How to smoke a bluefish

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I’m going to go out on a limb here. I’m going to break with my invariable custom of writing posts that are completely useless and actually tell you how to do something.

First, though, I should mention that the reason I seldom tell you how to do anything is that, no matter what it is, there are people out there who do it better than I do. The list of links over on the right side of this page will take you to all kinds of places where you can learn how to cook, hunt, forage, or garden from people who are really good at it.

The objective

But I will say that we hot-smoke a mean bluefish in this house, and we do it on an ordinary kettle grill. No smoker required. Here’s how to do it.

First, buy a boat.

You can skip that step, though, as well as all the ones I’m going to skip – the ones that involve finding, catching, and fileting the bluefish. Let’s fast-forward to the part where you have a few bluefish filets in your possession.

Step 1: Brining: Make a brine of ¾ c. Kosher salt, ½ cup sugar, and 2 T. lemon juice per half-gallon of water. (I only specify Kosher because it’s what I have in the house. You can use ordinary table salt, but it’s finer-grained, and takes up less volume than the same weight of Kosher salt. If you use table salt, use a little over half a cup.) Soak the fish in the brine overnight, in the refrigerator.

Pellicle acquisition

Step 2: Drying: Drain the filets and pat them dry. Lay them out on racks and let them dry until they form a shiny skin, called a pellicle. This usually takes 2-4 hours. The pellicle is supposed to seal in moisture, but I’m not convinced this is true. One of these days, I’m going to do a blind taste test of pellicled vs. non-pellicled bluefish to see if I can tell the difference. In the meantime, though, I don’t have the nerve to disregard centuries of fish-smoking advice. I dry the fish. Once they’re dry, I sprinkle them liberally with freshly ground black pepper.

Step 3: Smoking: This is the tricky part, but Kevin has developed an excellent method. You’ll need hardwood chips, charcoal, and a large disposable aluminum roasting pan. First, soak about two cups of hardwood chips in water for a few hours. In a kettle grill, start a large chimney of charcoal. When the charcoal’s surface is mostly covered in ash, spread the coals in a rectangle roughly the size of the roasting pan in the middle of grill, leaving the sides clear. Drain the woodchips and spread them over the charcoal.

Soaked woodchips on charcoal

Punch a bunch of holes in the bottom of the roasting pan and place it, upside down, over the charcoal and wood chips.  The pan prevents any direct heat from reaching the fish, helps keep the fire low, and lets the smoke out through the holes. 

Put the filets on the grill, and cover it. Adjust the vent so it’s almost completely closed, so the fire doesn’t get too hot. You’re aiming for a temperature of about 150 degrees. If your grill doesn’t have a thermometer, Kevin recommends installing one. You can buy one at any store that sells grilling accoutrement and install it by drilling a hole in your grill cover.

High-tech smoke dispersal device

Smoke the filets until they’re cooked through. This should be about an hour for 1/2-pound filets, an hour and a quarter for 3/4–pound filets, and an hour and a half or longer for larger filets.

And that’s all there is to it. Next post, I promise to go back to being useless.

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Comments

  1. The pellicle does not seal in moisture, it forms a tacky surface for the smoke to adhere to — no pellicle, and you will have to smoke your fish a lot longer to get the same level of smoky flavor.

    And can I suggest that you set up the coals on one side of the kettle grill? That lets you put the fish on the cooler side, even farther from the heat — you can almost approximate cold-smoking this way, if you do this on a cold day.

    But all in all, I love smoked bluefish. You just can’t get it out here in California…

  2. So the next question is, can you smoke other fish this way? Do they have to be salt water fish, or would this work for trout? Or any other fish?

    I am so far away from ever fishing, it’s just sad.

  3. Hank — Yeah, that whole seals-in-moisture thing sounded fishy. It’s like the thing about searing meat, which is supposed to do the same thing, but I think it was Harold McGee who showed that it doesn’t. Changing the surface texture makes much more sense. Next time, though, I’m going to smoke a few filets without drying them and see if there’s a difference.

    As for moving the coals to one side, that’s exactly what we do when we have smaller quantities, or a more delicate fish like trout. Because we had so much, and because bluefish can stand it, we used the whole surface and just kept the fire low.

    Thanks for weighing in — I know you’ve smoked a fish or two in your day.

    Paula — You can smoke all kinds of fish, but the high-fat ones work best. It’s easy to do trout — just put your pile of coals on one side of the kettle (as Hank noted), throw some soaked wood chips on the pile, and put the fish (whole, gutted) on the other side. Cover the grill. Depending on the size of the fish, it can smoke in as little as 20 minutes.

    There must a be a lake somewhere near you … is fishing really such a pipe dream?

  4. We’ve got a rarely used chiminea in the garden that I might try to adapt into a smoker, and make some use of the mackerel when it comes in. If it works, I might get adventurous and try pheasant breasts in fall.

    How long do the hot-smoked filets keep for?

  5. Jen — Mackerel smokes beautifully! I’ve never done pheasant breasts, but if they’ve got a fair amount of fat they should work.

    Hot-smoked fish isn’t good for more than a few days in the refrigerator, but the bluefish freezes pretty well. Other fish, like trout, get pretty mushy, though.

  6. Hi Tamar,

    That bluefish sounds delish.

    Your wildlife report from NYC…courtesy of yesterday’s NY Post:

    A baby red-tailed hawk fell from its nest atop an air conditioner onto 149th St. Local bird watchers rescued it from traffic and rushed it Brook Park. They decided to take the hawk to falconer Ludger Balan, who was giving a lecture 50 blocks north on the Harlem River. They stuck the bird in a cage and delivered it in a canoe. Balan will care for it until it is ready to fly.

    Can you see this scene in your mind’s eye? I would have loved to have been there to see that canoe pull up.

  7. I love the aluminum pan trick. That Kevin, he’s a smart guy. Not that I will be smoking bluefish anytime soon, if you recall I don’t like it. The tuna can have my share.

  8. Susan — Your comments always make me miss New York. Only in NY would concerned citizens deliver, by canoe, an injured baby hawk to a visiting lecturer. Please keep the wildlife reports coming — it lets me be a vicarious urbanite for a moment.

    Rick — That Kevin is indeed a smart guy. And maybe if you just tried a leeeeetle teeeeny bit of smoked bluefish …

  9. Right??!! Only in New York, as Cindy Adams says. You are still a New Yorker, Tamar. Once you inhabit this island, it never goes away.

    I have been thinking for some time that it’s that NYC mindset that keeps you and Kevin devising, coping, plunging through and ever onward. “Oh no you DIDN’T”, is always in the back of your mind, you see, and you both know how to deal, be it a wayward chicken, or the fox who is after it…my money is on you two.

    Just came from dinner in the community garden where we ate grilled chicken, rice salad and jelly beans for dessert…not bad for the heart of Alphabet City. Hope you two had as idyllic a twilight as I did.

  10. sdquirk says:

    As, always, I enjoy the thoughtful posts from your readers,Tamar. And did enjoy the how-to as well. But, as one who reads SOTL almost entirely for the entertainment value of your excellent writing, I note it’s not as easy to inject humor into instructions. You did, however, manage to pull it off. And impart helpful knowledge in the process!

    I totally agree with Rick about Kevin being one smart guy, and also with Susan. You two are intrepid in your approach to everything. It might take DECADES for reticent New Englanders to accomplish what you both dive right into and master in record time.

  11. Susan — I’m not sure that our coping skills are related to our city mindset. I might have thought so, but I read so many excellent copers who have never set foot in a big city. Regardless, I appreciate your vote of confidence as much I appreciate your wildlife reports! And I’m glad to hear that those vacant lots in Alphabet City are turning into community gardens — when my little brother lived there back in the ’80’s, they were exclusively for drug dealing.

    SDQ — Yeah, it’s hard to be funny about smoking bluefish. The post wasn’t exactly a laugh a minute, was it? But I’m glad you appreciated what little entertainment value there was — I love a reader who’s easily amused!

    As for diving in, we certainly do it. Mastering is another question entirely. One of the reasons I do so few how-to posts (aside from the fact that it’s hard to make them funny) is that I’ve found mastery to be very elusive.

  12. I dry it w paper towel. Then smoke. Comes put great. I don’t really want it too Smokey. It can be overlooked. Tried it wet too. Just takes a little longer. It’s also good to brine for a minimum of a day for good flavor
    E

  13. To pellicle or not to pellicle…
    I caught nine medium/small bluefish the other day and set forth to do some smoking on my kettle grill using your brining/smoking method. After brining overnight I laid out all my filets to dry and realized, to my dismay, that I had much more fish than grill space. Faced with the prospect of having to smoke in two batches, this, combined with my unfortunately short attention span, I immediately decided to forego the drying process on batch number one in the interest of time. Additionally, this gave me an opportunity to perform a controlled experiment to see if there was a significant difference between batch one (non dried, no pellicle) and batch two (dried with shiny, tacky, pellicle). Both batches were smoked for about two hours at about 170 degrees (more or less). The results… batch two, with the pellicle, definitely came out better. It had a nicer amber color and a richer smoky flavor. So it appears that the pellicle is important for a really good smoked bluefish. But truth be told… batch one was pretty damn good too! Party On!

    • Tom, you are definitely my kind of cook. I love the idea of a controlled experiment, with a clear conclusion, but also with obvious enjoyment taken in the eating of the control group. Thanks for the report.