Gordon loves cooking and experimenting with food. He loves making new dishes, particularly with unusual or underused ingredients.
Succulent, moist, unbelievably tasty and exceptionally nutritious (known to be rich in omega-3 fatty acids), home-smoked mackerel are an altogether different proposition from the smoked mackerel fillets that are purchased in vacuum packs from supermarkets.
Smoking fish was a procedure originally devised as a means of preserving it in the days before deep freezers or even refrigerators were in existence. The principal additional benefit of this process was quickly found to be the wonderful flavour the practice imparted to the smoked fish, and it is probably for this reason more than any other that fish is still widely smoked around the world today.
It is possible to either hot smoke fish (where the fish is smoked directly over the heat source and therefore also "cooked"), or cold smoke it, where the smoke is diverted to a chamber in which the fish are contained. Salmon and trout are probably the most common types of fish cooked by cold smoking (even though they are also hot smoked) and most other types of fish tend to be smoked using the former method, as detailed here.
While fish of many different types are suitable for being smoked, it is vital to take account of the precise procedures best suited to the type of fish and its size if the desired results are to be achieved. If not smoked appropriately, the fish can be found to be underdone, overdone and dried out, or even to have turned incredibly bitter in taste, rendering them wholly inedible. This article looks specifically at how to smoke whole mackerel, but the precise procedures could equally be applied to smoking similar oily fish such as herring or even sardines.
The mackerel that were smoked in this instance had been freshly rod and line caught in the Firth of Clyde, off the West Coast of Scotland, just a mere few hours earlier. They had also been gutted immediately after being caught to keep them in as pristine condition as possible. It is vital when smoking mackerel (or any other type of fish) that they are as fresh as you can possibly obtain them if they are to be enjoyed to best effect.
Step 1: Make the Pre-Smoking Brine
It is important before smoking mackerel that they be seasoned by steeping them in a brining solution and subsequently leaving them to dry. The recipes for these solutions are as varied as they are many and commercial producers will frequently and understandably guard the specific details of their own creations with jealous fervour. Experimenting with brine recipes over a long period of time can of course pay huge dividends but you may want to start with something like the solution used in this instance, the recipe for which is included below. It is capable of accommodating five or six whole mackerel at a time.
- 8 litres cold water (14 British pints / 17½ US pints)
- 1½ kilogrammes rock salt (3¼ pounds)*
- 8 teaspoons whole mustard seeds
- 4 teaspoons juniper berries
- 16 bay leaves
*Do not use standard kitchen or table salt in this recipe. It will not work nearly so well.
Pre-Smoking Brine Instructions
- Pour the measured out water in to a large plastic dish of the type shown, or a vessel of similar size, capable of accommodating the brine and the mackerel when they have been added.
- Add the salt and stir well for a few minutes with a large wooden spoon to dissolve as much of it as possible.
- Lightly crush the mustard seeds with a pestle and mortar (in batches if necessary) and add to the brine along with the juniper berries.
- Roughly tear/break the bay leaves and add to the brine before again stirring well. The bay leaves used in this recipe were freshly picked from a garden plant, but dried are also fine.
Step 2: Prepare the Mackerel for Brining
It is always best to gut mackerel (or almost any fish) as soon as possible after they have been caught. While these mackerel had been gutted immediately at sea, this does not mean they had been prepared to the extent where they were ready for brining/smoking. The belly cavities required to be cleaned out properly when they were brought home. A great tool for this purpose is an old toothbrush, one with medium hard/soft bristles—and clearly one which is no longer required for cleaning human teeth! Simply use the toothbrush to remove tendrils of guts and blood from inside the mackerel cavities at your sink or outside with a bucket of water and rinse well with cold water.
Step 3: Add the Mackerel to the Brine
When the mackerel have been cleaned, add them to the brining solution and ensure each one is fully submerged. Put the lid on the dish or cover it with a large cloth. These fish were left in the liquid for one hour which is sufficient but you can leave them a bit longer if you wish.
When the mackerel come out of the brine, brush/wipe off any solids such as pieces of bay leaf and lay them cavity sides down on a wire rack over a tray. Leave them to air dry. This will take at least an hour but perhaps longer depending upon temperature and ventilation.
How to Choose a Smoker
When choosing a home smoker it is important to take a few simple factors into consideration.
- Your experience: You need to consider how experienced you are in using such a device and choose accordingly. Buying a large, complex device when you have never smoked fish or any other foodstuff at home before is unlikely to be a good idea.
- Location: You need to consider where you are going to use the smoker. Do you need one suitable for indoor use? Do you have an outhouse, garage or greenhouse which can be used in the event of inclement weather?
- Heat source: What are you going to use as a heat source if smoking outdoors? The mackerel smoked in this instance were smoked over a methylated spirits fueled small burner in a large, very well ventilated greenhouse and the smoker was big enough to accommodate three to five fish at a time, dependent upon size.
Sometimes, you can secure a good deal on a burner when buying a smoker, as part of a combination purchase. Similarly, some smokers will include a bag of wooden chips to start you off with your experiments but where this is not the case, these will obviously have to be purchased separately.
When you buy your smoker, read the instructions in full and follow them at all times. This will ensure you get the best results from your product and go a long way towards ensuring your smoked food is served up at its very best.
Step 4: Smoke the Mackerel
While appliances will of course vary, the principals of hot smoking are the same. The smoker used in this instance had a removable metal tray in the base for the chips (old oak whisky barrel chips on this occasion).
- Lay the mackerel on the rack that sits directly above the chips before the lid is fitted in place and the unit placed on the heat source. There is no requirement to turn the mackerel over while they are being smoked.
- On a medium heat setting, we smoked our mackerel for 20 minutes—but again, experimentation with your particular device is always advisable and the manufacturer's instructions should be followed as at least an initial guide.
- When the mackerel are cooked, lift the smoker from the heat source. Beware of escaping hot smoke when you lift the lid. A skewer inserted into the thickest part of the fish should encounter minimal resistance when the fish are cooked all the way through. It is better to test, find them under-cooked and require to put them back on to the heat than to overcook them and dry them out.
Note: If you are smoking multiple batches of mackerel on the same day, the chips tray should be cleaned and restocked with fresh wood chips after each batch.
Step 5: Enjoy Your Meal!
The mackerel are ready to eat immediately. They are absolutely delicious in their own right and the flesh should literally fall off the bones in juicy clumps. You should also find that the skin will have toughened up during smoking and can easily be peeled or rubbed free.
Now that your fish is done, let's consider what you can serve to go along with it.
This is about as simple a serving suggestion as you can get for your smoked mackerel. The halved baby new potatoes are boiled in salted water (skins on) before being drained, returned to the empty pot and allowed to steam off for a few minutes and dry out. Butter and some dried dill are then added before the pot is gently swirled to evenly coat the potatoes.
The smoked mackerel will keep for at least a few days in a suitable container in your fridge where they can be stored once they are cool. It is very important though to remove them from the fridge and let them come back up to room temperature before they are eaten. They are not nearly so pleasant to eat straight from the fridge.
Pitta Pocket Cups
This is a really simple but attractive way to serve your smoked mackerel. There are very few ingredients and the preparation time is minimal.
Smoked Mackerel Salad
Wash three or four large green lettuce leaves, roll and shred. Peel a medium red onion, cut it in half down through the core. Lay one half on its side and take three or four thin slices. Add the lettuce and separated onion strands to a large glass or stone bowl.
Wash three or four baby tomatoes and quarter. If you only have red tomatoes, that is fine. These tomatoes were taken from the greenhouse in which the mackerel was smoked so were as fresh as can be. Add the tomatoes to the bowl, season with salt and black pepper and gently stir fold with a large wooden spoon.
Peel the skin from a cooled smoked mackerel and discard. Pluck the flesh off the bone in small bite sized chunks and add to the bowl with the salad.
Stir fold the mackerel pieces through the salad. Heat a couple of pitta breads per the instructions on the pack before cutting each one in half across the way and opening the halves up with the point of a sharp knife along their cut edges in to cups. Spoon in the smoked mackerel salad and serve immediately.
© 2018 Gordon Hamilton
Gordon Hamilton (author) from Wishaw, Lanarkshire, United Kingdom on July 23, 2020:
Hello, Liza. By coincidence, I caught a load of mackerel on Tuesday and smoked some of them yesterday. Delicious as always! I'm glad you're a fellow fan as they are absolutely my favourite eating fish. I don't remember ever trying it with steamed rice but that's definitely something I'll take note of. Hope you get a chance to sample them again soon and thanks for visiting.
Liza from USA on July 21, 2020:
I love mackerel. I have never done anything like this. Back when I was in Malaysia, most of the time, we usually fried or cook it with sauce. Then we are eating it with steamed rice. I wish I can find fresh mackerel here. Sometimes, I miss going to the fish market in Malaysia. Thanks for sharing the recipe, Gordon!
Gordon Hamilton (author) from Wishaw, Lanarkshire, United Kingdom on August 12, 2019:
Once you start using it, Brad, you'll become addicted to it. This really is the top way to cook particularly oily types of fish.
Brad Alsobrook from Memphis, TN USA on July 23, 2019:
I need to try this...I have a stovetop smoker that I really haven't used enough yet
Gordon Hamilton (author) from Wishaw, Lanarkshire, United Kingdom on August 13, 2018:
Thanks, Liz. I hope the idea is something that appeals to you enough that you'll give it a go yourself.
Liz Westwood from UK on August 10, 2018:
This is an extremely well-illustrated and interesting article.