Smoked Fish - A to Z

Smoked fish has been the most common preserved food used by peoples of all cultures.

Indeed, smoke curing of fish and meat was well-developed not long after fire was discovered.

The use of heavily smoked fish and meats came into being because of both the need to prevent spoilage and to provide a food reserve during the winter.

Although the original reason for smoking fish had been to preserve it, the main reason today is for enjoyment of the mild smoky flavor.

Refrigeration and efficient transportation systems have dramatically decreased the dangers of spoilage.

Smoked Fish 101

Good morning class and welcome to Smoked Fish 101. You are going to learn everything you need to know about smoked salmon, other fish, and meats - from basic preparation to detailed discussions of various curing & smoking methods.

We will also tell you how to build your own smoker and provide you with a good list of smoked salmon recipes. This is one class where you will truly enjoy your homework.

Boy Scouts Have the Right Idea

The Boy Scout Motto is "Be prepared." Like most everything else, good preparation is the key to producing excellent smoked fish. You don't have to catch your own fish but you do need to be sure that you will be smoking fresh fish. Don't believe the old wives tale that smoking fish will cover up any existing unpleasant odors.

The Smoked Fish Process

Here is an outline of all the steps needed to smoke fish.

  1. Choose and clean the fish. You can smoke your fish whole or cut it into fillets.
  2. Cure the fish. The most common type of cure is a wet cure using water, salt, sugar and spices. Dry curing is accomplished by rubbing salt (and sometime spices) into the fish.
  3. Dry the fish. This critical step allows a pellicle, or glaze, to form on the skin to keep moisture in and contaminants out.
  4. Smoke the fish. There are two methods - cold smoke and hot smoke.
  5. Cool the fish.
  6. Package the smoked fish.

Smoked fish recipes are on the smoked salmon recipe page.

Choose Your Fish

Any fish can be smoked, but species high in fat like salmon and trout are recommended because they absorb smoke faster and are less likely to become dried out after smoking.

Important Sanitation Note

Please ensure that you follow good sanitation procedures throughout the entire smoking process. Remember that one of the main reasons for smoking fish is to prevent spoilage and bacteria growth.

Always use clean and sanitized utensils. Your fish should be refrigerated at all times during the processing to prevent bacterial growth. During the smoking process the smoke and heat will prevent most bacteria from growing, so refrigeration isn’t a concern until you remove your fish from the smoker.

You can prepare most fish using the following procedure.
  • Remove scales,head, fins, tail, viscera (guts). Wash fish with running cold water to remove all traces of blood and any other tissue.
  • Fillet the fish. Cut the fillets into approximately equal-sized pieces. The exact size can vary depending on your individual preference.
Note:  If you like your smoked fish whole, you only need to gut and wash the fish.

Cure the Fish

Curing fish is basically the same procedure as curing other meats, such as ham. The fish is salted, either with a brine or rubbed with dry salt. Curing is a two-way process ... it takes some moisture out of the fish while simultaneously putting some salt and any other spices into the fish.

The cured fish is rinsed with cold running water after curing to remove the excess salt and other seasonings from the surface, then allowed to dry in cool place until a pellicle (glaze) forms on the surface.

The pellicle has several purposes - it keeps ash and other contaminants out, it seals in the remaining moisture, and it prevents the fats in the fish from rising to the surface and spoiling.

Brine cure directions

Dry cure directions

Brine Curing Recipes

Most brine recipes contain water, salt, and sugar in various proportions ... others also include various spices. There's no hard rule on what should go into the brine other than definitely salt and some sugar. Feel free to experiment with adding additional spices to your brine.

You can find more brine and smoked fish recipes on the smoked salmon recipe page.

Generic Brine Recipes

Brining time varies according to fish thickness and recipe, but usually between 2 and 6 hours for most recipes. I know that's a large time range, but it really depends on your personal prefences. If you're curing 5 pound salmon fillets, you probably would let them soak overnight.

If you need a general rule of thumb, you can use the following table to estimate brining time.

Weight of Each
Piece of Fish
Under ¼ lb. 30 minutes
Up to ½ lb. 1 hour
Up to 1 lb. 1 ½ hour
Up to 2 lbs. 3 hours
Up to 3 lbs. 4 ½ hours
Up to 4 lbs. 6 hours
Up to 5 lbs. 8 hours

3 cups table salt
1½ cups brown sugar
1 gallon of cold water

Combine salt and water in a non-metallic container and mix well. Use 1 gallon of brine for every 4 pounds of fish.

Ensure that the fish is completely covered with brine on all sides. You can use a dinner plate or similar object to weight down the fish, but do not pack the fish.

Place the brine and fish in a refrigerator for the entire brining time. If you don't have space in the refrigerator, you may place bags of ice in the brine - the fish must stay cool.

Dry Cure Recipes

Dry cure recipes involve rubbing the salt directly on the fish instead of soaking it in a brine solution. The ingredients are usually the same as for the brine recipes except for the water. The salt draws the moisture directly out of the fish and creates its own brine.
You can find more dry cure and smoked fish recipes on the smoked salmon recipe page.

Generic Dry Cure Recipes


Mix 3 parts brown sugar to 1 part non-iodized salt together in a bowl. Layer fillets in a deep non-metallic pan. Rub each fillet lightly with the cure mix and then cover each layer generously with more dry mixture.

Cover and place in refrigerator for 18 to 24 hours. The mixture will draw moisture out of the fish, creating it's own liquid brine. Rinse lightly, pat dry, and set out on paper towels to air-dry for about 1 hour.

See below for more info on drying your fish.

Drying Your Fish

After the fish has been cured, using either brine or dry cure methods, it must be allowed to dry before smoking. This critical step allows a pellicle, or glaze, to form on the skin to keep moisture in and contaminants out. The pellicle also provides a good surface for the smoke to adhere to, giving your smoked fish both its smoky flavor and uniform color.

How to Dry Fish.  Rinse the fish in cool running water and pat dry with paper towels and place skin side down in a cool shady spot. If you place your fish on your smoker racks to dry, you can save some time later.

The fish should have plenty of air circulation space all around to ensure even drying. A small fan will help speed up the drying process. The fish is dried and ready for the smoker when the pellicle forms on the surface.

Q:  How do I know when the pellicle has formed?
A:  When a shiny and tacky (sticky) skin has formed on the fish.

Drying time depends on the moisture content of the fish, the temperature, amount of air flow, and the relative humidity in the surrounding air. The pellicle should be formed usually in about an hour – the time can vary depending on the factors above.

Next step – Hot or Cold Smoked Fish?

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