Smoking Fish - Coastal Survival School

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May 6, 2010
Coastal Survival.

Smoking Fish.

By Fraser Christian.

Originally written for "Bushcraft and Survival skills magazine"

The Art of  curing and smoking fish  is a valuable and most useful skill in times when fish are abundant and plentiful, allowing them to be conveniently stored for leaner times. Long and often stormy conditions can make both coastal fishing and foraging almost impossible. Not only does smoking help the fish to be stored for much longer periods of time compared with fresh fish, smoking also allows a wonderful and unmistakable aromatic flavour to develop.  These days smoked fish is most commonly seen in gold foil backed packets in shops and supermarkets, Kippers and Salmon being the first ones that spring to mind.  However, they will not come close to the taste of your home smoked fresh fish.
The smoking process lends itself well to oily fish such as Herrings, Mackerel, Salmon and Trout, as oily fish are rich in sources of protein and thus degrade at a faster rate than a white fish.  This is not to say that only oily fish are suitable for smoking.  Any fish that is acquired, if fresh, will lend its self well to being smoked, if cured correctly. The moisture content or proportion of water in the tissue structure is usually greater with white fish and requires curing for longer.  Extracting more of the water content helps the process, because smoke finds it hard to penetrate water.

The processes of smoking.

There are two types of smoking, Hot and cold; Both use different techniques but the process and principals are basically the same; smoke is generated from a combustible non toxic material such as wood chippings, shavings or sawdust, and the smoke is allowed to slowly  pass over the fish. The differences are that when cold smoking the smoke is generated outside of the main chamber containing the fish, hereby allowing the smoke to cool before passing over the fish, curing it slowly.  Alternatively when hot smoking the smoke is generated inside the main smoking chamber and the fish cooks as it smokes.  The most suitable woods for smoking materials are from the trees that bear a fruit, the most common being the Oak. Different mixes and blends are used by discerning smoke houses to create unique and delicate flavours. I would recommend any of the following woods: Oak, Apple, Cherry, Ash, Beach or Hazel.  Try your own combinations and taste the difference! Dry seasoned wood should be used where possible, and standing self seasoned timber is ideal when shaved or cut in thin srtips. Small broken dead twigs, sticks and leaves will work just as well, as will dried sea weed!
Note: Never use treated or painted timber as Toxic fumes may be created when burned or heated.  Never use sawdust from an unknown source or from the process of mechanical machinery, such as a Chain Saws. The lubricants used on the blade may taint the food and possibly leave oily residues.

Making a smoker.
Smokers can be made out of virtually anything, including cardboard boxes, old fridges, barrels and old non-toxic oil drums.  If man made materials are not to hand, naturally available resources are just as good, with stones, turfs and small logs being used to create the smoking chamber, or smoking pit.

Making a cold smoker is slightly more complex than a hot smoker but the rewards are worth their weight in gold.  The flavour is lighter and more delicate with the fishes shelf-life extending longer than its hot smoked relatives.  The flesh remains a pale translucent colour that is firm to the touch.  To make the cold smoker, you will first need two suitable receptacles, the first being the smoke generator, the second the main chamber containing the fish.  The two chambers are joined with a length of tubing or pipe, this can be passed through cold water if available.  Two meters of pipe should belong enough to allow the smoke to cool sufficiently before passing over the fish.

Making a Hot Smoker is a fairly simple task, after the preparation and cure have been applied.  Light a fire inside the chamber, allowing the smoke to pass directly over the fish.  The smoke is still hot and cooks the fish as it passes.  Although it is cooked and smoked, it will not keep for as long as the cold smoked fish. This is because the smoke has not had a chance to penetrate deep inside the flesh. The time it keeps for is dependent on the temperature it is stored at.  A cool airy place is recommended.  The fish can be hung to air dry or wrapped in grease proof paper in the fridge or larder.  Never use plastic wrapping.

Note: Avoid using any thing that used to contain non food stuffs, especially if it displays a picture of a skull and cross bones.  It would have contained harmful and poisonous substances ( It may belong to a Pirate! ).  Either way, leave well alone.

Times and cures.
Curing is the process that takes place before the smoking which removes the water and helps to flavour the fish. The cure can contain herbs or spices that have anti bacterial and insect repelling properties such as fennel, pepper , bay and juniper. The main base of the cure usually contains salt and sometimes sugar. Scandinavian and Bavarian cultures often add pine needles to the cure and also use them to store the fish in. The Pine wood is also used to smoke the fish giving it a strong flavour which is reminiscent of a mild disinfectant.
The time the fish will need to be left in the cure will depend on the size of the fillet, or the type of fish. The cure is either a wet brine cure or a dry rub usually consisting of equal quantities of both salt and sugar. For a wet cure or brine the ratio of  salt and sugar to liquid is usually 300 grams in 1 litre of liquid. The liquid can be water or even cider, beer, or wine. Try adding combinations of you own favourite aromatics to create your own unique flavours. The fish fillets are rubbed with the cure or soaked in the brine for usually 10 to 30 minutes with the bigger fillets taking longer to cure.  The dry rub must be washed off before smoking and in both cases the fillets must be dried well with a clean cloth before hanging in the smoker.

Preparing the fish.
Ensuring you use fresh fish is absolutely vital.  If your unsure of its origin a good rule of thumb to check freshness is to close your eyes and smell the fish, if its smells of fish or ‘fishy’ its probably already decomposing some what and therefore not fresh. Fresh fish has a delicate clean smell of the ocean.  Fish can be smoked whole or cut to produce fillets, first you will need to clean the fish in clean water and remove the scales by rubbing with the back of a knife from the tail towards the head, short firm strokes are best to ensure all the scales have been removed with a final sweep to be sure.  Scaling is best done outside or in water as scales have a habit of sticking to anything they make contact with. If your fish is whole, the stomach or &guts; must be removed.  This is done by carefully entering the tip of you knife into the anal vent and pushing as you cut up towards the head, try not to go in to deep with the point of the knife or you will split the guts open, worry if you do its just a bit messy! Clean out the cavity and remove the gills by either pulling or cutting them out. To fillet the fish cut in behind the first fins closest to head until you reach the spinal column, then turn the knife through 90 degrees and trace the knife along the spine bone cutting back towards the tail until the fillet is removed.  Turn the fish over and repeat the process. Finally trim off any undesirable parts such as fins or sharp spines and the fish is now ready for the cure. Fillets can be tied with cord or string to be hung later or skewered on to a sharpened clean stick.

The process of smoking is both a valuable and rewarding skill that allows important sources of protein to be preserved, creates something that tastes truly wonderful, and is a far cry from the stuff in the gold foil packets!  If you haven’t got room to build a small smoker, or want to practise at home, there are several small ready made kits on the market that will do the job.

Note: Always ensure you use a well ventilated area when smoking.

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