Smoked Trout – so simple, so tasty, and all home-made

Smoked trout – like its close cousin smoked salmon – is one of the great ‘luxury’ foods.  I find I prefer it – the finished product, while it looks very similar to salmon, has a more delicate flavour with less of the aggressively-fishy oiliness which can characterise smoked salmon.  It’s much less readily available, too – and can certainly be expensive, a quick google suggests prices from £40 – £80 a kilo direct from a number of British producers.  Expect further mark-up in a smart London delicatessen!

Sliced home-smoked trout

Of course, if I were just writing this in praise of smoked trout and telling you to go and buy some from a smokehouse on the internet, it wouldn’t be the country skills blog!  Making smoked trout at home is straightforward, and produces a first-class product which is the match of anything you’ll buy from even the most up-market smokehouse or deli counter.  Better still, it costs a fraction of the commercial product.  The two fillets of rainbow trout I cured and smoked for this post cost the princely sum of £1.53, with a combined final weight of a little over 200g – including other ingredients and consumables, that’s a total cost of well below £10/kg.  A little luxury, then, that we can all afford to enjoy a bit more often!

You’re going to be eating this fish raw, effectively, so freshness is of the essence.  Choose a lovely fresh whole trout – with bright clear eyes, red gills and no ‘fishy’ smell – and have it descaled and filleted for you by the fishmonger (or do it yourself – it’s not that tricky really!).  Good quality farmed trout is readily available, even on supermarket fish counters, and if you can get hold of a lovely fresh wild fish, even better!  Avoid pre-packed fillets, whose freshness it is more difficult to be certain of.  Wash the fillets off carefully under the tap, to remove all the mucus coating from the skin.  Make sure you’ve removed all the rib bones and pin-bones (the small pointy bones that run along the middle of the fillet) – a pair of tweezers is very useful here.  This will take a few minutes, but is worth the effort to do properly.  Then rinse the fillets and dry them carefully with kitchen towel.   Weigh the fillets and make a note of this weight.

Trout fillets with cure appliedThe cure I use for trout and salmon is very simple – made up of 1/3rd sugar (golden caster sugar is my favourite here) and 2/3rd table salt.   I favour a short curing time – just overnight – with an excess of dry-cure so that the cure stays saturated throughout.  Be generous – you can afford to be, since the ingredient cost is very low – in the scale of pence for a couple of fillets.

Weighed down for curingYou want a thin layer of cure in your non-metallic dish below the fish, and a good coating over the top.  The photo gives a good idea of the sort of coating you’re aiming for.

You then want to weigh down the fillets to help draw water out – you’ll need to improvise something – I found a couple of plastic ‘take-away’ containers fitted very nicely in my dish, and then weighed them down with tin cans.  Don’t use anything metallic in direct contact with the curing fish.  Put the salted fillets in the fridge.

Cured fillets, next morningI would tend to get the cure going when I get home from work, having collected my fresh fish on the way home – so just before bed I turn the fillets over in the cure, and replace the weights before putting them back in the refrigerator.  The next morning, there will be quite a lot of liquid in the dish and most of the cure will have dissolved. Take the fillets out of the dish, noting the change in texture – the skin will have taken on a harder, almost cardboard character, and the flesh will be firmer and more translucent.  Rinse and dry the fillets, and weigh them again, and note down the reduction in weight.  My fillets had dropped from a starting weight of 256g to 220g at this stage – a 14% water loss.  You’re aiming for a final loss of ~18% by the end of the process, so that’s well on target. Now place the fillets on an open plate, uncovered, in the refrigerator for 24 hours before cold smoking.

You may have read this far, and are now thinking ‘well, that’s no use to me – who has a cold smoker at home?!’.  At it’s simplest, cold smoking requires two things – a source of cold smoke (from smouldering sawdust, for instance), and a space in which to contain it.  Last year, I built a wooden tower smoker, but there’s no need to start with a construction project.  A cardboard box, or a (clean!) upturned bin or barrel, rigged up creatively with a rack or two, will do just as well for the occasional smoking job!

ProQ cold smoke generator, litYou will need a smoke source, and I can heartily recommend the ProQ Cold Smoke Generator, which is a nifty little gadget which entirely takes any stress or complication out of the process.  It’s a little pricey (around £35 at this time), but will pay for itself incredibly quickly once you get the smoking bug!  It reliably provides 10 – 12 hours of cold smoke (depending on the temperature, humidity, and your sawdust choice) with very little heat production.  Have a look at the Supplier’s List for suggested sources of smoking and curing supplies.

Trout fillets, loaded in the smokerChoose a day without too much wind or rain (the occasional shower isn’t important), and where the temperature is roughly between 5 degrees and 15 degrees centigrade.  I’ve successfully smoked between 0 and 5 degrees but smoke penetration is less effective.  Colder, and your fish will freeze rather than taking smoke.  Warmer and the risk of spoilage increases considerably – though cold smoking temperatures up to about 20 degrees are cited in some places.  Get the smoker going first thing in the morning, and leave it for the day – though I would keep it under much closer supervision if using a cardboard box!.

I used a mix of alder and maple sawdust for this smoker burn (about 10% maple) – this produced a gorgeous neutral smoke-flavour with very little bitterness and with a noticeable ‘sweet’ note, presumably from the maple.  It’s definitely a mix I’ll use again in the future.

Trout, fresh from the smokerOnce the smoke generator has burned all the way through, unload your smoker, and take a final weight on your fillets. They should have lost another 4 – 5 %.  They will have a lovely orange-pink colour with a noticeable translucency and a glossy surface.  Then wrap them tightly in cling film, and freeze them.  Smoking fish in this way isn’t really a preserving mechanism, and storage time in the fridge is about 3 – 4 days.  Even if I’m going to eat them very soon, though, I tend to freeze them at this stage – a day or two in the freezer should ensure any parasites which may be present in the fish have been killed off.  You can keep them frozen for a couple of weeks without too much loss of quality, but after a month or so you’ll start to notice the deterioration.

Sliced smoked trout fillet

Once thawed, I slice the smoked trout thinly with a sharp knife, starting at the ‘head’ end of the fillet, at about a 45 degree angle.  There’s a bit of a knack to this, but you’ll get good at it really quickly – and who cares if the slices are thicker, or a bit uneven?  This produces small, almost translucent slices which are great for nibbles.  I love to serve these with water biscuits or oatcakes (or your preferred sort of cracker), cream cheese – or a soft goat’s cheese is also very nice, freshly ground black pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice.  But the limit is really your imagination.  Smoked trout with scrambled eggs on a toasted muffin is a beautifully indulgent breakfast!

I really do hope you chose to give home-smoked trout a try, and that however you prepare and enjoy it, it brings you as much foodie pleasure as it brings me!

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Scaling Up – second attempt at smoked salmon

Buoyed up by the success of my first attempt at curing and smoking a very small salmon tail fillet, and tempted by the whole sides of salmon that appear in the shops at this time of year, I thought ‘hey, why not?’ and asked my husband to pick one up when he was shopping.  Having got it home and looked at it, in all it’s 1.75kg glory, and about an inch and a half thick at it’s thickest point, I did wonder if I hadn’t perhaps bitten off a bit more than I could chew…  so like any sensible experimental cook, I put the thought firmly to the back of my mind and got on with it anyway.

Before curing I decided to add a bit of flavour to the fillet in the form of a bit of a whisky infusion, so a tot of Laphroaig went into the bag with the fillet for an hour or two.  In retrospect I should have got the fillet out, washed and dried it and deprived it of its pin bones before doing anything with whisky, as I’m pretty sure that most of the flavour I added got washed away at this slightly later preparation stage.   Lesson learned!

After that, I cut the fillet in half (none of my oven dishes is anything like long enough to take a whole fillet in one go, and my fish kettle is metal and not really suitable for curing) and rubbed it generously with the cure mix which, as last time, is 2/3rds table salt and 1/3rd golden caster sugar.  In aiming for a very short cure period (about 6 hours) I’m keen to make sure the pickle doesn’t become unsaturated, so I use a lot more cure mix than I probably need to in order to get maximum water extraction during the short contact time.  I made up about a pound of cure mix, though I didn’t use it all.

Cured salmon skinOnce rubbed in the cure, with a thin layer in the dish beneath the fish, I covered the fillet pieces with cling film and weighed them down with most of the canned goods in my larder!  I turned them every couple of hours.  At the end of the six hours a really quite striking amount of liquid had been drawn out of the fillet by the osmotic action of the salt and sugar.  More striking than that was the effect of the curing process on the salmon skin, which had reverted from the rather soft pliable texture you expect, to a firm, almost cardboard-like texture with the beautiful blue iridescence you would normally see only in the skin of a freshly caught fish.  More culinary alchemy, and quite beautiful!

Cured salmon before smokingAfter washing and drying, the salmon pieces went into my fridge on open racks overnight.

The next morning, they were part of the second smoker run, and smoked for 10 hours over a mix of oak and apple wood.

After smoking I portionned the fish for freezing, which also gave me a good chance to examine it in cross-section.  The thinner tail piece is perfect, I think.  I cut some slivers from the surface and tasted them fresh from the smoker, it’s some of the best smoked salmon I have ever tasted – a gentle saltiness and sweetness, the oiliness of the fish mixing with a soft smoky flavour and perhaps, with a little faith, even the faint bite of the whisky in the background.  In cross section it is an even translucent orange-pink all the way through and a nice firm texture.

The thicker head-end half of the fillet is not quite such an unmitigated success.  There is a clear visual and textural distinction between the skin 1/3rd of the piece and the rest, with the flesh nearest the skin softer, pinker, and with more distinct fat-lines visible.  In all respects, this part of the fish is much closer in appearance to a fresh fillet than to a cured and smoked one.  I can only assume that the cure mix was not able to penetrate well through the skin (which in retrospect I should have checked was properly scaled) and had not had the time in the cure to be reached from the other side.   It’s not a terrible disaster as these pieces are now frozen and will be perfect to use in dishes like the creamy smoked-salmon pasta, but I don’t think they’re suitable for eating raw.

The options for addressing this, as far as I can tell are –

  1. Skin the fillet – not appealing as a plan, as it will reduce the structural integrity of the fillet and make it harder to slice thinly as smoked salmon later, also I think skinned fillets are a lot less visually appealing!
  2. Cure the salmon for longer, perhaps 8 – 10 hours – also not very appealing, as the flavour of the salmon is, in my opinion, perfect as it is, and I would not like it any saltier
  3. Do something to the skin side to help it absorb the cure better – certainly making sure the skin is fully scaled may well help here, but I’m also tempted to do something in the way of shallow piercing / scarifying of the skin to help the cure penetrating.  I have ordered (Amazon to the rescue again) a device called a blade tenderiser, intended for making lots of stab incisions in steaks before cooking, which I think with some minor modification to control the stabbing-depth may well do exactly what I want to the skin on the thick end of the fillet without too much faff.

Watch this space for the third effort – I’m running out of time before Christmas now so the third time had better be the charm!

First smoke! Testing the DIY cold smoker

Time: 5 minutes – Patience: 10 hours – Difficulty: Trivial – Knackynes: Low

So I built a cold smoker, and then it was time to try it!

The items in my first smoke run were the cured salmon fillet, a piece of home-cured bacon, three garlic bulbs and about a dozen home-grown chillies.  These were loaded into the smoker on the racks – I considered hanging the bacon piece from a  hook but decided against this time.  The loaded smoker looks really empty so the first lesson is to have more items ready for smoking and do them all at once.

Smoker, loadedThe ProQ smoke generator lit very straightforwardly and behaved immaculately, smouldering gently without any noticeable heat output for almost exactly the advertised ten hours.  I used oak sawdust in the smoke generator for the first attempt, and the 100g pack I had was a little bit more than I needed.

ProQ cold smoke generator, litThe smoker itself leaked like a sieve from the junction between the roof and box, and also from the side of the magnetically-attached door panel.  I suspect this meant the smoke density inside the box was rather less than it might have been.  Before the next run, I plan to plug as many of these leaks as I can using silicone mastic and some batons, and we’ll see if I get a more concentrated smoke as a result.  I could conceivably run a second smoke generator, but this would increase my costs, so I’d rather not!

Overall, the salmon was a great success.  It was firm, glistened slightly with oil on the surface, and cooked wonderfully into the creamy home-smoked salmon pasta I made for dinner on Monday.  You can see photos and more discussion with the recipe.

The garlic and chillies didn’t appreciably change in appearance during smoking – at odds with the smoked garlic I’ve seen before which was dark yellow to brown in colour.  I have seen recommendations for smoking times for garlic up to 36 hours, though, so 10 may not be enough to achieve this, especially in a leaky-smoker.  They smell wonderfully of oak smoke though and the flavour of the garlic is a treat – nice fresh flavour with a subtle but distinct note of oak smoke, not too obtrusive and lovely for general cooking.  I might re-smoke one of the bulbs next time I run the smoker, if I’ve not eaten it all by then.

Bacon, salmon, garlic and chillies after smokingThe bacon has a bit of smoke staining on the rind and has darkened on the meat side.  I think you might get more discolouration on the rind with the bacon hanging rather than sat rind-up on a rack.  Apart from that, it looks and smells as I would expect from good smoked streaky bacon.  I haven’t tasted it yet – but plan to have some for my lunch!

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