How to Smoke Fish

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MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
A smoker full of fish represents an investment of $500. Thus, a big load like this has got to have waiting buyers!

Can a fed-up corporate executive forfeit his pole
position in the rat race, build a $500 smokehouse out in
the country … and rapidly begin earning more than $2,000
a month selling home-cured fish to bars and restaurants?
Yep. Buck Taylor, a Florida man, has done just that … and
he insists that others (maybe you) can do it too!

How to Dress Fish for Smoking

Once you’ve finished the construction of your smokehouse
and gathered together the necessary supplies, you’re ready
to smoke your first batch of fish. Which really means that
you’re ready to clean and dress your first fish.

Start by making a brine. It’s easy. Just pour eleven pounds
of salt into the tank (bathtub) you installed in the
smokehouse. Fill the tub half full of water and stir well
to dissolve the salt. Then add ice as necessary to keep the
temperature of the brine at or below 60° Fahrenheit
(check the temperature from time to time).

You can add as many or as few spices to the brine as you
like. Just remember, though, that the extra ingredients
cost extra money. Those two or three dollars’ worth of
seasonings must be reflected in the final taste of
your product if you expect your customers to pay a premium
price for the added touch.

I keep my overhead down by using just two
spices–oregano and dried mustard–in my brine,
and I find them all I need to give my fish the
palate-pleasing aftertaste that my customers want. If
you’re determined to experiment with something fancier,
however, here’s some optional–and I repeat,
optional –spices and flavorings that some
smokers add to their brine: allspice, bay leaf, brown
sugar, dill, garlic, ginger, honey, lemon juice, maple
flavoring, molasses, onion salt, seasoned pepper, soy
sauce, Tabasco, and white pepper.

As soon as your brine is ready and waiting (and remember to
add a little ice from time to time to keep the solution at
60° F or lower), you can begin to clean and trim your
fish.

Experience has shown me that the larger the
individual fish, the better I like it when I’m
preparing fillets for the oven. It’s much easier to slice
and trim four big 200-pounders than to dress out a hundred
or so smaller fish. (I ought to know: Once I even cleaned
an eight-foot-long, 548-pound blue marlin. You should’ve
been there!)

Relatively large fish–those weighing more than, say,
ten pounds–should he cut into slabs (see Fig. 2) for
brining. Use your knife to make slits along the top and
bottom of the critter’s side parallel to its fins and
backbone. Then cut across the fish just behind its head.
When the knife hits bone, turn the blade sideways and work
it toward the tail with a sawing motion while you keep the
cutting edge as close to the backbone as possible to reduce
waste. Use basically the same technique on the
really “big ‘uns” (fish weighing 150 pounds or
more), but remove the chunks of flesh from the backbone one
section at a time.

Billfish, incidentally, have concave hollows on either side

of their spines and, if you’re not careful, these hollows
will prevent your knife blade from getting down under all
the meat attached to the backbone. Well I’m here to tell
you that the strips of flesh which lie in these protected
areas are absolutely the best-tasting parts of such fish
and should be salvaged if at all possible. So push the pads
of your fingers down against the bone and then slide them
toward the critter’s tail. The strips I’m talking about
will come free quite easily . . . and are well worth the
extra effort it takes to get them.

Any slabs of meat more than three inches thick should be
sliced into smaller pieces so that the brine can penetrate
them better. (If the solution can’t work all the way
through a thick chunk, the center of the piece won’t cure
properly.)

Smaller fish (trout, cats, snappers, etc.) that tip the
scales at less than ten pounds can usually be split down
the center, opened up, and smoked whole. Removal of the
backbone from one of these “little ‘uns” is optional, but
the head should always be cut off and discarded.

Filleted or whole, large fish or small, leave the skin on
all the pieces you smoke (it’ll help reduce shrinkage). And
one final tip: Remove the blood-strip (from the meat along
the spine) of any fish that has one and throw the strip
away. Yes, this adds to your waste . . . but it also
greatly improves the taste of your finished product (and
that, after all, is what will keep you in business).

Soak ’em in Brine

After you’ve sliced out a batch of fillets, wash all the
chunks of fish thoroughly in running water and drop them
into the tank of brine to soak overnight. TIP: If you put
all the thinner pieces into one end of the tub and all the
thicker ones into the other, you’ll find it easier to load
your oven the next day. (Why? Because, sooner or later,
you’ll want to sort out the thin slabs–which,
logically enough, require less curing–anyway, so you
can put them on the trays which go into the top of the
smoker … farthest from the fire.)

Before you go home for the evening, double-check to make
certain that every single morsel of fish is completely covered by brine (even the merest corner of a fillet left
sticking out of the solution overnight can spoil or will,
at least, “taste funny” after it’s smoked). It’s also a
good idea to cover the loaded tub with a sheet of plastic
or a plywood top to keep out any insects that might have
wandered into the smokehouse while you were working. No, a
few bugs won’t really hurt the fish you have soaking in the
brine . . . but they have a way of expiring in the solution
and winding up stuck to your choicest fillets. And
customers are funny when it comes to finding such little
surprises on the food they eat!

All finished? Fine. Now go home and get a good night’s
rest. You’ll need it, because tomorrow’s workday starts at
4:00 a.m.

How to Load the Oven

When you return to the smokehouse in the morning, you’ll
find that all the soaking pieces of fish are covered with a
slick film. Wash it off by pushing your hand along the
entire surface of each fish, or piece of fish, while you
hold it under running water. Then repeat the process
without the running water. The first step forces excess
brine from the fillets and washes off the surface of the
chunks of fish. The second squeezes much of the remaining
moisture from each piece of meat. Both are
important
: If you don’t wash the brine away, the
inside of your oven will soon become gummy. If you fail to
force the excess water out of the fillets, your smoked fish
will be soft and wet inside.

Cut the soaked and washed fillets into four-inch squares so
that the heat will penetrate them more evenly. Then coat
the smoker trays with vegetable oil (to prevent sticking),
and place the slabs of meat– skin side down
, with the chunks spaced 1/4 inch apart–on the racks.

At this point I like to sprinkle seasoned pepper on my fish
(blue marlin, for instance, is so bland that I think it’s
necessary to spice the species up a bit). You’ll have to
decide for yourself, though, if the extra cost is justified
(your customers will quickly let you know).

As each tray is filled, slide it into the oven. Leave the
door open as you load the smoker–to facilitate air
drying–and, once all the fish are in, go around to
the other side of the curing chamber and start the fire.

Smoking: The Low Temperature Phase

Pull the firebox out, place paper and kindling in its
bottom, some branches and very small logs on top, and start
a blaze. When the fire is burning well, add a couple of
larger logs and–as soon as the big chunks of wood are
aflame–slide the firebox back into the oven and
halfway close the firebox’s trapdoor.

Back inside the smokehouse, tightly close the oven loading
door and watch the thermometer mounted on it. When the
temperature inside the oven approaches 100° F, crack
the loading door about four inches or so (a small cloud of
pleasant-smelling smoke should emerge).

You’ll soon find that you call regulate the temperature in
the smoking chamber with the oven’s two doors. Open the
trapdoor to allow more draft past the fire … and the
smoker will heat up. Close the trapdoor and it’ll cool
down. And whenever you find yourself in a real
bind–with the temperature inside the oven
skyrocketing and threatening to damage a whole load of
fish–just pop the loading door open as wide and as
long as it takes to dump out the excess Btu’s.

Bear in mind at all times that the proper regulation of
your smoker’s temperature is extremely critical. Apply too
little heat, and your fish will not become completely
cured. Allow the temperature to climb too high, and the
slabs of meat will glaze over oil the outside and remain raw
in their centers. The moral is obvious: Watch your
thermometer carefully and regulate the temperature of your
oven exactly as I tell you
.

The first two hours of the smoke cure–prolonged
drying, really–are conducted with the loading door
kept ajar and the firebox door positioned to maintain a
temperature of 120° in the smoker. This is as critical
as any part of the smoking operation, so keep a sharp eye
on everything. A sudden gust through the fire door can
quickly jump the temperature of the blaze a few degrees
which, in turn, can cause the flame to grow even brighter.
This won’t cause you any real trouble if you’re on top of
the situation … but you certainly can’t just walk off and
leave your load of fish to take its chances alone.

By the end of the first hour or so of this 120°
treatment, your fillets will be dripping water like ferns
in a rain forest and tiny bubbles will have risen oil the
top of each slab of fish. This is normal for the low heat
stage of the cure, and the more bubbles and drops of water,
the better. Along about this time, too, you’ll notice that
your smokehouse is filling with [A] the delicate aroma of
smoked fish and, quite possibly, [B] people you hardly even
know. When strangers begin sniffing tile air and hanging
around to make small talk, you know you’re in the
right business!

Smoking: The High Temperature Phase

After your fish have cured two hours at 120°, close the
oven’s main door and open the trapdoor as much as necessary
to raise the smoker’s temperature to 140° F. The
fillets will actually begin to cook now and (over a period
of approximately five hours) will turn a golden brown.

Keep that oven smoky . If you can’t see smoke
coming out of the chimney, add bark, twigs, chips from tree
Cuttings, etc., to the firebox. You’re not trying to raise
the temperature of the oven, remember, but you do
want your fire to smoke profusely. (NOTE: Although some
authorities recommend throwing handfuls of green branches
and leaves on the blaze at this point to make its smoke
thicker, I don’t. Green wood and leaves, in my experience,
can impart a nasty flavor to foods. Therefore, although I
do use bark and twigs to increase the intensity of my
fire’s smoke during this phase of the cure, I always make
sure that the chips, etc., are dry.)

Toward the end of the five-hour-long high-temperature part
of the smoke cure, you can prod the pieces of fish with a
finger. The slabs of meat should feel fairly solid … and
most definitely not soft or wet.

When your piscatorial pleasures are done just right, you’ll
know it! They’ll be fit for a royal wedding banquet: golden
brown, flaky, and barely moist inside. That’s the way my
fillets turn out anyway … because that’s the way my
customers like them.

Then again, it’s hard to predict just what your
clientele will demand. Some people like their fish so
thoroughly cured that it’s downright difficult to chew …
others want it almost raw. Beer bars generally demand
little two-ounce packages of very salty and hard-cured
strips (that, when sold by the hundreds at 50¢ a pack,
noticeably increase their patrons’ consumption of brew),
while cocktail lounges buy moist, flaky fillets, cut them
into small bits, and give them away to their customers.
You’ll just have to experiment a little until you learn
what the folks in your area prefer, and then adjust your
drying and curing times–but not your oven’s
temperature!–accordingly.

When your fillets have smoked as long as you want them to,
remove the trays of fish and set them out to cool for at
least an hour. You can speed this part of the process, if
you like, by setting up a fan or two to blow over the trays
… but don’t try to hasten the cooling by putting
the fish into a refrigerator while they’re still warm. I
made that serious mistake once, and found myself with an
entire oven load of soggy fillets on my hands!

Once the slabs of meat are completely smoked and have
thoroughly cooled, they can be frozen quite nicely and
stored for some time. The cured and cooled fish can also be
kept in the refrigerator unfrozen for up to a week … but
I wouldn’t try to store them any longer than that.

Some Final Words of Advice

Work your way into this business slowly in the beginning.
Try to line up your initial customers before you
run off that first full oven load of fish. You’re wise to
smoke a few small batches of fillets on your own at the
very start just to prove that you know what you’re doing
and to provide some of your potential accounts with a
sample of your wares. Curing a whole smoker full of fish,
though, can run into real money (an investment of
approximately $500), and you should definitely have a few
buyers lined up before you take that plunge.

Sooner or later, the manager of one of the supermarkets or
restaurants you try to sell to is going to ask you if you
have product liability insurance. When that happens, you
can either go on down the street and peddle your fish to
someone else (and there’s plenty of folks you can deal with
who’ll never think to ask the question) … or you can take
out a liability policy on your goods. The only trouble with
the second course of action is the fact that the liability
insurance you’ll have to buy is enormously expensive (and,
therefore, a liability in itself). It can cost as much as
2% of your gross business. I’ll leave the insurance
decision up to you.

And my final sage words are, staywith it
! It’ll take some time for people to gain confidence in
your operation and begin buying from you regularly. In the
meantime, even though your income may be only a fraction of
what it will later become, you’ll have to keep right on
hauling wood, buying fish, cleaning the critters, carrying
away garbage, manning the smoker, calling on customers,
etc. Don’t let that initial breaking-in period discourage
you. I happen to know that, if you put out a good product,
this little do-it-yourself business can support several
people comfortably. Be enthusiastic! Keep plugging away!

I’m not here to tell you that being self-employed is easy.
But take it from me (and I’ve lived both ways), I’d much
rather be smoking fish in my own little enterprise than
working myself into an early heart attack while doing
something I hate just to make money I don’t need.

In short, if you want to be as independent as I now am …
start smoking!

EDITOR ‘S NOTE: This has been the second of a two-part
article. The first installment–in which the author
explained how to buy fish, build a smokehouse, price the
final product to the customer, and handle other details of
the business–appeared in the May/June 1976 issue of MOTHER EARTH NEW



Hickory Smoked?

We hear so much about “hickory smoked” these and those that
some folks think hickory is the only fuel that can be used
in the smoking process. This is simply not true, so don’t
panic if you find that you have no source of hickory with
which to feed your oven.

What you want for your cure is smoke (and not necessarily,
as many people think, hot smoke) that will both
help preserve your fish and impart an appealing taste to
it.

This means that what you DON’T want are softwoods of any
kind. The wood from pine, cedar, hemlock, spruce–any
tree, in short, that doesn’t shed its needles in the
fall–contains resins and pitch that both coat the
meat in a smoker without preserving it and add an
unpleasant taste to the fillets being cured.

What you DO want are hardwoods (trees that lose their
leaves every winter). Apple, ash, beech, birch, butternut, cherry, chestnut, hickory, mangrove, maple, oak, sweet bay,
and walnut are all good … as are almost any other
hardwood you can name. You can even work a pretty fair cure
with manzanita roots, trimmings from grapevines, and
corncobs if you have to.

Remember, though, that it’s the smoke you’re after more
than the heat when you build that first fire in your oven.
If the fuel burns too fast, dampen it with a little water.

You’ll soon learn when to add wood to your firebox and how
much to put in at a time. (The design of your oven, the
type of wood you burn, the size of your logs, how heavily
you load the smoker, etc., will all affect the situation.)
In general, I add two four-inch-thick logs every hour
during the low-temperature phase of the cure and slightly
more fuel each hour after the temperature is raised.