19 August, 2008

Smoked Bluefish

One of the best things about living in New England is the ready availability of bluefish. A cold-water Atlantic predator fish, they are a common sport and food fish here and are especially popular along the Connecticut coastline during the annual run that goes from mid-July through August.

Blues have dark and somewhat purple-bluish flesh which is oily and tends to be on the "fishy" side, similar to mackerel. If it's handled properly - iced immediately after catching, and kept cold - the flavor is no stronger than other oily fish like salmon or swordfish. People who prefer very mild white fish often don't care much for blue, however.

Personally, I love bluefish. It's great baked or grilled or to add a richer flavor to a fish chowder, and I also like cutting fillets into small bites and making "bluefish nuggets." But most of all, I love it smoked.

Smoking bluefish isn't complicated, but it does take some time. The process is similar to making homemade bacon with the biggest difference (besides the brine itself) being that the fish doesn't have to sit in a cure for a week.

Preparing the fish:

Start by making a brine. You can make as much as you'll need to completely cover the fish - I usually make it by the quart:

1 quart water
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup kosher or pickling salt
1/4 cup sugar
3 or 4 bay leaves, crushed
2 tablespoons mustard seed
1 tablespoon whole peppercorns

Combine the water and soy sauce. Add the salt and sugar and stir or shake to dissolve completely. Pour over the bluefish to cover in a shallow pan and add the bay leaves, mustard seed, and peppercorns. Cover and refrigerate while brining - a minimum of four hours.

Brining the bluefish is important. It adds to and enhances the flavor, of course, but it also helps the fish to retain moisture during the smoking process. You should leave the fish in the brine for at least four hours, but it's okay to let it go longer (even a couple of days if you're not going to get to it right away - the brine is a great preservative also.) Just remember that the longer you leave it in the brine, the saltier it may be.

Getting ready for the smoker:

Smoke doesn't like to stick to wet surfaces, and the heat of the smoker can drive moisture out of the fish. And so, the next step is as important as the brine. When you take the fish out of the brine, place the fillets on a metal rack set above a few layers of newspapers. Allow the fish to dry for several hours, until the surface of the fish is dry and feels a bit tacky to the touch. It will take at least three hours, but if it's a damp day it can take five hours or more. If you're squeamish about leaving the fish out that long, make room in the refrigerator for the racks and dry them in there.

That dry, sticky surface is called a "pellicle," and it is formed by proteins on the surface of the fish as they are exposed to air. The pellicle will give the smoke a good surface to adhere to and protect the fish from giving up too much moisture while it's in your smoker.

Smoking the fish:

When the fish is dry, transfer it to the racks of your smoker. Bring the temperature of the smoker up to about 200 F for the first hour of smoking, then drop it to 150 F for another two hours or so.

At the end of that time, average-sized fillets will be done - moist but firm, flaky, and dry, perfect for snacking or using as an ingredient in a dip or paté.

Larger, thicker fillets may need more time. Just extend the time at 150 F for as long as needed to get the firm texture you're looking for.



The delicious finished product will look something like this - a rich chestnut brown color, slightly darker around the edges, tender and moist but firm enough to pick up without falling totally apart. The flavor will be amazing: one of my friends described it as "fish bacon."



Smoke notes:

Bluefish has a strong flavor, so choose your smoking wood accordingly. You may want to go with an assertive smoke like mesquite, hickory, or even walnut or cherry to hold up to the taste of the fish rather than choosing a mild wood like maple or apple.

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19 comments:

Kian said...

I am so glad to read this post because I love blue fish. In all forms. Smoked or otherwise. A friend of mine has a blue fish and arugula salad recipe that's incredible. I will have to try to smoke some blue fish and have him make the salad for me.

Josh Van Horsen said...

Thanks for posting this.
Excellent instructions! I followed your direction exactly, and am finishing up my first batch of smoked bluefish. This taste just as good as the stuff we were paying $12 a pound for on the cape.

Tony V said...

I bought a propane smoker and this was my first time ever smoking. I used your receipe, but did not use the salt because of a sodium restricted diet. I also used a low sodium soy sauce. The end result was perfect and the bluefish was as good as store bought.
One question on smoking ... do I toss the wood that wasn't completely burned but is black or charred and start with clean wood each time?
Thanks for the advice.

Dave said...

Tony - Glad the recipe worked out for you. Smoked bluefish is one of my alltime favorites.

You can keep any of the wood chips that don't burn up for next time, even the charred ones. That's what I do, too.

Anonymous said...

Dave, your recipe is great! Every time I have done this, it has been a huge hit with family & friends. We caught a ton of blues today & I am now be using your recipe for the third time this summer.

Anonymous said...

Dave,

In addition to blue fish, I am interested in smoking scallops. Have you ever done them and if so, would you be willing to share your comments.

Thanks --

Dan

Dave said...

Dan -

Scallops have a delicate flavor and texture and don't take very long to do in the smoker. Get your smoking chamber pre-heated, then put the scallops in and put the wood chips on to smoulder. Bring the smoker up to about 350 F and hold it there 15 minutes, and the scallops will be done.

If you have citrus wood (orange or lemon tree) it's great, but if not a good subtle fruit tree like apple is fine.

Commercial outfits often use cherry for smoking scallops, but I don't like that as much because the flavor is so strong it covers up the scallop taste IMO.

Scott K said...

Dave:
Thank you....thank you....thank you.
I have used your method for smoking bluefish several times...and get nothing but EXCELLENT results and comments.
I just wanted to provide some comments to you for smoking using an "everyday" gas grill. I have a three burner grill where the sections of heat are split 1/3 left, center, and right (instead of front to back) I use EVERYTHING about your brine and drying methods, then when I am ready to smoke I heat just one of the burners (left or right side) and place the fish on cookie cooling racks above the cooler side. The one burner on low usually provides the proper temperature.

This is just my 2 cents... and a slight variation for us poor slobs who don't (yet) own a smoker.

Thank you again,
Scott

Lisa Kaye said...

Dave, Thank you for posting this. I have been bringing a good portion of the bluefish we catch to a local smokehouse for years but have always wanted to try doing it myself. My first batch is soaking in brine as I write this. Given previous posts I have no doubt that it will be fantastic - much better than the somewhat dried out version I have been paying to have smoked.

I also wanted to thank Scott K. for his input as I am another of those poor slobs who does not (yet) own a smoker and will be doing this on my gas grill.

Finally, I had a question that I hope someone can answer: Approximately how long will smoked bluefish last in the fridge? I know that both the brining and smoking help to preserve the fish, but for how long? And, would that time be extended if I were to vacume pack it like the smoked fish they sell in the store - which is good for up to eight months?

Thanks again and I will let you know how it turns out.

Dave said...

Scott - Thanks for posting your grill-smoking method. That's going to be really helpful for folks without a dedicated smoker.

Lisa - After it's brined and smoked, I've found that it keeps for about a week or so. One of the great things about an oily fish like a bluefish is that there's no doubt when it starts to go - you can taste it "turning" before you can smell it.

I have one of those vacuum packers, but I've never tried using it for smoked fish. I'm not sure I'd trust even vacuum sealed home-smoked fish for eight months, though. But if you were to vacuum pack the smoked fish and then freeze it, it would certainly be okay for a long time, and it would thaw pretty quickly.

Anonymous said...

Approximately how big are the bluefish filets in your smoked bluefish recipe? It doesn't mention the size in your recipe.

Dave said...

I normally buy whole bluefish at a local Asian market; the whole fish are usually in the eight- to ten-pound range, and yield two fillets about 3 to 5 pound each range. Bluefish fillets from the supermarket, where you usually don't have the option of buying a whole fish, will tend to be a somewhat smaller, usually 1½ to 2 pounds each. The method of smoking remains the same no matter how large the fillets you have. The most important thing is to have enough of the brine to cover the fish during brining. That's why I gave the recipe scaled to make a quart at a time. That way, if you've found a quart isn't enough, you can easily whip up another quart as needed.

Mike L said...

Regarding Scallops.... I did this a few years ago and at the same time I also did shrimp. I used a plastic bag to coat the shrimp in Old Bay Seasoning and put them on with the Scallops. They came out great. Nice and spicy.

Jeff S. said...

Dave, and Lisa

While the smoked blue fish will last a week to ten days in the fridge, unlike fresh blue, you can freeze the smoke fillets for up to a few months and they are perfect for pates and addition to soups and stews.

Paul Morrison said...

I've used this recipe for two years. The problem with bluefish is that I can catch it in the summer but I want to stretch it out. Smoke it using this recipe, vacuum seal and freeze it. Even for Christmas parties it is still perfect for making bluefish paté.

big crow said...

I've smoked bluefish on cape cod Massachusetts for years on nothing more than a smokey-joe with a good bed of hardwood coals usually local oak branches and smoke them with local bayberry - extremely araomatic. 4 fresh filets in 2 hours done to perfection, no brine or prep,keeps in the fridge for up to 3 weeks, freezes well. Mostly I use it to flavor up fish stews for the Christmas holidays....and yes it's the only "pate" I've ever cared about...keep a tight line :)

MFM said...

Thanks for the recipe Dave! A friend of mine who owns 247 Lures usually catches stripers in Fishers Island Sound. However, this time of year he catches a lot of bluefish.

He doesn't care for the oily flavor but remembered having smoked bluefish in the past that was really good. So he provided the fish and asked me if I'd be willing to try smoking it.

This was my first attempt and I followed your recipe for half of the fish. For the other half I substituted Fish Sauce for the Soy, Sea Salt for the Kosher Salt, and Honey (non-clove) for the Sugar.

I used Alder wood chips for the smoke since I really like the flavor it imparts on fish like salmon.

I ended up smoking all the fillets (8 in all) at around 200 degrees for three hours. Both brining methods produced a very tasty result.

Unknown said...

Hey Dave.
I'm wondering what kind of smoker you use.
Also, does the fish flavor impregnate the smoker, causing the next meat you smoke to taste like fish?

Recipe looks awesome!

Dave said...

I've used several different kinds of smoker over the years. I started with a small Brinkman charcoal smoker, then moved up to a gas fired "box" smoker, and nowadays I use a larger smokehouse built around a commercial bakery rack. No matter what size or type of smoker you have just keep the temp constant and the smoke steady and you'll have success.

Wash the racks after you're done and clean the drip pan when it cools and you won't have any trouble with a fishy odor (or lingering aftertaste) in the smoker.