Smokin' Fish

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Published on: Jul. 2, 1995

Last revision: Oct. 20, 2010

of the natural water content before cooking.

Start with a solution of 1/2 cup of pickling salt per gallon of water. You can flavor this basic brine with sugar, lemon juice, onion, garlic, pickling spice or a wide variety of other seasonings.

The fish should be soaked overnight (no longer) in the refrigerator. The container in which brining is done must be either glass, ceramic or enamel coated, since the salt will corrode metal containers (even stainless steel) and taint the fish.

The Seasonings

I prefer to keep things simple. I usually season my smoked fish only with black pepper and garlic powder (not garlic salt, which dries out the fish). When cooking whole fish with the skin on, apply seasonings liberally. The flavor will seep through the skin and into the meat. When the fish is done, you can peel off the skin and discard it. Go easier on seasonings if you cook fish without skin.

You may prefer lemon pepper or a prepared seasoning for your fish. Actually, your choice of seasonings is a relatively minor factor in flavoring your fish. The important thing is the smoke.

The Smoke

To get smoke, you need wood. You can buy wood chips at many grocery stores (some stores also sell bags of wood chunks), but I prefer to get my own wood, for three reasons. First, the store-bought chi ps burn too quickly, producing too much heat and too little smoke. Second, my favorite woods aren't available in stores. Third, store-bought chips cost much more than wood culled from a friend's woodlot.

To keep my wood from burning up instead of smoking, I split it into sticks about 6 inches long. Then I soak the sticks in water for a couple of hours. Letting your woods sticks soak any longer may leach the flavoring out of the wood. Furthermore, in warm weather, the soaking wood can grow mildew, not a flavor you want in your fish.

Hickory and mesquite chips available commercially are fine, but I like a little variety. Hunting up my own smoking wood allows me to get just what I want. There is a whole smorgasbord of hardwood flavors out there waiting to be sampled, including apple, cherry, pecan and sassafras. Sassafras is my personal favorite, though finding it isn't always easy. Red oak is nice, too. It imparts a flavor reminiscent of good bourbon whiskey.

Steer clear of walnut and all evergreens - they are not suitable for smoking food.

On The Grill

For best results, you'll want to make as much smoke as possible and keep it around your fish as long as possible. My 18-inch kettle grill has three adjustable vents on the bottom to control the flow of air to the coals and one on top to control how fast smoke exits. This set-up is flexible enough to let me control the heat and feed oxygen to the coals slowly, but without extinguishing them.

Whatever kind of grill you use, the trick is to keep the heat at a level that will cook the fish slowly, giving it a chance to soak up a full, rich smoke flavor. An hour is long enough, but two hours is better. Naturally, cooking times will be longer for larger fish. But even with small ones, try to keep them in the grill as long as possible without drying them out too much.

When laying out your coals, keep them to one side of the grill. Place the fish on the opposite side of the grill. This indirect heat will allow you to cook the fish evenl y, rather than burning the lower side and leaving the upper side raw. It also makes it possible to cook the fish without turning it, which is difficult to do without tearing the delicate skin and allowing moisture to escape too quickly.

If your grill is too small to keep the fish away from direct heat, there are a couple of tricks you can use to promote slow, even cooking. One is to place a cake pan in the center of the grill and then place the fish on a wire rack atop the pan. This elevates the fish and puts an insulator between the fish and the coals. If this is impractical, rotate the grill frequently during cooking so hot spots don't overcook some of your fish. Basting the fish with lemon juice or butter will slow drying, too.

When you put your fish on the grill and close the lid, leave the bottom vents open all the way. Use the top vent to regulate the flow of air to the coals. Lift the lid from time to time to check the condition of the fish, coals and wood sticks. If you find the wood has dried

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