Smoking brined fish is an ancient technique that preserves fish and, in the process, turns it into a delicacy. With just a few hours' time and minimal equipment, you can smoke either fresh-caught or purchased fish at home.
Two steps are involved. The first is to cure the fish (to help prevent spoilage) either by soaking it in a brine or by packing it in a dry cure. With a wet brine, it's easier to control the amount of salt penetration and the moistness of the fish. The dry method is good if you want to cure your own catch right at the fishing site.
Smoking, the second step, can be done in any type of covered barbecue (including commercial smokers). Cooked slowly over low heat that's carefully monitored with an oven thermometer, the fish stays moist and has time to absorb the swirling smoke of the wood chips.
Almost any type of fish can be smoked, but such moderately fat to fatter types as salmon, steelhead, trout, sturgeon, sablefish, tuna, mackerel, bluefish and lake whitefish retain the moistest texture.
Serve smoked fish warm or at room temperature as an appetizer, an entree, or a breakfast treat. The flavor is rich, so portions can be modest.
Preperation and curing. You can use whole fish or 1 - to 1 1/2-inch-thick steaks or fillets. Scale and clean whole fish. Leave small fish, such as trout or mackerel, whole; fillet large fish, leaving the skin on.
Cure by either the wet brine or the dry pack method. Each mixture makes enough to cure 10 pounds of fish.
Wet brine cure. In a noncorrodible container (such as glass or stainless steel) just large enough to hold fish, combine 3 quarts cold water, 1 1/2 cups salt, 3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar, 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar, 1 tablespoon whole peppercorns, 6 bay leaves, 1 1/2 teaspoons each whole allspice and cloves, 2 teaspoons ground ginger, and 2 cloves garlic, peeled and split. Stir until salt and sugar are dissolved.
Add fish, making sure all surfaces are covered (if fish floats, turn skin side up so flesh is submerged). Cover and let stand at room temperature for 2 hours or refrigerate for up to 6 hours.
Dry pack cure. In a large container, mix together I cup each rock salt and firmly packed brown sugar, 3/4 teaspoon ground white pepper, 1/2 teaspoon each ground allspice and ginger, 1/2 teaspoon cracked bay leaf, and 1 clove garlic, minced or pressed.
Arrange pieces of wax paper on a flat surface. Sprinkle about 1/3 of the salt mixture in center of paper and set fish, skin side down, on top. Pat remaining mixture onto flesh. Cover and let stand at room temperature for 2 hours or refrigerate for up to 6 hours.
SMOKING. Lift fish from wet or dry salt mixture; rinse thoroughly under a slow stream of cold water, rubbing flesh, if necessary, to release salt. Place fish, skin side down, on several layers of paper towels. Blot to dry. Let dry, uncovered, at room temperature until flesh feels tacky (about 30 minutes).
Ignite 20 charcoal briquets in a covered barbecue. Meanwhile, soak 4 cups hickory chips in water to cover for at least 20 minutes.
In a small bowl, mix 1/3 cup maple syrum, 1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce, and 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger. Set baste aside.
When coals are completely covered with gray ash (about 30 minutes), arrange as follows: in a small (about 18-inch) barbecue, push 5 coals to each side; in a medium-size (about 22-inch) barbecue, push 6 coals to each side; and in a large (about 26-inch) barbecue, push 8 coals to each side. Using long-handled tongs, transfer coals to a small metal pan; add 4 to 6 new coals to these so they will ignite for later use.
Grease grill. (For fish fillets, lightly grease skin to prevent sticking.)
Drain wood chips, sprinkle about 1/2 cup of the chips over each stack of coals in barbecue. Set grill about 6 inches above coals. Position fish (skin side down for fillets) side by side in center of grill so no part of fish extends over coals. Place oven thermometer in center of grill, on top of fish if necessary. Cover grill. If barbecue is vented, adjust to maintain low heat (check manufacturers directions).
When fish has smoked about 20 minutes, check thermometer; it should read 160 to 180. If temperature is below 160, add a hot coal or 2 to each side of barbecue; remove 1 or 2 coals if too hot. Sprinkle each pile of coals with 1/2 cup more wet hickory chips. Pat surface of fish a paper towel to keep dry; brush lightly with baste.
About every 20 to 30 minutes, check barbecue. Add coals as needed to maintain temperature between 160 and 180; add wood chips as needed to produce a steady stream of smoke. Each time you check barbecue, blot fish with a paper towel and brush with baste.
Continue smoke-cooking until fish flakes easily when prodded with a fork in thickest part (about 1 hour for small fish, 2 to 3 hours for 1 to 1 1/2 inch thick fish steaks or fillets). To remove from grill, loosen edges with a wide spatula and slide gently onto a baking sheet; serve hot or let cool to room temperature. If made ahead, wrap airtight and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks; freeze for up to 6 months.