Earlier this summer, we were hanging out at Nickerson State Park by one of the kettle ponds. Husband’s brother was in town from Colorado, and the men were fishing while the boys and I swam. When we reconvened on the beach, an older man noticed the fishing poles and started talking to us. He’d brought his family to that campground every year for the past 20 years, and they liked to smoke trout, salmon, bluefish, whatever they could get their hooks or hands on from the nearby waters. Then he proceeded to outline his entire smoking process in great detail. An old Russian recipe, he said.
You can imagine how excited I was by this point in the conversation. Forget salmon, my head was swimming with notions of smoked bluefish. I had no note-taking apparatus apart from my feeble brain, but I wrote down as much as I could remember once we got back to our cottage rental. This is exactly the kind of puzzle I like to solve. A bunch of clues to work with, some mysterious unknowns, and the vague promise of dinner.
Back home with my charcoal grill, I got right down to business. The recipe below is what I did. It’s not an exact replica of that old family recipe, but a close accounting of what I remember from the conversation, plus some smoking tips from the Internet (specifically Dave’s Cupboard, Barefoot Kitchen Witch, and Hunter Angler Gardner Cook), and my own personal additions. No smoker necessary. The technique is for a regular old charcoal grill. The resulting fish came out so well, I couldn’t even believe it. Neither could Husband. It was great smoky fun for an afternoon (and evening, as I found myself outside in the dark at 9 pm with a headlamp unsure of how to tell when the fish was done).
A hearty thank you to the man on the beach. I hope he will forgive me—I don’t think we ever exchanged names, but I owe him a bottle of vodka.
This works for salmon, trout, or whatever other fish you feel like smoking. For wood chips, my source recommended alder, but I couldn’t find it so I used hickory instead.
1 quart cold water
1/2 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup sugar
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
1-lb. fillet of bluefish (or more!)
Freshly ground black pepper
4 cups wood chips (like alder, hickory, or apple), soaked in water
In a large baking dish or gallon-size resealable storage bag, stir together all the brine ingredients until the salt dissolves. Rinse the fish well and submerge it in the brine. Refrigerate 4-48 hours until ready to smoke. The brine adds flavor and keeps the fish moist during the smoking process, not to mention helping with preservation.
Pat the fish dry and let it sit in the refrigerator for several hours so the surface dries out further. This step enables the smoke to adhere to the outside of the fish forming a flavorful pellicle. That’s what they call the shiny, dark, lacquer-like surface of properly smoked fish. I’ve read that you know your fish is dry enough when the surface feels slightly tacky, but mine never felt more than just dry and it came out fine. The point is, you don’t want to smoke a wet piece of fish or it won’t turn out as smoky as you want.
Smoke the fish at 200°F for the first hour, then 150°F for the next 2-3 hours until done. For a charcoal grill, you need to get your coals started at least an hour ahead of time, maybe two, in order to give them time to cool to the right temperature. I filled my chimney starter less than halfway up, lit them, let them ash over for 20 minutes, then spread the ashy coals on one side of the grill. I replaced the grate, adjusted the bottom vent so it was halfway closed, and replaced the lid, making sure the top vent was fully open. I inserted a thermometer through the top vent to keep track of the temperature, and when it was 225°-230°F, I added 6 or 7 more coals, and a handful of wet wood chips over the top. Then I sprinkled black pepper over the fish and put it on the other side of the grate away from the coals for indirect heat, skin side down, and closed the lid.
I watched the temperature creep slowly back up to around 200°F. Then I’d check the heat every 15 or 20 minutes. If it went over 200°F, I’d close the bottom vent a bit. If it got too cool, I’d open the bottom vent a bit. (If you close the bottom vent entirely, you’ll put the fire out, so open up the lid and double check that the vent is still partly open if you're not sure.) When the smoke stopped coming out of the top vent, I added a handful of wood chips on top of the coals. Every hour or so, I added more new coals to the pile to keep the heat going. Oh yeah, and you want to do all this while opening the grill lid as infrequently as possible to prevent the giant influxes of oxygen that stoke the heat. There’s an art to this, and I’m still learning, but this worked for me. The heat stayed between 150°F and 220°F for four hours, until the fish felt firm but not dried out like jerky. For food safety reasons, you want the internal temperature of the fish to reach 160°F at some point in the cooking process. Consider that my disclaimer.
Smoked fish will last up to 2 weeks in the fridge, but ours was gone long before then. Eat it on toasted baguette with goat cheese, red onion, capers, and dill. Flake it onto salads. Make a sandwich. Or paté. Mix it with pasta. Serve it over curried rice. It’s delicious!