Market black box: Hubbie nailed the yellowtail on a fishing trip.
What I did with it: froze some, and smoked a whole yellowtail. (Yikes! Never smoked before!)
I love hot smoked fish. Depending on where you get it or who makes it, the flavors range from salty to slightly sweet and herby to spicy – simply from the brine recipe. I’ve been hesitant to try smoking but it was one of those culinary techniques that I’ve always wanted to experiment with – read extensively about it but never attempted it. A good fishing day for hubby resulting in gorgeous yellowtail gave me the perfect opportunity to do just that: I can only put so much fillets in the freezer. I decided to do something special to one of them, and try my hand at smoking.
Yellowtail is a moderately fat fish, and is perfect for grilling, sauteing, baking, and smoking. It is found on sushi menus under the name “hamachi”. But don’t confuse this fish for the yellowfin tuna – it is a completely different fish altogether. Yellowtail meat is tender, and is mild and very flavorful. Depending on the size, fresh yellowtail can be filleted or steaked.
Hot Smoking California Yellowtail
The first thing to do is prepare the fish for smoking. The bigger they are the more in depth the process is for gutting and cleaning, but the little boy of the house enjoyed watching me gut and fillet the fish. He even helped, which I was surprised. I reserved two large sides for smoking and cut up the rest for future enjoyment in the freezer.
We don’t have a dedicated smoker so I used our combo BBQ/smoker for the fish. If you do the same, it is important for you to regulate the coals and wood in the firebox to keep the smokerbox at a constant temperature that you’ll need for the job. It took me a while to figure that part out, but once I did, smoking was a relaxing event in the backyard – me reading a book for a few hours and tending to the smoker while the kids played in the pool.
Smoking fish is a form of food preservation, and if done incorrectly can lead to food borne illnesses. I’m a safety girl in the kitchen, practically being obnoxiously so: no licking egg-based covered beaters (sorry kids), observant of the two-hour rule, use of kitchen and refrigerator thermometers, etc. Being in the food service business has its rewards – you can cook anything set in front of you – but also makes you cognizant of the many bad things that can happen if the food isn’t prepared or cooked in a safe manner. So, attempting something like this presented me with a whole new set of worries. But the Pacific Northwest Extension publication Smoking Fish at Home – Safely was an excellent brush up on my smoking knowledge. Also, visit Dana Point Fish Company for a word on brining and forming the pellicle.
Brines are used in smoking to give flavor but are primarily used to control moisture content and inhibit bacterial growth. The use of a cooking thermometer is also important as the fish needs to reach a core (center) temperature of at least 160 degrees F. For me, I’ve found 165 degrees to be a good safety target range. The texture of my fish wasn’t dry, but that may be because the sides were so thick. Once the fish was smoked and cooled, it froze really well in vacuum sealer bags for future meals.
- Fresh yellowtail fish
- Salt water brine (see recipe below)
- Pan dress the fish for smoking - gut and clean the fish, remove head and tail, backbone, and any pectoral fins. If the fish has scales, scale the fish. Remove the bones if desired - otherwise you'll need to be careful when eating it after smoking.
- Rinse off the fish with clean water to remove any traces of blood or viscera. Remove any bruises if you see them. You want a perfectly cleaned and clean fish.
- Brine your fish using a proper ratio of salt and water and for a recommended time. I used the ratio and time listed in the publication above of 1 cup plain non-iodized salt to 7 1/2 cups of water for an hour. I had to make that two and a half times to completely cover the fish in the brine. I also have a salometer so if you have one, prepare the brine from 60º to 80º SAL.
- During brining, fire up the smoker. As I didn't have a commercially dedicated smoker, I built a charcoal fire in the firebox of our BBQ smoker and brought it to a constant temperature of around 200 degrees F inside the main smoker/BBQ part.
- Many recipes will call for rinsing the fish from the brine before smoking. Because this was my first time, I overlooked that and skipped it, and just drained the fish and patted it dry with paper towels. My fish turned out fine but was a little salty at the surface. I might rinse it next time but since it didn't affect it negatively, I might skip on purpose next time. Pat with paper towels and let it air dry for about a half an hour to an hour. Lightly oil the racks and place the fish skin side down.
- Smoke the fish, tending the fire and coals. Add to the fire or a give a spritz of water to keep the temperature constant. Continually add in wood blocks and chips for constant smoking. Do this for about 2 hours depending on the thickness of the fish. Any hardwood can be used. I used hickory with great results but stay away from conifer wood no matter how plentiful in your area.
- Continue smoking and begin to increase the heat until the fish reaches an internal temperature of 160 degrees and flakes easily. Time will depend on the thickness of the fish.
- Eat fresh, or wrap and freeze for storage.