Smoking mackerel in the wild

Octane ventures to wilderness islands by kayak and sometimes, due to lively on-shore windy conditions, we delay our return and, in the summer heat, it can be best to preserve the fish we catch by way of smoking.

All fish can be smoked but oily ones like salmon, trout and mackerel are best because they absorb smoke faster and retain a better texture than white fish, which can dry out and toughen during the smoking process.

Wood for smoking

Using aged hard-woods such as hickory, oak, apple, maple, birch or beech gives a soft smoky flavour to the fish and is commonly considered superior to using soft-woods like pine, fir or spruce, which can produce a bitter, blackened and oily smoke. This in itself is frustrating because most Scottish forests are pineOctane‘s request to The Forestry Commission to plant hickory remains unanswered!

Different sea fish require different preparation methods but, whatever the fish type, ensuring it is ocean fresh* is a good start. Fish preparation by type is as follows: Salmon are split (backbone removed), bottom fish filleted, herring headed and gutted, and smelt dressed. But, whatever the fish, the following universal preparation steps can be applied when smoking:

Preparing fish for smoking

  1. Remove scales (scrape knife against the grain)
  2. Remove fish head, fins, tail and viscera (guts)
  3. Wash fish body cavity with water to remove remaining blood and tissue
  4. Split fish by cutting through rib bones along length of one side of backbone (large fish: remove backbone by also cutting along other side of backbone to produce two fillets or boneless sides. Small fish: backbone can be left attached to one side)
  5. Cut sides of large fish into uniform pieces about 1½ inch thick and 2 inches wide. Small fish halves can be brined and smoked in one piece
  6. The fish is ready to brine and then smoke

Making brine

3½ cups / 250 ml table salt dissolved in 1 gallon / 4.5 litres of cold water (1 gallon brine for 4 pounds fish). Red or white wine can substitute a portion of water, if desired. Spices such as black pepper, fine chopped bay leaves, garlic and brown sugar can be added to taste. I prefer to add three times the sugar to salt.

Soak fish in brine throughout the brining period (a heavy bowl can be floated on the brine to keep fish submerged, do not pack the fish so tightly that the brine cannot circulate around each piece). Brine ½-inch-thick fillets for 15 minutes, 1-inch-thick pieces for 30 minutes, and 1½-inch-thick pieces for 1 hour (times can be adjusted for a lighter or heavier cure).

Place fish skin-side down on greased racks in a cool, shady and breezy place to dry. Fish should dry for 2 to 3 hours or until a shiny skin called a pellicle forms. The pellicle seals the fish surface and prevents loss of natural juices during the smoking – it also attracts the smoke and enables it to adhere to the fish.

An interesting, more instant and typically American take on the process is similar yet avoids the water and a lot of the fuss as follows: mix four parts sugar to one part salt (adding spice and herbs to taste) and, putting the fish in a bowl, sprinkle on the mixture. Leave in the fridge for 8 hours. Remove fish from fridge and lay on greaseproof paper or drying rack, sprinkle on black pepper and leave in moving air until sticky to touch and place in smoker.

Smoking mackerel

Place the fish in the fish smoker. If the smoker has capacity place the fish in the top section away from heat. For the first 2 hours, and to complete the pellicle glaze formation, temperature should not exceed 90°F.

After this period raise the temperature to 150°F and smoke the fish for an additional 4 to 8 hours. The length of time will depend on the thickness of the fish and on your preference for dry or moist smoked fish. A rule of thumb is as follows ½-inch-thick pieces are smoked for 4 hours, 1-inch-thick pieces for 6 hours, and 1½-inch-thick pieces for 8 hours.

Test the meat, when there is no more translucent flesh, the fish is done and should gently crumble when torn.


*The term fresh fish is of course relative. On the high-street, at supermarkets and in city restaurants fresh fish really means days old so, when patiently waiting for your number to be called at the fish-counter, be ready to ask where your fish is from and how many days ago it was likely caught. Supermarkets invent terms to suit their needs and, as a discerning consumer, it really is your right to challenge nonsense. At Octane we have therefore made a new, differentiated and entirely transparent definition – Ocean-fresh. Simply put, it means caught, prepared, cooked and eaten same-day.

**Ocean fresh: See ocean fresh calimari caught, cooked and served in under an hour

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