Ask Peter: Smoking fish
We have had smoked blue cod wings at a restaurant in Moeraki. Do you know the best way to do this? We have done it with manuka sawdust, brown sugar and salt but we keep getting the meths taste. What can we do to improve this smoking method? Lyn
I’m really not sure what the meths taste would be — unless it’s the fuel you have used to heat up your smoking mix, or it might be that the wood being used had been treated and not suitable for food production? I’ve not experienced that myself, so I’m only guessing.
My father Bruce is a very good smoker and we used to have a metal cabinet with a door (perhaps it was an old dryer or fridge?) in our back yard at home where he’d often have kahawai, snapper, lamb and other things smoking. Dad would mostly marinate the “protein” in equal quantities of brown sugar and coarse salt for anything from 20 minutes to a few hours, depending on what he was smoking. Thinner fish needs less than a leg of lamb for example. He’d set a fire within the cabinet on a metal plate on the ground and when it was down to hot red embers he’d sit a metal roasting dish on top, filled with manuka or other wood chips, with ¼ cup water sprinkled over it to stop it igniting. He’d hang rods off the racks and from the rods hang the proteins on butcher’s hooks and butcher’s string. Heavy joints would be tied by wire to the rods — Dad had a small engineering company in Whanganui so it’s not as odd as it sounds — there was always wire and such like at home. Sometimes you’d look in and he’d laid some shellfish or vegetables on cake racks in the smoker — he loves playing with his food.
Myself, I tend to smoke over a mixture of woodchips, tea leaves and rice. I guess it’s just where I’m at in my smoking methodology. I used to just smoke over wood chips but there was a time when it was hard to find suitable wood in London. Now with the internet, I can summon up a dozen different woodchips from Europe and the US: applewood, hickory, pear tree, oak or grape vines … whatever takes my fancy. However, as I wrote recently, I smoked some venison over manuka wood in LA recently, and I have to say it really is one of the best woods to smoke over. The flavour is delicious. There was a time I used to tea-smoke everything and, although I’ve tried jasmine, Earl Grey and the likes, a good oldfashioned oldfashioned gumboot tea leaf does fine. I then read about rice-smoked foods — using a wok and rack— so I began adding dry rice to the mixture, 80 per cent tea leaves and 20 per cent rice. Then, once we were able to easily source food-safe wood chips, I made my preferred mixture 40 per cent wood, 35 per cent tea leaves and 25 per cent rice. It’s a nice mixture and serves us well.
I never add sugar to the smoker as I find the taste can become quite acrid from the burnt sugar. If you’ve ever made a caramel sauce and had the sugar burn before you add your cream, you’ll know the taste I’m referring to. However, because I marinate my foods in a mixture of salt and sugar (various foods can be done differently), as well as herbs and spices and sometimes even some oil, as the food is smoked some of the marinade will inevitably dribble down on to the smoking medium. I always wipe off excess marinade using my hands. There’s no need to remove it all by rinsing and patting dry as I’ve seen some people do (shock horror) and this also helps create a glaze on the food — especially fish.
The other thing I’ve learned to smoke are liquids. Last week I made a vegetarian smoked coconut broth to serve at a food festival we were taking part in. If I was making a fish or chicken broth I’d have smoked the bones. But instead I just filled a stainless steel dish with coconut cream and smoked that over 30 minutes, stirring it from time to time. The smoke globules seem to be attracted to liquid — they just fall on top of it, and by stirring it, the liquid takes on the smoky taste.
It’s delicious added to something like a pumpkin soup or risotto.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to email@example.com and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.