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How-to Guide:

Hot Smoking Fish

Hot smoking your own fish has attracted a lot of attention - and so it should. It is easy to do, does not need expensive or complex equipment and the results taste just fantastic. Here is a detailed, step by step guide to preparing, brining and hot smoking fish. The example uses mackerel, which are plentiful and popular, but you can use white fish such as cod, pollack and pouting, or you can smoke chicken, sausages and other meats in exactly the same way. The actual smoking part must be done outdoors, as smoke will seep from the smoker and could set off your smoke alarm (although it will smell great!). You can use any tin for hot smoking, but the easiest way is to buy a smoker from a specialist supplier. These range from a simple portable smoker such as the one used in this example, to large cabinets suitable for batches of fish or meat. A great selection is available from For a £5 discount use the code boatangling£5off

The method described below cooks rather than preserves fish, so treat the results as you would any other cooked fish. Cold smoking uses a different technique and is used to preserve fish and meat.


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First catch your mackerel. Keep them cool from the moment they are caught, and cook them as soon as possible. I use a large cool box with several 2 litre plastic bottles filled with water and frozen solid in the bottom. Mackerel placed on the frozen bottles stay in good condition for several hours. Smoked Mackerel Recipe
Wash your mackerel in chilled water and fillet them "bait style" - as if you were preparing a side of mackerel for bait. No need to be fussy about bones, they will lift off easily once cooked. Smoked Mackerel Recipe 2
Now prepare your brine mix. There are many different versions so feel free to experiment. I like to use the following recipe. This makes a lot but you can keep unused brine in the fridge for a few weeks for use later, or simply scale down proportionally. Take 4 litres of water and add 500mL salt, 250mL brown sugar, 75mL lemon juice, 1 tablespoon garlic powder, 1 tablespoon onion powder, 1 tablespoon allspice, 2 teaspoons white pepper. Mix until the sugar and salt are dissolved. Smoked Mackerel Recipe ingredients
Place the mackerel fillets in a non-metallic bowl and pour in enough brine to cover. Swish them about to make sure they are wet, and leave for 30 minutes in a cool place. Make sure no four-legged creatures can steal them! Smoked Mackerel Recipe brine
After 30 minutes, remove the fillets and dry on kitchen towel. For the really best results, you need to air-dry the fillets so they get a good texture in the smoker. I have a fan oven which has a fan-only setting (no heat). This is ideal, and will dry the fillets sufficiently in an hour. Alternatively let them dry in a cool draughty place if possible. The dried sugar/salt crust is called a pellicle. Smoked Mackerel Recipe hot smoking
Meanwhile, you can prepare your smoker. I am using a rather battered ABU smoker but there are many other makes available with almost identical features. In fact any tin box can be turned into a smoker! You will also need a heat source - many smokers have dishes to hold methylated spirits - and hardwood sawdust or "smoke dust". You must use clean untreated hardwood such as oak. Softwood such as pine will give a nasty resinous taste. Smoke dust is cheap to buy from the suppliers of smokers. Smoked Mackerel Recipe hot smoker
Put a heaped tablespoon of sawdust above each burner. Don't think it is better with more, it is not! The good thing is, your bag of smoke dust will last for years at this rate of use. Smoked Mackerel Recipe sawdust
Cover the sawdust with the drip trays to prevent moisture and oil from the fillets dripping on the sawdust and dampening the smoulder. If your smoker doesn't have them, you can make something suitable from the end of a tin can, with a notch in the side bent down so the lid sits about 1cm above the base. Smoked Mackerel Recipe smoke dust
Oil the grill racks as you would a barbie to prevent sticking, and lay the fillets skin-side down on the racks. Don't over-load the smoker as too much moisture in the smoker will result in mushy fish. This particular smoker has two layers of grill rack. Put the lid on and clamp it down if it has clamps, or weight it with a brick. Smoked Mackerel Recipe hot smoking

Fill the burner dishes with meths, then put the cap on the meths and put it well away. Light the meths with a long match and place the tin containing the mackerel on top.

An alternative heat source is a pair of camping gas burners, which is a cheaper option if you plan to do this regularly.

Smoked Mackerel Recipe
Smoke will start to seep out of the crack under the lid - this is a good sign and shows your mackerel are cooking in smoke. Keep an eye on the flames below, the mackerel fillets need to smoke for 20 minutes so if the burners run out of fuel you will need to add more. Be very careful when filling hot burners! Smoked Mackerel Recipe
After 20 minutes smoking you can take the lid off. This is what you will see - perfect hot-smoked mackerel. Smoked Mackerel Recipe
The smoked mackerel should be cooled as quickly as possible and kept in a fridge until eaten. They will make fantastic smoked mackerel pate, or can be used in any smoked mackerel recipe. They freeze well if wrapped tightly and frozen as soon as they are cool. Vacuum packing is even better. Unlike frozen uncooked mackerel, smoked mackerel retains its texture even after several months in the freezer. Smoked Mackerel Recipe
You can try smoking any fish, oily or white, bony or cartiligeous. Here I smoked some whiting whole. Brine for a hour as the flavour needs more time to penetrate, then dry as above - this is very important to avoid soggy results. Then smoke for 20 minutes. If you have smaller fish, it is a lot easier to de-bone smoked whole fish than filleting fresh fish, and makes a great base for kedgeree.

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