Originally intended as a way to preserve many foods throughout the ages, the process of smoking also adds a different dimension to taste and texture. The smoking of fish and many other forms of seafood has been widely practised for generations – both on a commercial scale and by many chefs and keen cooks – and can produce a great variety of enjoyable taste and texture experiences for diners and food lovers.
In the world of commercial fish smoking there are two main methods – a more traditional method, involving fish being suspended in purpose-built smokehouses over slowly smouldering wood shavings, where the fish are left for a period of time, often overnight, to be naturally infused with smoke. A more mechanised method involves the generation of smoke via specialist smoke condensers, where the flow of smoke in mechanical kilns is computer controlled and the fish generally spend less time being smoked than in a traditional kiln.
Fish and seafood can also be smoked on a more low-key level using commercially available smaller smokers custom-designed for domestic use, or even by the construction of very rudimentary smokers using old tin boxes and wood shavings.
There are two principle smoking methods for fish and seafood; cold smoking, which is probably the most commonly used smoking method, where the smoke used gently infuses the fish with flavour without actually cooking it. The other method is hot smoking, where the smoke is hot enough to actually cook the fish as well as flavouring it.
Salmon is probably the most popular fish species to be smoked in the UK. Farmed salmon is excellent for smoking due to its higher and more consistent oil content than wild fish. Whole skin-on salmon fillets are cured with a mixture of salt and sugar, and often some spices, over a set time, then washed and rested for at least 24 hours; before then being smoked for a number of hours, usually using hardwoods such as oak or beech.
After cooling, the salmon is portioned and prepared as required. Smoked salmon is a very distinctive product, which varies considerably according to the individual recipe of the respective smokehouse – the flavour and texture are affected both by the type of wood used for smoking and particularly by the way the actual fish is cured. Curing entails ensuring there is the right amount of salt in the finished product and all smokers will usually have their own ‘secret’ cure recipes – different flavourings, herbs and spices can all be added at this stage to give unique and individual character to the finished product.
Many other oil-rich fish are also well suited to the smoking process, including trout, mackerel and herring (to produce kippers). Halibut, tuna, scallops, mussels, oysters and prawns also work well, as do eel fillets although these are very rich.
Haddock is another species that is well suited to smoking, and cold smoked haddock fillets are the basis of any great kedgeree or fish pie recipe. The bright yellow colour often associated with smoked haddock is a dye, historically used to compensate for a reduced smoking time, which lowered the cost. While dye is still sometimes used, there is an increased demand for natural smoked haddock, which has a subtle, off-white colour.
Finnan haddie (or Finnan haddock) originated in the Scottish fishing village of Findon in Aberdeenshire, where whole haddock were headed, gutted and split open leaving the backbone and tail intact, then soaked in brine before being cold smoked over smouldering peat. The traditional preparation is to then roast or grill the whole pieces of fish over high heat. Finnan haddock can also be used in a traditional kedgeree, in an Arnold Bennett omelette, or as the main fish component in the traditional Scottish soup Cullen Skink.
Arbroath smokies are small whole haddock, gutted and headed, which are dry salted and hot smoked. Cod is another common fish used for smoking, but is not usually as popular as haddock, which has a sweeter flavour.
There are many places to learn more about the smoking of fish and seafood.
Seafish and the Seafood Training Academy run a number of introductory and basic level fish smoking training courses. Utilising the revolutionary AFOS Micro Kiln, specially developed by AFOS at the request of Seafish and the Seafood Training Academy, the courses are of interest to people working in the foodservice, processing and fishmonger sectors, who wish to learn more about the processes involved in fish smoking.
The one-day Introductory Course, which is ideal for individuals wanting to see for themselves what is involved in producing smoked fish using a mechanical kiln, looks at the theory behind brines, kiln operations, salt, safety, sawdust selection and packaging, and the practical element of the course will involve brining whitefish and mackerel, quality and tasting, kiln loading and lighting, hot smoking profile, whitefish smoking and mackerel hot smoking.
The more involved Basic Fish Smoking Course, which provides additional opportunities for practical activity and time to explore issues around quality and food safety, will cover the theory behind brines, kiln operations, salt, safety, pellicle formation, hot smoking, salmon salting, colours, sawdust types and sources, other styles of smoking, food safety and packaging – while the practical aspect of this two-day course will involve brining, pellicle comparison, salmon salting and rinsing, gravlax preparation, quality and tasting, packing salmon, kiln loading and lighting, kiln controls, hot smoking profile, salmon smoking, whitefish smoking and mackerel hot smoking.
Further information can be found at www.seafoodacademy.org