Smokin’

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When it comes to eating, bluefish is nobody’s favorite. You’ve probably heard some variation of the joke about how to prepare it: fillet it, brine it, and cook it on a plank over a low fire for an hour – then throw away the fish and eat the plank.

Ha ha.

When it comes to fishing, though, bluefish are more popular.

We had guests this past weekend, and they left on Tuesday afternoon. Tuesday morning, we went out in Nantucket Sound to see if we couldn’t get some blues to show our friends a good time.

Fish were out there; we saw them. We followed them, we cast into them. We cursed and cajoled them. We did not catch them, and then it was time for Russ and Mylene to leave for the airport.

I'm improving

I'm improving

Kevin and I went out again in the late afternoon, and we struck bluefish. We were right outside the Cotuit cut on the west end of Sampson’s Island, and there they were. They were milling around in small groups, occasionally breaking the surface here or there. Over the course of an hour or so, we landed fourteen fish, about two pounds each.

They’re only two pounds, though, once you get them into the cooler. While they’re still in the water, they’re ten or twelve. Or that’s what you think they must be when they take your lure. These things fight as though their very lives depended on it.

Oh, wait a minute …

Catching bluefish is a grand afternoon’s entertainment, but it’s different from other kinds of entertainment – golf, say, or parasailing – in that it leaves you with a cooler full of a fish that’s nobody’s favorite.

I’ll certainly eat grilled bluefish, and there are ways to bake it (usually involving butter, mustard, and herbs) that make it downright tasty. But, to my mind, the best thing to do with bluefish is to smoke it. The oily, fishy taste that can be a liability when it’s fresh is an asset when it’s smoked; bluefish can handle brine and wood smoke.

Kevin prepping the makeshift smoker

Kevin prepping the makeshift smoker

The best way to smoke bluefish is – surprise! – with a smoker. We don’t have one, though, so Kevin has rigged our standard-issue Weber kettle grill to stand in. We’re still perfecting our technique, but I think we’re getting there.

I filleted the fish and soaked them in brine for two days. (The brine was one cup of salt, a half cup of sugar, and two tablespoons of lemon juice in a half-gallon of water.) Then we laid them out and let them dry until a pellicle formed.

A pellicle is kind of skin that develops as the fish dries, and it’s supposed to keep in moisture and prevent fats from rising to the surface of the fish (where they’re more likely to spoil). I harbor a suspicion that the importance of the pellicle is an old wives’ tale. One day, back in the Dark Ages, some poor fisherman left his fish out too long before he smoked it, and it came out great. The next time he caught fish, he did it again, but paid more attention and noticed the shiny skin. “Hmmm,” he said to himself, “Do you suppose that shiny skin keeps in moisture and prevents fat from rising to the surface?” And here we are, a thousand years later, still doing it.

If anyone knows about any rigorous double-blind controlled studies that compare pellicled and non-pellicled smoked fish, I would very much appreciate the reference.

Meanwhile, I, like every other fish smoker of the last thousand years, am unwilling to risk a batch of bluefish by disregarding the wisdom of centuries.

Cover, and come back in three hours

Cover, and come back in three hours

Once the pellicle forms, we coat the fish with some cracked black pepper and put it on the jury-rigged smoker

Kevin sets it up by lighting a chimney of charcoal, putting it in a pile at the bottom of the grill, and then adding several handfuls of soaked wood chips. Over that, he puts an aluminum roasting pan with holes cut in it so the fish isn’t exposed to the direct heat of the charcoal.

On go the fish, and he covers the grill and keeps the air flow to a minimum. We put a thermometer through a vent in the top, and try to keep the temperature under 150 degrees. It takes about three hours for the fish to smoke, and about three hours for the fire to die, so it’s a convenient arrangement.

I’m still tweaking the brine – I think it’s a bit too salty – so if anyone has suggestions, please chime in.

And I’m serious about the pellicle research.

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Comments

  1. Tamar, I don’t think it’s the brine that’s giving you the super-salty flavor, but rather the length of soaking time. I used to let them sit in the brine 12 hours or more, usually a full day, then put them on racks to dry overnight before a five or six hour smoke. I have gradually decreased brining time to about six hours.
    I have always understood that the pellicle forms a seal that prevents the fish from getting dry and hard. I don’t know who Jay Harlow is, but he has a few things to say about the matter here: http://www.3men.com/allabout.htm
    No scientific analysis, but interesting.

    Here is the brine I use:
    4 qts water
    1 ½ C kosher salt
    1 ½ C sugar
    1/4 C soy sauce
    2 bay leaves
    zest of 1 lemon
    2 sprigs fresh dill, chopped (optional)
    Dissolve the salt and sugar in 2 quarts of the water, hot. Then mix in the rest of the water, cold, and the other ingredients. Put the brine outside if the weather is cold to allow it to chill before adding it to the fish. If smoking in warm weather, put the brine in a cooler of ice to chill, or refrigerate overnight.
    Place fillets skin side up in pans and divide brine among them. Give the fish at least 6 hours, but not more than 12 hours, to brine.
    Tight lines!

  2. Rick Bibeault says:

    Here’s my recipe:

    Let the Tuna eat the Bluefish

    Let friend catch Tuna

    Let friend bring me Tuna steak

    Grill Tuna steak to rare

    Yum!

  3. Beth — I think you’re absolutely right about the brining time. That and the salt were the two variables I was going to experiment with. Next time, I’ll reduce both.

    I’d read Jay Harlow — he seems to be the world’s leading expert on pellicles — but I won’t believe it until I test it for myself. I think I’m going to smoke a few non-pellicled fish in the next batch, and try them side by side, blind. THEN we’ll see who’s the world’s leading expert!

    Rick — Now THERE’s a recipe.

  4. Oh man…bluefish…does that bring back some memories. Put me off eating fish til I was an adult.I used to choke down fillets cooked over the BBQ and just pray that we wouldn’t catch any next time.

    I would think any recipes that use mackerel would be good for bluefish. Very similar – strong tasting and oily.

    We have a fish smokers just down the road called Bridfish. There website is : http://www.bridfish.co.uk
    They might know from experience about the pellicle (they do hot and cold smoking). I’ll ask next time I’m in there too.

  5. Another thought about pellicles et al… somewhere in my circa 1971 reference the Home Book of Smoke Cooking by Sleight and Hull (where you can find a brine for octopus and inky squid) there was a mention of the pellicle which indicated that if the fish were not left to dry and form the pellicle, they would form that coating in your smoker, basically using up your BTUs while the pellicle formed. In other words, keep an eye on your fire in the smoker as the hours wear on, and be aware that fish not left to dry beforehand may take an hour or two longer to correctly smoke.
    If you want to make fish jerky – or fish that can be stored away in your backpack dry and without ice packs to keep you alive through weeklong treks or survivalist months, I recommend Sleight and Hull’s tome, which includes plans for building a backyard cold smoker. Apparently cold smoking takes days and weeks, not hours, as if the day-long hot smoke didn’t stress you out enough…

  6. Hi Tamar,

    Don and I love the taste of fresh bluefish. We just pat it dry, spread on a topcoat of mayo and soy mixture, and grill it . Supposedly the soy/mayo takes away the oily taste. Don and I think it just enhances the deal. Never had smoked bluefish but our neighbor has a smoker and he likes it that way too! My feeling is if you get it fresh, eat it fresh…that’s where the flavor it!

  7. Nothing wrong with bluefish that garlic and lemon can’t take care of. Pan-fried in cast iron so it crisps up, served with a good salad… it’s my second-favorite fish (after fried tilapia for fish tacos).