How to make Smoked Whitefish
Smoked lake whitefish can be one of the tastiest treats in the world of cooking wild fish and game. Most fish in the salmonidae family lend themselves well to smoking. Whether it’s salmon, trout or lake whitefish the oily flesh of these fast swimmers creates a wonderful basis for adding salty, sweet and smokey flavors.
Lake whitefish are a favorite target of mine when it comes to darkhouse spearfishing. You can spear them through the ice in early winter when the ice has just gotten thick enough for travel by foot. In the fall and early winter these fish move into the shallows to spawn, and this is the time to go after them with this ancient “hunting” method. There are many great recipes for lake whitefish, and smoking is definitely a favorite of mine. Once you smoke the fish you have so many options of how to use it in many different recipes.
Here’s a simple recipe for smoking lake whitefish. Making smoked fish is both art and science so try different flavor combinations to see what you like best. You can create everything from a creamy dip with crackers or toast to salad with herb aioli dressing to a smoked whitefish mousse. Alternatively you can just peel hunks of the rich and smokey fish from it’s skin and eat it as a simple snack anytime.
Smoked Whitefish Recipe
2 fillets of lake whitefish (skin-on)
7 cups cool water
1 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup brown sugar
3 bay leaves
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1/8 teaspoon onion salt
1/8 teaspoon granulated garlic
4 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons birch or maple syrup (OPTIONAL – for basting during smoking)
Brine The Fish – It’s important to brine the fish before smoking it. This will both remove some of the moisture and also bring some nice flavors into the flesh. Mix all ingredients (except for the basting syrup) together for the brine and place the fish skin side up in the mixture. There are differing views on the length of time you should brine your fish. This ranges from as little as 4 hours, up to 48 hours. I like to brine somewhere between 12 and 24 hours in the refrigerator. It’s important to keep the fish at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower during the brining process. If you let the fish sit too short of a time the brine won’t have its full affect and if you too long you’re risking a really salty fish (I’ve made this mistake in the past). Make sure you use a non-reactive container that’s made of glass or plastic for your brine.
Dry The Fish – After you’ve brined the fish you’ll want to remove it from the mixture, rinse it and then pat it dry with paper towel before placing it on a cooling rack. This is a key step to getting the all-important pellicle on the fish. The pellicle is basically a skin that forms on the flesh of the fish when dried. This is important in smoking because it allows the smoke to in essence attach itself to the fish and give it a wonderful smokey flavor. There are different ways you can remove surface moisture and create the pellicle on the fish. Placing the fish in the fridge overnight will dry it out. You could also leave the fish out on the counter and get air moving across it’s surface with a small fan. If you dry it on the counter check it every hour or so and don’t use this process for much beyond 3-4 hours. On the other hand, if you put the uncovered fish in the fridge (40 degrees F or less) you can leave it overnight and it will form a nice pellicle by morning.
Smoke The Fish – Once the pellicle has formed, you’re ready to smoke the fish. There are many different options to consider when it comes to the smoker, the wood, etc. Like the ingredients in your brine, it really comes down to preference and there’s generally not a wrong way to do it (refer to Smoker & Wood Choices below). Keep the heat low, ideally between 180 – 220 degrees Fahrenheit. On many smokers it can be tough to keep this lower temperature. A water pan filled with cold tap water can be helpful in controlling the temperature. If you’d like, you can baste it with a syrup or honey after an hour of smoking. (In the smoked fish video above I used a birch syrup that I bought in Canada on a fishing trip to the Woodland Caribou Provincial Park.) Check the temp of the fish at this point and then recheck the fish every 15 to 30 minutes going forward. The goal is to get the internal temperature of the whitefish to 160 degrees Fahrenheit and hold it at that temperature for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes at this temperature you can remove the fish and let it cool on the counter. Eat it right away or seal it in tinfoil to store in the fridge for up to a week (longer if you vacuum seal it). Avoid freezing smoked fish.