It seems simple, but one of the trickier meats to smoke is fish. Fish can be to dry, too mushy, too salty, or too spicy. In this article, we are going to answer 6 questions about smoking fish.
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1. How Long Does It take to smoke fish?
Most fish will not take more than two or three hours to smoke. The amount of time to smoke fish is going to vary depending on the weight, size, temperatures, and preparation used.
Fish is very delicate, and the times can vary, but not all that much. The main factor that will determine how long the fish needs to smoke will be the preparation (aka cut) of the fish.
Smoking a whole fish versus the filet will take much longer but no more than 1 hour. Fish has the fastest smoke and cook time among all the proteins. Most other proteins take 6-12 hours regularly.
2. What temperatures do you smoke fish?
For the most part, fish needs to be smoked at a temperature of about 165 to 175 degrees. You don’t want to go any higher than that because the fish is so delicate and it could dry out or overcook. Low and slow is the key to smoking fish.
Cold smoking fish is done at a temperature of 130 or lower. This is usually the temperature at which salmon or lox is created. We do not recommend cold smoking fish at home because of the risk of foodborne illnesses.
If you are planning on cold smoking, the fish at home smoking as it needs a smokehouse to prevent foodborne illnesses. Additionally, you will want to cure your fish before preventing unwanted bacteria from forming.
3. What kinds of fish are good to smoke?
The best types of fish to smoke are the ones with higher fat content such as salmon, trout, or freshwater eel. However, you can smoke just about any type of fish that you want to. You just have to be sure to treat each fish differently when you smoke it just like you would when cooking each type.
Some of the lighter, flaky white fishes are going to need to be placed in a marinade beforehand and smoked for less time at a high temperature. This kind of defeats the purpose of smoking the fish to some people but doesn’t mean it is not possible.
Make sure when smoking other types of fish that are uncommon to cut them accordingly. Some fish will hold up to the smoking process better in steaks, like tuna or sturgeon, other fish perform better as filets or whole like bass, cod, or halibut.
Other types of fish that are great to smoke are types that are considered oily such as tuna or mackerel. Although you may not generally see these types of fish smoked, it doesn’t mean they won’t hold up well in a smoker. Most people prefer to eat them prepared in other ways and, in most cases, raw or lightly seared.
The final note is to make sure you do final preparations, like whether to leave the skin on or off and remove all pin bones before smoking can be more important than your choice of fish.
4. Is it better to smoke fish whole or by the filet?
The best rule of thumb is, the bigger the fish, the better to filet it and use aside, and the smaller the fish, the better it will be for whole fish smoking. Additionally, if you want the smoke to penetrate the fish thoroughly, you will wish to smaller fish or pieces of fish.
For instance, salmon is by no means a small fish; they can get up to three or four feet long, which makes for a large fish. The side almost exclusively smokes salmon. The whole side of the fish, which is a filet, can make a great family dinner but definitely not a single serving.
Smaller fish that will cook evenly and not need to be in the smoker forever will work well in a smoker cooked whole. Try not to go over three pounds when smoking a whole fish just to make sure everything gets cooked evenly and doesn’t dry out during the smoking process.
Sometimes, people will take a much larger fish and stuff it with vegetables and herbs, then tie it back up and smoke it, but this is usually done for special occasions such as fall harvest festivals.
5. Is it better to smoke fish in an electric, gas, or charcoal smoker?
We prefer Electric smokers for fish because they have lower temperature ranges and provide more consistent smoke. For smoking fish at higher heats, we recommend pellet smokers as a versatile option that can provide even a beginner with great results every time.
Each type of smoker has its strengths and weaknesses. The trick is to match your food with the smoker performance that works best for that type of food.
Charcoal/wood offset smoker is the best match for Large cuts such as roasts or briskets. While it is a lot of maintenance to run an offset smoker, you have a broader temperature range. As a result, you will be able to adjust to the cooking style and temperature that works best for that cut.
Charcoal is outdated and takes forever to start and needs constant attention during the smoking process. For this reason, we only recommend charcoal smokers for high-end users and professional cooks that will be adding wood chunks for smoke.
Gas smokers are a cheap route to take for fuel, and it is easy to control the temperatures and flames. Also, it can be portable for camping trips. As for flavor, Gas smokers have a similar taste to electric smokers because they burn wood chips in a pan in the same manner.
An electric smoker is an excellent contraption because it is cheaper to operate than all the rest while still allowing you to add wood chips to bring different flavor profiles to your food. Plus, they are effortless to control the temperatures, timers, and variables. Most of the time, electric smokers are going to be a set it and forget it, type of situation which works excellent for all kinds of meat, not just fish.
Bonus note: Pellet smokers can be great because a high-end unit can be a great tool that can cover almost every type of meat. Because most pellet smokers run on an electric burner and auger system, every aspect can be preset and run automatically.
6. Do you have to cure the fish before you smoke it?
No, but curing your fish before smoking will not hurt your fish and can add flavor, moisture, and a level of safety. Curing is preserving your food with salt, wet or dry, by drawing out the moisture. Additionally, you can add flavor when the meat equalizes, by drawing the salt and whatever spices you have added.
Before smoking fish, usually, it needs to be placed in a brine, rub, or marinade. The brine will add moisture to the fish during the smoking process, the rub will add flavor, and a marinade will add both moisture and flavor to the fish.
When you cold smoke a fish you need to cure it before smoking it, this can also be done with hot smoking as well. Curing is required to prevent unwanted bacteria when cold smoking fish. We do not recommend cold smoking meats at home because if you don’t get a proper cure, your fish can be deadly.
If you cure your fish before hot smoking, it will increase the shelf life making your fish last longer.
We hope that answering these 6 questions about smoking fish has helped you. Our thought is for you to get a low-cost smoker and a variety of inexpensive meats like fish to test in your smoker. We hope you fall in love with smoked foods.