How I brine and smoke fish

Captain’s Blog – January 7, 2010 – Marathon Florida Keys

Smoked fish can be served just for picken’ or used as a base for smoked fish dip.  In the Keys, we tend to smoke all the mackerel species along with amberjack.  Up north, I understand just about all of the more oily fish work very well, such as pike, trout, walleye, perch, etc. 

I have gotten many requests for my fish brining and smoking process, so here you go.

Brine ingredients: spring water, Kosher salt, light brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce, bay leaves

Brining process:

  • Empty 2 gallons of room temperature spring water into a clean cooler or 5 gallon bucket with a lid (such as a pickle bucket).
  • Empty approx 1/3 pound of Kosher salt into the water, stirring continuously.  The water should taste salty, but not over bearing.
  • Add 1 pound of brown sugar until the saltiness is cut by a hint of sweetness.  Stir constantly until all salt and sugar are dissolved completely.  The brown sugar will add a nice glaze to the fish. 
  • Throw in 6 or 7 whole bay leaves while you’re stirring. 
  • Once everything is dissolved, add Worcestershire sauce to taste.  I tend to use a fair amount for a spicy bite.
  • Add your FULLY THAWED fish fillets – with skin on – to the brine.  Add ice to chill.  Up north, you want to make sure your brine does not freeze solid.
  • Allow the fish to brine for 24 hours. 
  • The brining process cures the fish and acts as a preservative.  Therefore, once your fish is smoked, you simply need to keep it cool and dry.  Never freeze smoked fish!

Smoking process:

  • This is key: smoke fillets of similar size for best results. 
  • Spray your smoker racks with Pam to keep the fish skins from sticking.
  • Place the fillets skin side down and space them evenly so the heat and smoke permeate the fish evenly.
  • Note: the fillets will reduce in size and volume as the moisture dissipates during the smoking process.
  • Keep the heat at about 175 degrees … no hotter than 200 degrees.  You do not want to cook the fish quickly.
  • Smoke thinner fillets for 4 to 5 hours.  Fillets more than 2 inches thick should smoke for 6 to 7 hours.
  • I cannot stress enough: do not leave the fillets in too long AND do not let the heat get above 200 degrees, or you will have FISH CHIPS!

When are they done?

The best way to test: press your finger in the center of the fillet.  The fish should feel tight, not mushy.  The skin at the edges should curl upwards slightly and be darker than the center of the fillet, almost overdone looking.

When the fish is done, pull it out and allow it to cool for at least 10 minutes before trying to remove it from the racks.

If you remove the fish too soon, you will end up with lots of little pieces – still perfectly good for eating – but not what I call “presentation quality.”

What flavor are you seeking?

As noted in earlier posts, I use a Bradley smoker with the Teflon-coated jerky racks.  Bradley smokers use various flavored bisquettes, rather than wood.  My theory is, the more delicate the fish, the more delicate the smoke flavor you want to use.  Bradley also provides cures, which I have never tried.

If you have other uses/ideas for smoked fish, please LEAVE A COMMENT to this post.  We’d love to hear them!

4 Responses

  1. Alan Davidson
    | Reply

    I don’t see where you mention the type of wood you use. We smoke mullet up in central and north Florida using oak and citrus. I personally like the citrus much better because it is a lighter taste.

    • Hi Alan – The Bradley smoker is electric and uses their various flavored bisquettes rather than wood. I have had smoked mullet from friends in the Panhandle and it is delicious! I believe they also use citrus. Thanks for your comment. ~ Capt. Chris

  2. capt bert
    | Reply

    i add another twist to this recipe…..after the fillets cool i bring them to the edge of the dock and TOSS EM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Bud Doyle
    | Reply

    In Key West this guy smoked everything, including most local fish, .and it was smoked fish of the day for happy hour at the Half Shell Raw Bar. Our favorite was dolphin, but all were great. Then he switched to salmon only, and we switched to Alonzo’s Oyster Bar

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