If you are anything like me, smoked fish is, and has, been a staple in my life since I was a kid. I have had more species and varieties of smoked fish than most people could ever think of. However over the years I have tried many different recipes, most of which were my own trial and error, until I have tweaked it enough to continue to repeat the same manner of smoking my fish. Being summer here in the Keys, Mahi Mahi is generally the offshore catch of the day on the Outer Limits, which is a bonus to the smoker as we like smoked Mahi. Whether made into a dip, a salad, or just eaten by itself, Mahi has a very mild and delicious flavor when smoked. Now everyone has a different way they like to do things, but here is mine. Give it a shot, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.
With most smoked meats, especially fish, a brine works very well to keep the meat from drying out during the smoking process. Brining also will help the fish keep its flavor rather than turning into a smoked chunk of wood. The brine I use is very simple to make, but the amount of time that the fish needs to be in the brine is a matter of preference. I have seen where people like to brine for anywhere from an hour to a whole day. Personally I feel 8-12 hours is sufficient for my fish and have tried longer and shorter periods and feel this is the best.
Floating the Egg
First we start with a stainless steel pot, please do not use aluminum, filled with 1 to 2 gallons of water depending on how much fish you plan on smoking. For very large amounts a cooler, cleaned of course, can work very well. This brine is simple; water, salt, sugar, and Old Bay seasoning. The amount of salt is key though. For this I like to use the “floating egg” trick. Measure out a 1/3 of a cup at a time and stir until dissolved. Make sure to keep track of exactly how much salt you place in the brine. After 1 cup or so, gently place an egg into the salted water, when the correct amount of salt has been achieved the egg will float to the top. If you think it may be too salty, just add a little water at a time.
Once the egg floats now just add same amount of white sugar as salt, and 1 tablespoon Old Bay per gallon of water, and stir until dissolved as well. Once all has been dissolved top off with about a pound or two of ice and place fish into the brine and place in the refrigerator.
Note: when I am going to use the fish for salad or a dip I will leave the skin on the fillet and remove it after smoking the fish. When I am planning to eat the fish by itself I will take the skin off the fillet and cut into 4 inch chunks prior to brining. Medium size fillets work the best but any Mahi is great for smoking.
Forming the Pellicle
After the brining process remove the fish from the brine and rinse thoroughly with cold water. Once rinsed, pat dry the fish and place each piece on a tray for a couple hours to form a pellicle (a sort of skin) on the surface of the fish. This skin like pellicle will help keep the moisture in and absorb the smoke a little better. Once formed, the surface of the fish will have a firm yet somewhat sticky feel to it. Just before placing the fish in the smoker, I rub a mixture of brown sugar and honey on the pieces to give a sweet flavor to the outside of the fish
Smoke’em If You Got’em
When I smoke my fish I prefer fruit or nut types of wood such as Apple, Cherry, and Pecan varieties. These wood types are very mild and don’t overwhelm the fish with strong smoke. The worst thing with some smoke fish I find is that very strong wood types make the fish taste like a piece of smoked wood. No thanks! I use a Traeger wood pellet smoker, but whatever type of smoker you use, whether electric, charcoal, or gas, make sure the temperature is regulated. I like to smoke my fish at 160-170 degrees. Any hotter and you might as well just cook it. I have over the years done the fish at a slightly lower temperature but this is what works best for me. The length of time it takes for optimal smoking varies greatly on how much fish you have and what temperature you are smoking with, but the internal temperature of the fish needs to reach 160 to 165 degrees to make sure that the fish is done. Most of the time smoking will take 2-4 hours depending on the thickness of the fish and will turn the pieces a golden brown color. When the desired temperature has been reached, remove the fish from the smoker and let sit on the counter top to cool to room temperature. The fish should be kept in the refrigerator and will hold for up to 3 weeks. I have also had great luck in vacuum sealing the fish and freezing it for future consumption. So “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em!”