Smoking fish is totally new to me. I've been delaying this for a long time and finally gave in to my wife's requests to make smoked mackerel. Her father used to make smoked mackerel when she was a kid, and she really wanted to experience it again. So, I made it. Hot smoked mackerel. It turned out delicious - smoky, tender, and moist. I've had store-bought hot smoked mackerel before and know the taste; this one is on a whole new level. What really surprised me was how easy and relatively quick it was to make. For some reason, I had pictured a more complicated process, but I was wrong.
My biggest concern when making any kind of food is safety. Therefore, I chose to follow Stanly Mariansky's guidelines on smoking fish, as he is a huge proponent of food safety. If you want to read more about it, check out his Home Production of Quality Meats and Sausages book. His brine recipe uses curing salt, and that's very important as fish meat is home to an unusually high concentration of bacteria, and the smoking is done at a low temperature.
For those who'd prefer not to use Cure #1 in the brine, Marianski suggests salting fish until the internal concentration of salt reaches 3% and the fish to be smoked at 180° F (82° C). If you don't like salty fish or are on a low-sodium diet, using Cure #1 is recommended.
The first step is to brine the fish. Brining gives the following benefits to the fish:
- Improves the flavor and look of the fish.
- It improves texture by making flesh much stronger which is important when fish is hung.
- Prevents growth of bacteria.
The saltier the brine, the faster the brining process will be. The most optimal brine for most common fish is 80-degree brine (as measured by a brine hydrometer). This translates to 21% of salt by weight, or 2.2 lbs of salt per gallon, or 211 grams of salt per liter of water.
Whole mackerel should be gutted and cleaned, heads can stay on, then brined in 80-degree brine. If you prefer to brine overnight, 30-degree brine is recommended. A 30-degree brine translates to 7.9% of salt by weight, or 0.98 lbs of salt per gallon, or 79 grams of salt per liter of water.
Marianski recommends brining whole fish for hot smoking for 1-2 hours, depending on size. The fish needs to be weighted down and fully submerged. The starting brine temperature should be 60F, and the brining takes place at room temperature. Overnight brining should done in the refrigerator.
The brine better penetrates areas of fish that are open. To improve penetration, I removed the fish heads and brined my fish for 1 hour. This resulted in perfect mild saltiness.
After brining, the fish is thoroughly rinsed and hung to dry using fish smoking hooks. This is a very important step. The characteristic flavor of smoked fish develops mainly due to salt and smoke, but its appearance is greatly influenced by drying. A fish that is properly dried acquires color much faster and also develops a better taste.
Drying time depends on the fish size and usually is 1 to 12 hours. For mackerel, 2 hours of drying is sufficient.
During hot smoking, the fish are smoked/cooked for one to five hours. The fish can be smoked/baked in as little as 30 minutes when the smoking temperature is 300F-350F (150C-180C).
Hot smoking is performed in three stages:
The fish is dried for 30-60 minutes at 86F (30C). Light smoke can be applied during this stage. During this stage, the skin is hardened to prevent breakage. The dampers of the smoker/smokehouse should be open all the way to maximize airflow.
During this stage, the temperature is gradually raised to 122F (50C) while heavy smoke is applied. This stage lasts 30-45 minutes. The damper is open only 1/4 of the way.
In this final stage, the temperature is raised to 176F (80C), letting the fish reach 145F (63C) internal temperature. The fish must cook at this temperature for a minimum of 30 minutes. Light smoke may be applied during this stage. For larger and thicker fish, you may need to raise the temperature in the smoker up to 194F(90C).
The total smoking time will take about 4-5 hours. When smoking is finished, the fish should be quickly cooled to 50F, (10C), and then refrigerated to bring the temperature down to 38F (3C) to prevent the growth of microorganisms. This cooling process should be accomplished within 12 hours.
Serving smoked mackerel
Smoked mackerel can be eaten immediately after smoking, though we like it better when cold.
Storing smoked mackerel
The best way to store mackerel short-term is by wrapping it in wax paper or foil and refrigerating it. It will remain fresh for up to 10 days. If longer storage is required, it's best to freeze it, though it may not be the best idea. Freezing will affect the texture of smoked mackerel, making it mushy.
- 4 whole mackerel Gutted, rinsed, and heads removed.
For the brine
- 1/2 gallon water at 60F
- 1.2 lbs salt about 2 cups
- 1/2 lb brown sugar
- 1 Tbsp Cure #1
- 3 Tbsp lemon juice
- 1/2 Tbsp garlic powder
- 1/2 Tbsp onion powder
- 1/2 Tbsp white pepper
- 1 tsp allspice (ground)
- Add the water and the rest of the brine ingredients to a large bowl and whisk until sugar and salt are fully dissolved.
- Place the fish in a deep pan or something similar. It should be just big enough to fit the fish. Add the brine. Make sure there is enough brine to cover the fish. Weigh the fish down with a weight plate. Let the fish brine for 1-2 hours at room temperature.
- Remove the fish from the brine and rinse under cold running water. Place in a drafty area to dry and develop the pellicle. Dry for 2 hours.
- Next, move the fish to the smoker and smoke according to the following schedule:1. 30-60 minutes at 86F(30C) with light smoke.2. Gradually raise the temperature to 122F(50C) while applying heavy smoke for a total of 30-45 minutes.3. Raise the temperature to 176F(80C), letting the fish reach an internal temperature of 145F (63C), while applying light smoke. Once the fish reaches 145F (63C), it should stay at this temperature for at least 30 minutes. Continue smoking until the desired color is achieved.The total expected smoking time is about 4-5 hours.
- Serve the fish hot or chill and refrigerate. The easiest way to chill hot smoked mackerel is by placing it into a large Ziploc bag and submerging it in icy water. Once the fish reaches 50F (10C), transfer it to the fridge. It will stay fresh in the fridge for up to 10 days. Longer storage will require freezing.