Smoked fish is the fish that has been preserved (cured) by smoking. Smoking is one of the oldest methods of preserving fish and other foods and remains one of the most popular methods. Our ancestors used this technique over two thousand years ago to protect fish and other foods from the spread of bacteria, fungi, and molds. This is achieved by the hot smoke, which causes dehydration of moisture from the fish. Dehydration leads to increased solute concentration in the fish. The smoke can also cook the food, and also it has antioxidant and antibacterial properties, all of which help to protect the smoked fish while preserving the nutrients.
Methods for Preparing Smoked Fish
There are two main processes (methods) for smoking fish in traditional British cures. These include the hot smoking method and the cold smoking method.
With the cold smoking methods, which is the most used, the fish is cured by smoking at a smoke temperature which should not rise higher than 33°C. This method doesn’t cook the fish at all, and protein does not coagulate. Only the smoke changes the latter: it penetrates the fibres of the fish, changes the pH value and forms a small crust around it. Any fish product smoked using the cold smoking method should first be cooked before it is eaten; except for smoked salmon, which is eaten raw.
Video on how to cold smoke fish
In hot smoking, the intention is to smoke the fish and cook its flesh at the same time. Hot smoking gives fish a nice smokey flavour. In this method, the fish is cured by smoking at a temperature of 70-80°C. Since the flesh is cooked, you can eat the hot smoked fish products without any further cooking. Hot smoking is often simpler compared to cold smoking. However, hot smoked fish does not keep as long as the one cured with cold smoking.
In countries like Britain, where the popularity for cold-smoked products, eaten steaming hot, in preference to the more continental hot smoked products, eaten cold, has existed for a long time, this can be attributed and traced back to climate. Cold smoking using traditional methods is only possible in a cool environment like Britain’s, and cold weather hot food is appreciated most. Although these days the eating habits of different nations are not so clearly defined, the knowledge and skills that mark out the genuine product from imitations, continue to reside in the region which has had the longest association with the product in question, whether this is Camembert cheese, Parma ham or Smoked fish.
The introduction of the mechanical Kiln has made hot smoking of species like trout, mackerel and sprats more common in Britain but historically the two main hot smoked products were buckling, made from herring, and Arbroath smokies, made from small haddocks.
Selecting and Preparing the Fish
For high quality smoked fish products, the process should start from the fish buying step. You should buy the right species of fish suitable for smoking; whose condition dramatically changes as it goes through its annual breeding phases. Then the fish preparation and filleting steps are also essential for obtaining a good quality smoked fish. To remove loose scales and slime, entire fish should be washed first, then gutted and beheaded if necessary. To remove traces of blood, the abdominal cavity should be cleaned, and any black belly wall lining removed. Then the fish is re-washed, trimmed and filleted. Proper filleting skills are also a bonus.
Brine the fish
With either technique, the smoking process begins with immersing the fish or fish fillets fish in brine to remove much of the water. The brine also helps to give fist flavour. Depending on the size of the fish and the season of the year the fillets are left in the brine for ten to fifteen minutes. For most products, the recommended brine strength is 80 °; a stronger brine decreases immersion time but has the downside that salt will crystallize into unattractive white patches on the skin surface after the fish is dried. If you use a brine with strength below 80 °, the salt will easily and evenly penetrate and distribute into the fish flesh; however, the residence time would be longer. This makes 80 ° brine the most realistic compromise.
For spices, we prefer a mixture with a good ratio of salt and sugar, as well as spices for the perfect taste. You can also lightly mix salt, brown sugar, and Montreal-style steak seasonings for an incomparable result!
Afterwards, the fillets are allowed to drain on stainless steel rods called speats. The speats of fillets are then put in smokehouse chimneys at the end of the working day and smoking is then carried out overnight. These chimneys are one metre by two metres square and up to ten metres high. Chimneys of most smokehouses are designed with openings at top and bottom. These openings allow a draught of cool fresh air to mix with the smoke as it rises to produce the unique ‘cold smoking’ needed by the process.
There is also a door part on each chimney, through which control of the smoking process is possible as well as moving and removing the fillets whenever appropriate. As an added advantage in old chimneys, their wall has gathered a coating of tar over many years – essential in imparting the unique flavouring that can not be produced by any other method.
The smoke for smoking the fish in the smokehouse is generated from smoking wood or, most commonly sawdust, which is filled in the shallow pit at the base of each chimney. The quantity of already smouldering sawdust applied to the fresh sawdust to considerably start the burn alters with the season and temperature, with less need in summer. This variability caused mainly by changes in temperature and humidity can also be regulated by altering the amount of air in the laid sawdust. This is done by removing the air trapped in it: the more the sawdust is compressed, the slower they burn.
Modern Smokers (Kiln) Vs. Traditional Smokehouse Fish Smoking
Unlike smoking fish in a kiln (mechanical smokers)- which is easy, even for people with little experience of fish smoking, successful traditional smoking of fish in smokehouse chimneys require expertise/experience. This experience can only be learned over several years, with the knowledge being also passed down from father to son.
This is in contrast to the modern mechanical Kiln, a sealed electric oven that is simply operated by turning dials. However, the smoked fish from mechanical Kiln never has the same distinctive taste and aroma as the traditionally smoked product. Traditional fish smoking is an overnight process taking much longer than using a mechanical kiln. Early the next morning the first speats of fillets are taken from the chimneys.The speats nearest the fires are taken out first with the higher ones being removed in batches over the next few hours. An experienced fish smoker can tell when the fillets are ready simply by touch.
The mixture of smoke and cold air that has passed over the fillets ensures that the process requires little heat, and it only takes a short time for them to cool. Once this has happened, the fillets are packed into shallow cartons weighing between three and five kilos. Rapid chilling brings the temperature of the fillets to below 5 degrees Celsius. Then you then have a finished smoked fish product, which can be eaten or transported for distribution.
In summary, to make smoked fish, you can use either of two methods; hot smoking or cold smoking. This can be done in a kiln, traditional smokehouse with Chimneys or using a modern smoker. You should start by selecting a good quality fish suitable for smoking. Using/smoking stale raw material (fish) will give you inferior smoked fish product. Especially for hot smoking, chilled wet fish or thawed frozen fish should be used.
FAQ about Smoked Fish
What kind of fish can be smoked?
Here at homecler, we say that any fish can be smoked in a smoker or smokehouse, and it will be delicious. However, if you want a moist, tender, smoked fish with great smoke flavours, you should go with fattier fish such as sea bass, salmon, tuna, sailfish etc. This is because, in contrast to leaner fish, fattier fish absorb smoke better.
Is smoked fish safe to eat?
Smoked fish, especially hot smoked fish, is safe to eat without any further cooking. But the cold smoked fish should be cooked further, to an internal temperature of 74 C (165 F) before consumption. The only health concern about smoked fish is the increased risk of cancer, which may be as a result of components from the smoking woods. There is a concern that smoked products (including fish) could be ladened with cancer-causing effects and other disease risk factors which manifests much later in life. Also, some people could use smoke aromas (derived from the fractionation and purification of the smoke from burning woods that are not contaminated with potentially poisonous chemicals). Some compounds in these aromas could cause adverse health effects if consumed above specified amounts.
How long will Smoked fish last?
Smoked fish, when packaged/appropriately sealed, will last up to 2-3 weeks unopened and under refrigeration. If kept in the freezer, it can last up to 3-6 months . Once the package is opened, the smoked fish should be used within three days. That is when you can fully enjoy its distinct smokier flavour and taste.
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