We're partial to the flavor, of course, but smoking fish started as a way to preserve fish. For centuries, smoking has been an inseparable method of preparing fish in every culture that relied on food harvested from oceans, lakes, and rivers. The Finns, as in Finnish, from Finland, are masters. Their methods of preparation have influenced how nearly everyone prepares and smokes fish. Placing fish in an enclosed space to absorb smoke flavors is common to all, but the differences in varieties of fish and types of wood used are infinite.
All fish can be smoked but the more oil or fattiness the flesh has, the more fish flavor there will be in the resulting dip. That’s both good and bad in that these two strong flavors will compete. It’s a personal preference. The relative strength of fish and smoke flavors in a dip is the reason so many variations can be found. Salmon is far and away the most common and produces a signature flavor. Whitefish, Mackerel, and Chubbs produce strong fish flavor. Wahoo, Cobia, Kingfish, and Amberjack produce a more balanced taste of fish and smoke flavors. Least fishy and more smoky are species such as Cod and Dorado (Mahi-Mahi).
Whole fillets, typically with skin still on one side result in excellent flavor absorption from the smoke. Smoked fish fillets make for an excellent main dish as well as being used for other purposes such as dips and spreads. Common woods used for smoking include Alder, Oak, and some fruit woods such as Apple or Cherry. More pungent wood like Mesquite or Hickory add too much spice and can overpower the fish.
It is important to understand the difference between hot smoking and cold smoking. Hot smoked fish is cooked to a temperature of 160 degrees and eliminates any trouble with toxins that are naturally found in raw fish. Hot smoking takes place quickly when compared to cold smoking. Most hot smoked fish spend between two and seven hours in the smokehouse depending on the size of the fillets and cuts being used.
Cold smoked fish are cured and smoked at lower temperatures that intentionally prevent the flesh from being cooked. Temperatures are usually held in the 80 to 90-degree range and continue for several days. This produces an unpasteurized product and must be handled more carefully in between processing and consumption.
Preparing Bluefish for smoking, and a short primer on smoking fish at home. Video provided by the Backwoods Gourmet Channel.