We have entered the part of the year where it is finally appropriate for everyone to put away winter food—roasts, stews, squash, casseroles—and roll out the grill. It can be frustrating, though, because it’s early enough in the season that a lot of the stuff I like to eat fresh, or cook fast, isn’t really in season yet. But who the hell wants to eat winter food on a beautiful, balmy, sunny late-spring/early-summer day?
Sure, you can ram your fingers in your ears and pretend you’re eating well as you work your way through the mealy, greenhouse tomatoes of spring. Or you can eat food that maybe isn’t especially season-specific, in preparations that both make use of and compliment the beautiful weather. In other words, you can use your grill to smoke some fish.
Smoked fish is delicious, which may come as a surprise to those of you who associate it exclusively with Slavic grandfathers. We are making this for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with Slavic grandfather cosplay—fish is good to eat, and this is a particularly delicious way of cooking it. Beyond that, though, I have to say, there’s something really excellent about successfully smoking something, especially something as delicate as a nice slab of fish: the soot-covered hands; the careful maintenance of a steady, smoldering fire; the selection of healthy chunks of deeply aromatic wood; the billowing smoke; the slow darkening of your selected protein. Smoking is fun! It’s easy to see why twee dipshit hipster urban lumberjack types have taken to it. Rest assured, you don’t have to be one of those to make smoked fish.
Here’s how this will go: you’re gonna brine some fish for a while, then you’re gonna let the fish dry some, then you’re gonna use low, indirect heat and a big-ass cloud of smoke to slow-cook the fish to perfection. You’ll need all of the following: some fish, some water, some kosher salt, some honey, some spices, one or two bay leaves, a pile of lump charcoal, and some good-smelling wood.
Let’s start with the fish. The most popular smoked fish—the one that you’ve probably had the most of—is salmon. It’s likely that most of the “smoked salmon” you’ve had in your life was, in fact, lox. And that most of the non-lox “smoked salmon” you’ve had in your life was, in fact, cold-smoked. And probably that some of the non-non-lox “smoked salmon” you’ve had in your life was, in fact, Nova lox, which is also cold-smoked. If you’re like me, the result of all this is probably a somewhat confused notion of just what the hell smoked fish is all about.
Here’s the thing: lox is cured but never smoked. Nova lox, which is only subtly different from lox, is cold-smoked after curing. You will hear people refer to both of these things as “smoked salmon,” because they are very similar, and one of them is, technically, smoked. But because the smoking is done at or below 80 degrees, both lox and Nova lox are, technically, raw. Where this gets even more stupid and confusing is in the case of salmon specifically sold as “smoked salmon,” where some huge percentage of this stuff is also cold-smoked, and so it, too, is raw, but it is also somehow not Nova lox. Salmon, it turns out, has a gift for obfuscation matched only by the Clintons.
I like raw fish. In fact, I think raw fish is probably, in the end, the very best thing to eat on the whole planet. This, however, will not be a recipe for starting with raw fish and ending with raw fish. Here we are using the word “smoked” to mean “cooked in smoke,” so that the fish, in the end, will be flaky and done and also smoked.
All of this is a long way of saying if you’re hoping to end up with something like lox—raw, cool, sliced, translucent—you are going to be disappointed. However, this presents a great opportunity to break away from your salmon dependency and broaden your smoked fish horizons. The best fish for smoking will be a fillet of any of the fattier fishes: bluefish, catfish, trout, herring, mackerel, swordfish, etc. Bluefish fillets are fucking huge. Catfish is manageable, if boring. Mackerel is delicious, but can be tough to find. For my money, the best non-salmon fish for smoking is trout. If you can, grab yourself a couple fillets of rainbow trout. This will give you a nice haul of delicious smoked fish, and it will be special, because it will not be salmon.
Or, fine, grab some salmon fillets. What the fuck do I know.
Let’s make a brine. You’re gonna need a big non-metal bowl or tupperware for this. You will remember, perhaps, that the proportions of an effective brine can be downright terrifying. Gird your loins, my friends, and add a quarter cup of kosher salt to three cups of cool water in a small saucepan. Get that over medium heat and heat it just until the salt has dissolved in the water. Get it off the heat and stir into it a quarter cup of honey. Cool. Obviously we will not be pouring hot water over our fish, or we would be calling this “poached fish.” In order to cool the brine, dump in two big handfuls of ice and stir it around until it has melted. In the end, you want four cups of liquid, into which a quarter cup of salt and a quarter cup of honey have been dissolved. Now squeeze all the juice out of a lemon in there, and drop in 10 or so peppercorns and a bay leaf. That’s a good brine, right there. Of course, if a healthy splash of beer or bourbon or rum should find its way in there, hey, man, shit happens.
While we’re here, you should feel free to get funky with your brine. This could be sheer ambition—add allspice and cloves and cardamom and grapefruit juice and, I dunno, sherry vinegar!—or it can take the form of just using whatever shit you happen to have in your house. Maybe instead of lemon you’ve got an aging orange in your vegetable crisper. Maybe instead of honey you’ve got a rock-hard brick of light brown sugar from that time you made French Toast nine years ago. Just stick to this basic formula: equal parts sugar and salt, a not-too-aggressive helping of something acidic, some whole spice pods, and a bay leaf. And maybe a splash of the hard stuff.
OK. You’ve got your brine in a big non-metal bowl or tupperware. Slide your fillets down in the brine, cover the whole thing, and sock it away in your fridge. It’s gonna need some time for the brine to soak into the fish. If you let this go for, say, a day, you’re going to have some aggressively flavored smoked fish, but it’s also gonna be salty as all hell. If you grow impatient and get going after, say, an hour, there will have been no real point in making the brine in the first place. Give it, say, three hours in the brine before you start making a smoky fire. By the time the fish is finally over heat, it will have been close to four hours— that’s plenty of time for salty, lemony, spicy brine to soak into your fish and make it good.
Here you are thinking, “Hey, no way it takes me a whole dat-gum hour to make a dat-gum fire!” This is no ordinary fire! See, normally you dump a whole bag of match-light briquettes into your shitty little charcoal grill, hastily pile them up into a little pyramid shape, dump a couple lit matches on there, and that’s it. Man make fire! That’s fine! For, you know, hot dogs and burgers and kabobs, do your thing. When smoking things, though—and especially when smoking fish, which has more delicate flavor than, say, a sauce-slathered rack of pork spare ribs—you will not want the aroma of fire accelerant (however mild) wafting around inside your covered grill. You will absolutely taste it on the fish, and it will taste bad, and you will feel bad, and you will be right to feel bad.
For this fire you’re going to need two things: lump hardwood charcoal, and a few good chunks of aromatic hardwood. Lump charcoal is just hunks of burned hardwood, with no binding and no filler to keep it in one shape or another. This is good, in the sense that there’s no tar or weird particulate industrial shit cooking onto your food. It’s annoying, though, because there’s no consistent shape to the stuff—it’s literally just chunks of burned wood—and nothing to make it catch fire other than ingenuity and perseverance.
Hopefully you have a chimney starter? A chimney starter will make this very easy. If not, you can try to build a loose structure of big lumps of charcoal over and around a couple of sheets of balled up newspaper. I’ve done this before, it is massively annoying, it is not guaranteed to light, and it will likely take several tries, by the end of which you will have ground your teeth to dust. You can also try this charming British life-hack method. Looks pretty cool!
However you choose to do this, you’re gonna want a fire that is at a medium-low smolder, which, depending upon the size of your charcoal lumps, might take about a half-hour or more of burning to achieve. I know I’m there when every piece of charcoal is grey and I can hold my hand over the top vent on my grill cover for more than a few seconds without experiencing any burning. This, admittedly, is rather unscientific. If you’ve got a grill thermometer, you want a fire at or below 150 degrees. So, umm, do that.
When your fire is at a steady low heat, shift all the charcoal over to an even layer on one half of your grill, and then lay four or five nice fist-sized wood chunks over the top. Oh, right, the wood: The commonly available woods are apple, pecan, hickory, and mesquite. You can use whatever you like, or whatever is available (Home Despot sells small bags of wood chunks for just this purpose), but keep this in mind: hickory and mesquite are common smoke woods for barbecue. In American English, “barbecue” is a word that means “tastes like a forest fire.” If you use hickory or mesquite, your smoked fish is going to have an overwhelming smokiness. If you really, really dig the campfire flavor of barbecue, go for it. In my opinion, apple and pecan are much more appropriate for fish, if your aim, in the end, is something that is identifiably fish. It’ll be smoky fish, but it will still be fish.
It’s gonna take a few minutes for your wood chunks to start smoldering and producing much smoke. Slap the lid down over your fire, keep the top and bottom vents open enough that air moves around and the wood starts to burn, and wait for smoke to start billowing out. While you wait, go ahead and pull the brine receptacle out of the fridge and pull your fish out. Pat it dry and lay it down on a layer or two of paper towels over a cookie sheet. It’s gonna take, say, seven minutes for your wood to really start billowing smoke, and we’re using that time to dry out the fish a little. Go look out the window. Smoke! Check your watch. 44 minutes! I wasn’t that far off!
Lay your fish skin-side down on the cooler half of your grill, opposite the charcoal, and slap the grill lid back down in such a way that the top vent is over the fish. Hey! You’re smoking fish! Right now! It’s happening!
Heat control will be important, but not exactly crucial. Like chicken thighs, the fat content here will help cover up for any potential overcooking, and, even if they cook too fast, the worst thing that will happen will be you’ll have some pleasantly brined, very lightly smoked rainbow trout to eat. But if you do it just right—opening and closing vents to facilitate or choke-off airflow, occasionally prodding or turning or adding lumps of wood as necessary (or possible, depending upon your grill)—you’ll be able to keep your fish over the low heat for an hour or more before you start to notice that white gooey albumen just starting to form on the surface.
Don’t rush things! If your fish is taking a while to cook, that’s fine, it’ll just be that much more smoky. Resist the urge to bust open your vents and let the fire build. The fish is cooking, I swear! If you do this just right, the top of the fish will already be a nice caramel brown color from the smoke by the time any albumen appears. Albumen is a sure-fire sign of fish’s doneness—very much of it means, in fact, that your fish is past done—and so you’re hoping to catch it a few minutes before it materializes. Fish is fish, though—if it’s firm and flakes easily, it is done, albumen or no. When your fish seems firm and flakes easily, get it off the heat. Don’t worry if most of the skin sticks to the grill. Leave it. No one will miss the fish skin.
Hey. You. You are done smoking fish.
What to do with all this damn smoked fish? Well, for one, you could just eat it. Start there. Pinch off a little and eat it. Smoky! Salty! A little acid, a tiny hint of spice, and that good fatty mouthfeel of a good fatty fish. It’s good! It would be fine to just stand there next to the grill and eat the smoked fish. Bring out some saltine crackers, a fork, a few cold beers, and a lawn chair, and eat some damn smoked fish right there on the porch like the Slavic grandfather you probably aren’t.
Or, instead, here’s the best thing you can do with it: whip together some cream cheese, crème fraîche (or sour cream), dijon mustard, paprika, Worchestershire sauce, lemon zest, and finely chopped chives, then crumble up and stir in the smoked fish. You now have the best goddamn rillettes anyone ever ate. Smear it over slices of crusty bread or those same damn saltine crackers. Sock it away in the fridge and use it to impress your in-laws, or, yeah, bust out the lawn chair, a fork, and some cold beers, and eat some smoked fish rillettes right there on the porch like the Slavic grandfather you probably aren’t.
This will make a fine centerpiece of a light, summery, al fresco-type meal: a nice peppery arugula salad, a hunk of smoked fish, a hunk of crusty bread or a blob of creamy polenta, and a couple lemon wedges. Delicious. It’s fish! Eat it as you would eat fish. But do it outside, yeah? With a cool glass of wine or a cold beer. Enjoy the beautiful spring weather, everyone.