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What Is Smoked Fish?

By Amanda R. Bell
Updated May 16, 2024
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Several different types of fish can be used to create smoked fish, a popular food in many countries. Smoked fish is often brined and then hot or cold smoked; these processes can either cure the meat or cook it completely. The finished product can then be eaten alone or used in a variety of different meals and dishes.

Smoked fish is usually made from high quality, fresh fish with a low fat content; depending on the type of fish, it may be smoked whole or in pieces. Salmon, mackerel, trout, and whitefish are the most popular and usually ideal for smoking. In some cases, sturgeon, sea bass, herring, and halibut may also be used.

To promote curing and add flavor, the fish is often brined in a wet or dry salt mixture before smoking. If the fish is brined, is it is left to dry for a few hours before being placed in the smoker. Attempting to smoke wet fish can result in an undesirable texture, especially when cold smoking.

Cold-smoked fish is cured with the smoke but not cooked. The temperature inside the smoker is kept below 90° Fahrenheit (33° Celsius). Setting the smoker at this temperature makes it impossible for fish to cook. In some cases, cold-smoked fish is only smoked for a few hours to impart flavor and then cooked. Cold smoking may require several days in the smoker depending on the size and quantity of fish.

Hot-smoked fish is cooked, rather than cured, in a smoker. Over several hours, the fish is cooked at a temperature between 165 degrees Fahrenheit (74° Celsius) and 265 degrees Fahrenheit (130° Celsius). This type of smoked fish is ready to eat once it comes out of the cooker.

The most important factor in making this type of fish is the variety of wood used. Hardwoods are considered by many to be essential to the process, especially when using the smoke to cure the meat. The components found in the smoke of hardwoods act as a preservative, thereby killing existing bacteria and limiting the growth of new bacteria.

Soft woods often create too much soot when burning, thus destroying the flavor of the fish and decreasing the curative properties of the smoke. In rare cases, small amounts of softer woods may be used in conjunction with hardwoods for flavor. Fish can also be smoked with charcoal or propane, although this tends to limit the flavor.

This type of fish is eaten all over the world in a variety of settings. The cold-smoked variant is a common breakfast food in many different countries. Hot-smoked fish is a popular addition to salads and appetizers and is used in many Asian countries as a base for soups.

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Discussion Comments
By browncoat — On Feb 15, 2014

@indigomoth - I just get it from the supermarket. I know it's probably not as good as freshly smoked fish, but it's tasty enough for me and I can be relatively sure that it's going to be safe.

Plus, smoked salmon is really good for you, as it's one way of naturally consuming omega-3 oils so I don't need to feel too guilty when I go through an entire pack in one sitting.

By indigomoth — On Feb 15, 2014

@bythewell - Hot smoked salmon is generally fairly widely available, particularly if you live close to the ocean. I've seen people selling it from food stalls and claiming that it was freshly made, so maybe you can get your fix from somewhere like that? I'd make sure that they knew what they were doing though, since it's fairly easy to pick up parasites and food poisoning from fish that hasn't been cooked properly.

By bythewell — On Feb 14, 2014

Fresh smoked fish is honestly the best tasting thing in the world. I can still remember being a kid and visiting some friends of my father who would catch and smoke their own fish. It got to the point where I would barely be in their house before I'd ask for some (luckily at that age, I was considered cute rather than rude!).

I wish that we had taken some of their smoked fish recipes, but I don't think my father ever got around to asking for them. He wasn't a fisher and to be honest, neither am I, but I'd just get the fish from the supermarket if it meant I could have my own smoked fish.

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