Smokin' Fish

By Jim Low | July 2, 1995
From Missouri Conservationist: Jul 1995

But if all you have is a kettle grill, you still can compete with your smoker-equipped friends. The key is having a grill that can be closed reasonably tight. Any grill with a close-fitting lid will do. Here's how to proceed.

The Fish

I don't know any kind of fish whose flavor isn't improved by grilling. Barbecued trout rivals imported smoked salmon for flavor. Smoked striped bass reminds me of the grilled halibut fillets served in four-star restaurants. Bluegill, catfish, even nongame fish are taste treats after grilling. I've never had the good fortune to sample smoked sturgeon, but I'm told the cooked critter is as delicious as the l ive fish is ugly.

Preparation prior to cooking is pretty much the same as for other methods of fish cookery. Before cooking striped bass, carp and other fish with red meat along the flanks, it's best to skin the fish and remove the strong flavored dark meat along the midline. (Skinning and removing fat is a good idea if your fish comes from waters that are under a fish consumption advisory from the Missouri Department of Health. In some cases it is okay to eat fish from these waters in moderation. For more information on the safety of fish in Missouri, call Gale Carlson at the Missouri Department of Health, 1-800-392-7245.)

Whole fish work best. Trout need only be gutted. White bass, sunfish and others must be scaled first. Leaving the skin intact holds in juices, allowing you to cook the fish slowly, so it can soak up the wonderful smoke flavor without drying out.

There are times when cooking fish without skin is desirable. The skin of some fish imparts a strong flavor. And grilling whole fish l arger than three or four pounds is impractical unless your grill is a heck of a lot bigger than mine is, so you are better off filleting and skinning them.

When grilling fish without the skin, check the fillets or steaks frequently to avoid overcooking. Actually, "overcooking" is a relative term. Personally, I prefer my smoked fish tender and juicy. However, if you want to cook your fish to the point where they are so dehydrated that they no longer need refrigeration, my definition of "overcooked" no longer applies.

Brining is a technique used to hasten the drying process and enhance the flavor of dried fish. Basically, brining is just soaking your fish in saltwater, which draws out much 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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