A long time ago my then girlfriend (now wife) bought me a smoker as a Christmas present. However, the following years spent living in city centre apartments gave scant opportunity to ever try it out and so it languished in my parents’ garage gathering dust … until now!
Finally, we left the city and found a house and a bit of space, so it was time crack open the box (which had never even been opened) and figure it out. Indeed, with the trout season round the corner and romantic visions of ‘smoking my own’, I was keen to have a few practice attempts as, from what I had read in my research, it all seemed quite a complicated and lengthy process.
There seem to be infinite ways of smoking and curing meat and fish, with processes lasting from a few hours to several days. However, with a wife, daughter and job to juggle I couldn’t afford to spend days carefully preparing my trout and tending the wood chips to ensure an even smoke and temperature, so I had to figure out a simple, low maintenance method.
The approach described below is a combination of techniques I found online and in books and, for a first attempt, it turned out really well.
The first thing to get your head around with smoke curing is that there are three key phases: (i) brining / salting, (ii) drying and (iii) smoking. The timing and approach on all these seems to vary widely depending on, amongst other things, the size and type of meat or fish to be preserved, as well as personal taste.
Brining / salting
Brining or salting was originally for the purpose of preserving the meat or fish before it could be smoked, however nowadays this is less of a problem given we have fridges. So today, this first stage is more for imparting extra flavour before the smoking process. Brining entails creating a salt-based solution and soaking your meat or fish for a long time. However, when dealing with small / smaller quantities of fish a ‘dry’ brine can be used. This was the approach I used by simply mixing, in equal parts, brown sugar and coarse salt together with some finely chopped dill. My cleaned rainbow trout were then simply coated in the salt mix, covered in cling film and then left in the fridge for a day.
In the evening, the fish were removed from the fridge and the salt, sugar and dill washed off with cold water. After washing, the fish were then patted dry with kitchen paper before being placed back in the fridge for the drying process. The purpose of the drying process is to allow the fish to develop a slightly sticky membrane (or pellicle) which facilitates the smoke particles later to settle on the fish. These smoke deposits, along with the salt already absorbed in stage one, inhibit the development of bacteria and so preserve the product. To further aid the drying (and later smoking) it helps if you try to keep the cavity of the fish open – I used rosemary twigs for this.
After a night in the fridge, the fish had dried further, but most importantly had developed a nice pellicle.
The next job was to prepare the smoker. This was a case of lighting a small fire in the bottom tray of the smoker and filling the rest of the tray with saw dust. The fire slowly smoulders through the saw dust creating the smoke.
The fish were then hooked through the eye sockets and hung in the smoker, the lid closed and that was it – pretty simple. The fish were smoked for about 2-3 hours. During this time I had to light a new fire in the tray and refill it with sawdust three times. One point to note is to avoid the making the fire too big as the temperature inside the smoker will get too hot and you’ll end up barbecuing rather than smoking your fish. Once or twice in the process I splashed a few drops of water on the twigs when they flared up a bit.
Once done, the skin was very dry and could be easily peeled off (it helped to cut a line down the spine with a sharp knife or scissors). The flanks could then be taken off to allow two relatively bone-free fillets to be served. They were sprinkled with black pepper, chopped dill and a squeeze of lemon, and plated up alongside some brown toast and a simple salad. It made a great brunch with a glass of chilled Reisling – not bad for a first attempt!
From what I can see the variations are limitless in terms of technique – short / long or hot / cold smoke, different brining / salting recipes and trying various types of wood to infuse different flavours. I’m really looking forward to experimenting over the coming months with various fruit woods. Hopefully I’ll be able to do it ‘properly’ with some trout I’ve caught myself rather than bought from the supermarket … tight lines all for the coming season!