Smoking is one of the best ways to preserve fish and has been for centuries. The secondary benefit of smoking is that it results in a flavor profile that many people find delightful. Since the advent of the household refrigerator, fish have mostly been smoked for flavor rather than to keep them from going bad. These days, fish are smoked in one of two ways: hot smoking for cooking and flavoring the fish; cold smoking, which is purely for preservation.
The general rule of fish-smoking is that the fattier fish is, the better it is for smoking but smoking is also good for lean fish even though they are not ideal. Fish that has very little fat is likely to be blander and need the flavor of smoke more. In any case, the type of fish you choose will greatly affect the results. Here is a look at some of the best fish to smoke:
Arguably, the most popular fish for smoking is salmon. Not only is it oily enough to stay moist, smoking greatly enhances the flavor of an already tasty fish. Smoked salmon with cream cheese on a bagel is beloved by many people with good reason. What smoke will do for the flavor of fish depends a lot on the wood you choose.
You will often see cedar wood referred to in connection with smoking salmon. Using cedar to smoke salmon — or anything else for that matter — is probably a serious mistake. It is quite resinous and unsafe for any kind of open-flame cooking. Cedar wood belongs in the same category as pine. True cedar planking transfers flavor to salmon via steam rather than smoke.
A good choice for smoking salmon is hickory, which gives the fish a nutty smoke flavor that we often associate with bacon. Hickory is the most popular smoke wood for a reason and can enhance the umami character of your salmon. Alder is another widely used smoking wood and is commonly used with fish because of its light flavor.
The fat content of mackerel makes it good for smoking. Also important is the fact that in comparison to the other fish on this list, mackerel is incredibly inexpensive. The fact that it is loaded with healthy fats means that it won’t dry out after an extended time on your grill or in your smoker.
Mackerel is known for its strong fishy taste, which makes it controversial — some people love it while others find it unpleasant. To balance that flavor, you need a smoking wood that is on the strong side but not too strong. You want to complement the mackerel flavor without completely overwhelming it. Oak is considered the ideal wood for mackerel since its smoke has an intense, but not overly intense, flavor profile.
Trout are relatively small, oily and have the perfect flavor for smoking. The texture of trout is mild with the firm flesh possessing a fine flakiness that makes it dense in a way that some compare to steak. Its flavor is delicate as well, which means that the ideal woods for smoking trout will also be mild. You will need to use light and fruity woods like alder, cherry, or apple to avoid overpowering trout. You can also cook trout on a cedar plank in the same way that you would cook salmon.