cold smoking for 3 to 5 hours, reliably.
Then the next morning I hang it up in the shed or in the garage where it sits for a day. If it’s a bit warmer during the day like over 68-77°F / 20-25°C, then I end up putting it in my homemade curing chamber at about 10 to 15°C and 70% humidity.
Curing chambers are an awesome tool for all sorts of food projects if you want more info on build one, check out a rundown here.
Next evening I just repeat the process until I get the level of cold smoky flavor and weight loss I want from the fish.
Hanging or Rack for Cold Smoking Fish
I’m in the process of building a small wooden shed or what you call a smokehouse. Then you just can put a pellet tube or any other smoking device down the bottom and just let it smoke away. I think the key is to have enough airflow going through it via a chimney or air holes at the top.
Cold smoking isn’t a science like many forms of cooking and variable like how wood burns and how meat is different are always going to take some experience to get things how you like it.
I like the idea of hanging the fish and have seen some really interesting techniques (using whole or fillets of fish) mainly across the United Kingdom.
They are well-versed in cold smoking fish commercially, with many Artisan styles that have been around for hundreds of years. But still many folks cold smoke kippers, mackerel or salmon at home.
I have come across pockets of cold smokers in the States, but it seems people are obviously more into Low & Slow Smoking. Hey so am I, it’s easy to sprinkle rub and throw it in at a low temperature for a while (especially with pellet grills or kamado smokers).
With a lot of people preferring to hot smoke bacon over cold smoking as well. If you want a bit of a read on cold smoking bacon instead of hot smoking check out a post I wrote here.
Back to cold smoking fish, since cold smoking fish is a form of drying fish with the cold smoked being beneficial in terms of antibacterial properties.
Hanging fish means less contact with any object which can help with less chance of contamination and allow more smoke (vapor) around the fish.
Conditions You Need for a Perfect Cold Smoking Fish Session
Now a lot of cold smoking fish or salmon recipes online talk about cold smoking for a few hours or up to 24 hours. Personal preference prevails you can cold smoke just for adding a little bit of flavor or you can cold smoke for full preservation.
To achieve that full preservation of cold smoking you need to lose a certain amount of moisture in the fish so that the bacteria that can spoil the fish is unable to prosper at the meat.
Generally what I have learned is anywhere between 20 to 30% weight loss after the salt curing to achieve full preservation depending on what fish.
Best conditions of cold smoking fish for preservation are:
- Higher Humidity
- Gentle Cold Smoke
- Air Flow
- Fully Cured Fish
Different Cold Smokers and How They Perform
Cold smoke generators can be useful, however through my experiences when you put them on a lower air pump setting there is a chance they go out and for me, I want to go to bed knowing that fish is getting smoked!
I don’t want to check it all the time sure that it’s still smoking.
But with a pellet tube or maze smoker as long as the wood is good for smoking ie. dry and a deciduous type of wood. Then the actual smoking is consistent and it always been through to the end.
For me, it’s all about keeping it simple.
Especially since this a very ancient form of flavoring and preserving meat. You really don’t need any fancy gadgets to get the job done, and believe it or not I am a fancy gadget guy as well (sometimes).
New to Cold Smoking Guide
To if you’re new to cold smoking then you might want to go and read a comprehensive post I did that goes all the basics before you get stuck in.
The salt curing side of it which is very important when you’re dealing with meat, so I have covered wet brining and dry salt curing that I have used successfully many times.
If you cold smoking dairy, vegetables or fruit then salt curing or wet brining is not applicable (apart from eggplant so far, needs a bit of moisture drawn out).
If you’re interested in my cold smoking guide please check it out here.
Pellicle Formation is key
Pellicle formation on meat is really important I think as well. If you want some info on pellicle and why it useful here is the post I wrote.
Difference Between Hot and Cold Smoking
Quite simply hot smoking is cooking with smoke added for flavor (like Low & Slow).
Cold smoking meat is about fully curing (wet or dry) and then drying the meat out with cold smoke for flavor and/or preservation.
Smoking things like cheese is purely for flavor and doesn’t provide any preservation.
You Can Cold Smoke Any Fish Oily or White Fish
It’s a pretty general way of categorizing many types of fish, but things like salmon, mackerel, sardines or anchovies are a form of oily fish. Which lend themselves nicely to cold smoking or hot smoking for that matter.
Oily fish seem to taste like they hold more moisture, I guess because of the healthy oils are still in the flesh after the salt from the cure has removed the water moisture.
I am fascinated making dry-cured meat and sharing the amazing flavors you can create at home.
After curing for nearly 20 years, with a focus on dry-curing classic Italian and exotic ideas also. I've got a fantastic video charcuterie course covering what you need, how to do it, and some insider tips.
It's all bundled together as a formidable resource - check out my Meat Curing Course Here.
Thanks for dropping by, I’ve been passionate about meat curing for around 20 years now. Having been lucky enough to learn inside fine dining kitchens through to backyard smoking sessions. From doing courses, trial & error and reading extensively – finally, I thought it was time to share my passion online.
My insatiable appetite and passion toward classic Italian dry-cured salumi and all forms of curing and smoking are what drives this website engine. All the best, Tom