Smoking has enjoyed a relatively recent surge in popularity as a cooking method for many different meat and fish types. These days, there are a variety of smokers available for any chef’s kitchen or backyard.
The tradition of smoking fish goes back for thousands of years. Historians aren’t sure how our ancestors first discovered it, but it’s clear that what began as a means of preserving fish has evolved into a method of preparing a unique and truly delicious meal.
If you’re ready to eat some freshly smoked fish, read on to learn all about the best types of fish for this cooking technique!
The Top Ten Fish for Smoking
In general, you can smoke any type of fish; however, certain types will taste much better smoked than others.
The fattier the fish, the more flavor it will absorb during the smoking. Meanwhile, lean fish can end up overly dried out and tough after the brining and smoking processes. So, in general, look for fatty or oily fish to smoke, and stay away from lean fish like cod, flounder, or grouper.
If you’re not sure where to start, we rounded up the ten types of fish that are best for smoking due to their flavor, composition, and other factors. Let’s take a look at each of them in turn.
Salmon is probably the most well-known fish for smoking. There are several varieties of salmon, all of which are great for smoking; however, the best type of salmon to smoke is king salmon, also called Chinook salmon, because of its very high oil content.
Generally, these fatty fish are found in cold waters (both freshwater and saltwater). In addition to tasting delicious when smoked, salmon are extremely healthy for you since they contain omega-3 fatty acids that are essential for a human diet. Experts report that omega-3 acids help prevent heart disease, stroke, and other conditions caused by narrowing the arteries.
Salmon is one of the few foods whose flavor works well with cedar, and we recommend trying cedarwood to smoke your salmon. Alder is another great option.
Once you’ve successfully smoked your salmon, try adding it to cream cheese to emulate the classic New York lox bagel. You can also eat it with eggs, crackers, or all by itself.
Many people think of trout as a fish meant to be roasted over a campfire directly after being caught, rather than a fish meant for putting through the extended brining and smoking process. However, trout’s high-fat content (it’s a close cousin of salmon) and flaky texture makes it an ideal fish for smoking.
There are several trout varieties, but rainbow trout is generally considered the most flavorful and therefore is best suited for smoking. Try smoking your trout with oak wood and serving it with lemons, capers, and thinly sliced onions for a delicious meal.
Bluefish are large, aggressive marine fish with firm, flaky meat. Some people don’t care for its strong “fishy” flavor, but if you like seafood, then the strong flavor of bluefish lends itself excellently to smoking.
Since bluefish has such a dominant flavor, you’ll want to choose your smoking wood accordingly. Try a wood with a bolder flavor, such as mesquite, hickory, or cherry, to complement the bluefish, rather than a more mild option.
Note as well that since bluefish can grow to be quite large, their fillets may require extra time to cook all the way through.
Mullet is common to the southern Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and other waters surrounding Florida. A relatively small fish, mullet is common prey for swordfish and other larger fishes, and anglers often use it as bait. However, mullet is also delicious for humans to eat—it has large scales, thick skin, and lots of fat, making it an ideal fish for smoking.
We recommend butterflying the mullet and removing its bones before smoking, although you can smoke it with the bones in if you prefer.
Mullet has a unique, nutty flavor that makes it a true delicacy when smoked. Try using pecan or hickory wood in your smoker to complement the fish.
Mackerel is the name for a large family of fish that includes over 30 different species. It is a very sustainable fish, so you can feel good about eating it. Mackerel is common in cold waters worldwide and has oily skin that makes it perfect for smoking. It has a rich flavor and creamy consistency that many seafood lovers compare to tuna.
Oak and alder are both excellent woods to use when smoking mackerel. Mackerel is best served simply, without too many overwhelming flavors. Try serving it on bruschetta or as part of a dip for a tasty appetizer.
If you’re partial to shellfish, try tossing some scallops in your smoker. Like the other fish in this article, scallops have a high-fat content that makes them a great candidate for smoking.
Note that scallops’ small size means that they will cook much more quickly in the smoker than other fish. While some fish on this list need several hours in the smoker, you’ll only need to smoke your scallops for 30-45 minutes. If you leave them in the smoker too long, you’ll risk making your scallops dry and rubbery.
For a special treat, try wrapping your smoked scallops in bacon. It makes a terrific appetizer or main entree.
(Looking for Smoker’s options? Try reading; Best Smokers for Fish)
7. Sea Bass
The term sea bass encompasses hundreds of different marine fish species, and some species might also be called blackfish or black sea bass. Sea bass is a white, flaky fish with a deliciously mild flavor.
Sea bass fillets can be pretty large in size, so they may require a few hours in the smoker to cook fully. Try smoking your sea bass with alder or applewood chips, and serve it alongside grilled vegetables for a sophisticated and delicious main course.
Swordfish is a large, meaty fish that is often served in steaks as well as fillets. It has a hearty, unique flavor that suits it well to smoking. Its thick size means you should use a slightly higher temperature in your smoker and be prepared to cook it for several hours.
Apple, oak, and cherry are all terrific woods to use for smoking swordfish and will complement its flavor nicely. Swordfish is a delicious main course; however, you should only eat it every once in a while, as it has a high mercury content.
Tuna may be mainly known for its canned format, but tuna steaks are a popular and incredibly versatile food. Tuna has a thick, creamy texture and a taste that isn’t overpoweringly “fishy,” meaning that even people who don’t normally care for seafood will often choose to eat it.
Tuna’s strong flavor and high-fat content make it a great fish for smoking. While there are many varieties of tuna, ahi and yellowfin are the best choices for smoking. Since it’s a thicker fish, you can turn up your smoker’s heat to around 250 degrees Fahrenheit. We recommend using a milder wood for smoking tuna, such as apple or cherry.
It can be hard to find sturgeon to cook and eat since their endangered status means that they are illegal to catch in the wild. However, if you can get your hands on it, it is a delicious fish for smoking. Sturgeon has a delicate flavor that some people compare to that of lobster.
Alder is an excellent wood to use when smoking sturgeon. For an extra decadent flavor, brush your sturgeon with brandy or whiskey before cooking it in your smoker.
Here are a few other types of fish that are great for smoking:
- Catfish: Although fried catfish is a southern delicacy, these fish also taste delicious when smoked. Opt for thin filets, and try using alder wood in your smoker.
- Clams: Clams don’t take long to cook, and overcooking them can give them an unpleasant rubber texture. For best results, make sure that your wood chips start to smoke before you add the clams, and don’t leave the fish in the smoker for very long.
- Herring: Smoked herring, also called kippers, are a very popular meal in northern Europe.
- Sardines: Homemade smoked sardines are infinitely tastier than the canned variety. Try using almond, maple, hickory, or applewood.
- Sailfish: Sailfish is harder to acquire than the other fish included in this article, but its high-fat content makes it a great candidate for your smoker if you can get your hands on it.
- Tilapia: The possibilities are endless with this versatile farm-raised fish. For a delicious appetizer, try making smoked tilapia dip.
We also have some other related articles specially for fish eaters:
Wrapping Things Up
Smoking is a unique, delicious, and fun method of cooking many different types of meat and fishes. When looking for a fish to smoke, make sure to choose one with high-fat content since it will produce the best flavor. With some planning ahead and a little patience, you can enjoy delectable smoked fish right at home.