Hot Or Cold Smoked Fish ?

There are two main varieties of smoked fish — cold smoked, where the temperature must remain between 80 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit (26 - 32 Celsius), and hot smoked, where the temperature is between 120 and 180 degrees Fahrenheit (49 – 82 Celsius).

Whether you are cold smoking or hot smoking fish, the procedures are basically the same. The main difference is the smoking temperature and how long your smoked fish stay in the smoker.

How long will it keep?

In the freezer ... Fish prepared by either method will last many months if properly frozen.

In the refrigerator ... Cold smoked fish is preserved and will usually keep for several months in the refrigerator. Hot smoked fish is cooked and will only keep about a week in the refrigerator.

Table of Contents

How a Smoker Works
Smoker Basics
Safety Message
Cold Smoked Fish
Hot Smoked Fish

Smoked Fish Recipes
Smoked Salmon Recipes
More Smoked Fish & Grilled Fish Recipes

How the Smoker Works

Whether you will be cold or hot smoking, you will need:
  • a heat source
  • a smoke source
  • a chamber to smoke fish
  • an air ventilation system

The Physics Lesson.   Fresh air enters at the bottom of the heated smoker and combines with the smoke. The smoke can be generated inside the smoker itself or it can be piped in separately – this really depends on how the smoker is made and doesn’t affect the quality of your smoked fish.

The heated smoke rises and covers the fish, evaporates some water from the fish, and leaves the smoker through a vent, similar to a chimney on a fireplace. When the process is finished, the fish is either cooked (hot smoked) or preserved (cold smoked), drier, and has a smoky flavor.

Smoker Basics

There are many different types of smokers you can buy just about anywhere or you can build your own. Electric smokers … kettle BBQ smokers … expensive custom smokers … or an old refrigerator and a wood stove … they will all smoke your fish just fine. You just need to remember a few basic points and you’ll be on your way to cooking up some excellent smoked fish.

Smoking times are highly weather-dependent – on temperature, wind, humidity, and the full moon. Okay, maybe not the moon, but you get the picture – Smoking fish is more art than science.

Your smoked fish will take less time if you're smoking them on a hot July afternoon than if you’re smoking them on Christmas Eve. For example, it might take five hours to smoke your fish on a summer afternoon and 12 hours on a cold winter night.

Safety Message

  • Don't use your smoker indoors, there’s a danger of carbon monoxide poisoning as well as the obvious fire problem.
  • Don't set it up on your deck or in your garage. Set it up on a level, non-flammable surface, protected from the wind.
  • Don’t even think about putting it near any flammable materials, wood piles, under trees, or near your house or any other structure.
  • Keep a fire extinguisher handy just in case; you wouldn’t be the first person to burn his house down because he couldn’t put out a small fire before it became an inferno.

Gentlemen ... Start Your Smokers!

Now that you've set your smoker up in an optimal, safe place ... it's time to start smoking. Preheat your smoker to get it up to temperature. If you're using wood as your heat source, make sure that you have good coals; a blazing fire will ruin your fish.

Place your fish in the smoker, and add your wood chips to get it smoking, and you're on your way to having home smoked salmon.

The amount and type of wood chips you use is a matter of personal taste, although hardwoods are highly recommended. Soft woods have lots of resin and will give your fish a bitter flavor. The most common woods for smoking fish are alder, apple, maple, and hickory.

Warning - do not use processed or treated wood of any kind. These contain large amounts of all kinds of chemicals and poisoning could result.

Cold Smoked Fish

Cold smoking is used for curing hams, bacon, some sausages and some fish, notably Lox (or Lachs if you’re German). The fish is smoked at a low temperature for a relatively long time and is completely preserved (cured) by this process. Cold smoked fish can be stored for up to six months and in cooler areas can be stored without refrigeration.

Cold smoking is difficult to do at home because you need to have a smoker capable of keeping a constant temperature of around 80 Fahrenheit – if the temperature rises much above 85 Fahrenheit, your smoked fish will not be safely cured.

You have to control the temperature of both the smoker and the smoke. One way to control the smoke temperature is to have your smoke source far enough away so that the smoke cools before it reaches your smoker.

Cold smoking is too complicated, slow and difficult for most people. Finding the patience to prepare cold smoked fish is even harder … 12 hours to several days, depending on the size of your fish!

How to Make Cold Smoked Fish

Review the smoked fish tutorial for info on how to cure your fish before smoking.
  • Place the fish in a homemade or commercial smoker. The temperature of the smoker should be kept at about 80°F. Use a thermometer to check the temperature in the middle of the smoker.

    It is important that the temperature never exceeds 90°F or your fish will end up in that "no man's land" between cured and cooked and could be unsafe to eat.

  • Smoke the fish until it achieves a uniform brown color. Small fish may be done in as little as 24 hours. Salmon and other large fish will require 3 to 4 days of continuous smoking.

    If you want to store your fish longer than 2 weeks, you need to smoke it for at least five days. More than a week is required for larger fish.

  • The smoker should produce only a small amount of smoke during the first 8 to 12 hours if the total smoking time is less than one day. If you will be smoking your fish for more than one day, keep the amount of smoke low for the entire first day.

    When this initial smoking period is finished, turn up the smoke, but not the heat, for the rest of the smoking time.

  • If cold-smoked fish has been brined for at least 2 hours and smoked for at least 5 days, it should keep in the refrigerator for several months.

Hot Smoked Fish

Review the smoked fish tutorial for info on how to cure your fish before smoking.
  • Place the fish in a homemade or commercial smoker. For the first 2 hours, the temperature should not exceed 90°F. Use a thermometer to check the temperature in the middle of the smoker. After this initial period is complete, the fish will have a brown coloring.
  • Gradually raise the temperature to around 175°F and smoke the fish for an additional 4-8 hours. The length of time will depend on the thickness of the fish, weather conditions, and whether you like dry or moist smoked fish.
    It’s worth repeating: the temperature needs to be increased gradually for the best appearance and flavor.
  • Generally, ½-inch-thick pieces are smoked for 4 hours, 1-inch-thick pieces for 6 hours, and 1½-inch-thick pieces for 8 hours.
  • Smoked fish is done when it flakes easily while pressing it lightly with a knife of fork. On larger pieces of fish you may want to test for doneness with a thermometer. Fish is done when the internal temperature reaches 140°F.
  • When you are done smoking the fish, remove the racks to an elevated surface to cool. Do not refrigerate your smoked fish until they have cooled or they may spoil.

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