In the spirit of re-embracing that cyclical, perennial essence of the natural world of which food—real food—is a part, it’s probably worthwhile to take up again the basics of home smoking. Brown trout are on the roster here, but the same basic principles apply to pretty much any kind of smoking. To take away any stigma of the arcane or difficult about the process: hot smoking, which is what constitutes the vast majority of home smoking, is simply indirect grilling at a fairly low temperature while adding smoke.
|Trout, having been brined.|
First you obtain a piece of flesh, then you cure it with a brine or a rub, next you build a fire, finally you cook that brined meat in low, smoky, indirect heat until it is well saturated with smoke, and cooked through. It doesn’t really matter if it’s fish, pork belly, pork shoulder, chicken, venison, beef brisket. If it’s something that spends a relatively short time in the smoke, like fish or bacon, we call it smoking; if it takes many hours to do the job, we tend to call it barbeque. Same basic process.
So as not to overlook the obvious: cooking with indirect heat simply means the meat is not sitting directly over the coals, as it would be when you grill a steak or a burger. The coals are on one side of the grill, the meat on the other. Simple as that.
|Fish at the back, coals in the front.|
The only difficult part of the task, in this age of constant distraction, is remembering to get your meat brined a day or two ahead, depending on size and what exactly you’re going for. With these brown trout in the 12-inch range, an overnight wet brine is plenty. My basic fish brine consists of 2 tablespoons each of salt and brown sugar per cup of water; that translates to ½ cup each salt and brown sugar/1 quart water. I start with hot tap water, add the salt and sugar, stir to dissolve, let it sit until cool (or if impatient add a few ice cubes).
|An instant-read thermometer stuck through the top vent gets you close enough.|
The next morning, the fish sit out on a rack to dry a bit before being smoked. In a smoker—just a regular home bbq grill, Meco my preference—maintained at around 200-250 degrees, the fish will be done in a couple of hours. When the skin has that gorgeous reddish-gold smoky hue and the flesh feels firm to the touch, they’re ready.
For most people, the natural chunk charcoal (such as Cowboy brand) that’s widely available now will be the best choice for a heat source. Briquets can be used in a pinch, I guess, but for god’s sake don’t start the fire with lighter fluid. It kind of amazes me that they still sell that stuff. A chimney starter is the way to go.
|Foreground, grill purification by fire; background, why we don't buy charcoal.|
These days I build a fire with local oak and use those coals as my heat source, usually adding apple wood for the smoke--the oak coals bring their own distinctive smokiness, too. The apple wood is also locally harvested, and I just use whatever pieces are easy to obtain. A lot of smoking guides tell you to soak your wood chips, if that’s what you’re using, and I suppose if the chips are very small this makes sense, but in general I don’t think it’s necessary; you’re trying to make smoke, not steam, and soaked chips are just going to steam until they finally dry out and burn. I’m all for cutting out superfluous steps embedded in common practice by constant, unthinking repetition.
|Smoked browns with celeri buttermilk rampoulade.|
In general, I smoke food for the flavor—and other delectable qualities—it imparts, rather than for preservation. With stream trout, though, extending the delicious life of the fish is part of the reason for smoking. A fresh fish is good for four or five days (and sometimes actually improves with two or three days aging), while smoked fish will keep for two weeks or more. I don’t feel that smoked fish freezes very well—when it’s thawed it can be watery, with a grainy texture. Better, I think, to freeze fresh fish and then smoke it afterward, if you so desire.
Smoked trout can be a centerpiece of a plate, rounded out with a couple of salads. And it’s a great ingredient for chowder, and appetizer spread, fish cakes, smoky trout brandade…. Many possibilities. If you’re not a fan of the angling arts, or trout are out of season, you can always buy farmed rainbow trout, a sustainable product, and a tasty one, at that. Also, this same method can be used with other kinds of fish—I’ve done it with Lake Superior herring, whitefish, and lake trout.
There’s just a lot of satisfaction in smoking your own. Have a try.