By: Buzz Ramsey
Originally printed in the Northwest Steelheader Magazine in 2013.
When was the last time you took inventory of the fish population in your freezer? Unfortunately, fish doesn't keep very well when frozen. The more time they spend in the freezer the less desirable they become. And while there are ways to make fish last in the freezer for six to twelve months, dropping fillets in a zip-top bag won’t get you much past 60 days.
Surprisingly to some, fresh frozen fish lend themselves particularly well to the smoking process; you see, freezing causes cell tissue to burst, so fish that have been frozen take on the flavor of the brine ingredients and smoke better. You can really impress your friends by preparing your freezer fish this way.
Prepare your fish for brining and smoking by cutting your fillets into stripes about an inch wide, making sure to leave the skin in place, then thoroughly rinse these fish chunks in cold water and immerse them into your brine solution.
The brine recipe we use most often includes a mixture of 1/2 cup salt, 1 cup sugar and 2 quarts water - this is the right amount for 10-to-20 pounds of fillets. Pre-mix these ingredients in a stainless steel or plastic container and immerse your fillets into your brining solution. Keep in mind that almost any container will work for brining, but avoid aluminum containers as they can taint the taste of your fish. Then place your filled container in the refrigerator (or cooler with ice), for a minimum of six hours, stirring at least once during the process.
You can add other flavorings to your brine solution. Two of our favorite additives are wine (usually one of the fruity varieties) or soy sauce. Amounts vary depending on taste, but you might start off with a cup of wine and/or a quarter cup of soy sauce – just mix it in.
After six to twelve hours, or overnight, remove the fillets from your brine solution and rinse thoroughly in cold water. Remove excess moisture with paper towels and place your fillets on the smoker grills skin side down, which helps prevent sticking after the smoking job is complete.
A way to add additional flavorings to your fish is to sprinkle spices directly onto your fillets after the brining process – this can be done when the fillets are first placed on your smokehouse grills; for example, you can coat your fish with liquid brown sugar and sprinkle with your favorite spices, which might include ground onion, garlic or black pepper.
It’s important to allow your fish to air dry for at least one hour before placing in your smokehouse. Allowing your fillets to air dry will enhance the color, texture and flavor of your fish, and is the secret of many smoking enthusiasts. Then it is time to place your loaded rack in your portable smokehouse.
We use Little and/or Big Chief Smokehouses (we have several) when smoking fish or game, which are fired with an electric heating element that not only burns the wood flavor fuel that creates the smoke but completes the curing process of slowly drying you fish. These portable smokehouses are designed to be used outside, well away from any combustible material. The smoking and curing process will take 8-to-12 hours, depending on the outside temperature, thickness of your fillets, and the quantity of fish.
Wood chips impart their unique flavor to the fish so their selection is important. Hickory is the all-around favorite for fish, jerky, steaks, ribs - almost any food item. Other wood flavors are available such as apple, cherry and alder, which impart a mild taste and what we use when adding smoke flavor to game birds, poultry or cheese. Mesquite wood imparts a distinct flavor that is popular for jerky or adding smoke-flavor to ribs or steaks – it doesn't take much mesquite to add a lot of wood flavor.
The better quality wood flavor chips (like those produced by Smokehouse Products) have had the bark removed, which is bitter, and are ground and dried before packaging. A pan full of chips will smoke for about an hour before being consumed, and even though the entire smoking/cooking/drying process may take up to 12 hours, you will only need 2-to-3 pans of wood fuel to add the correct amount of smoke flavor.
After the smoking process is complete, we allow our fillets to cool and then store in a brown paper bag with several paper towels folded at the bottom. Keeping your smoke house treats in a paper bag and stored in your refrigerator will keep them fresh tasting for up to three weeks. Don’t let your frozen fish become freezer burned or poor tasting by remaining in your freezer too long. Wow yourself and friends by smoking them now.