Michigan State University Extension
Preserving Food Safely - 01600579


Wood smoke has little, if any, preservative action.
Smoking merely adds flavor and color and removes some water.
Smoked fish are almost as perishable as fresh fish. Home
processors would do well to heed the Michigan state law that
applies to commercial smokers. Smoked fish should be kept
at temperatures under 36 degrees Fahrenheit and used within
14 days. If smoked fish is to be kept longer than 14 days,
it should be frozen immediately after smoking. Freezing
old fish only further reduces the quality of an already
deteriorating product.


The four basic steps in smoking fish are cleaning,
curing, drying and smoking.


Clean fish as soon as possible after taking them from
the water. Scale fish and remove viscera, including the
kidney, which is the dark streak along the backbone. The
head may also be removed from larger fish, but the
collarbone should remain to provide shape. Fillet or steak
large fish.


Cure the fish in salt, either dry or in a brine. If
dry curing fish, follow the procedure for salting. Dry
salted fish will have a high salt concentration and will
need to be freshened before smoking.

The goal of brining is to produce a thoroughly and
uniformly salted product. A basic brine consists of 1 cup
salt to each gallon of cold water (30 salimeter). Sugar,
spices, and saltpeter are often added to the brine.
Here is one recommended sugar spice brine:

1 gallon cold water
1 cup salt
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon saltpeter (optional)
*Bay Leaves
*Pickling spices


Use a mixture of spices at the rate of 1 tablespoon per
gallon of water.

Another spice formula is 1 tablespoon whole cloves and
1 teaspoon bay leaves per gallon of water. Saltpeter may
or may not be added, according to personal preference,
but it does provide a margin of safety against botulism.

Place fish in a large nonmetal container so they lie
flat. Cover with brine. use one gallon for each 4 to 5
pound of fish. Use a plate or cover to weight down fish
enough to submerge them without packing them together.
Allow fish to cure in the coldest part of the refrigerator
(34 to 38 Fahrenheit) for the appropriate time.

There is no one time which is right for all fish under
all conditions. Brining times vary because brine
concentration and amount, and fish condition and size affect
how quickly and how much salt will be absorbed.


(for a brine of 30 salimeter, 2 parts brine to 1 part

Size Condition

Fresh Refrig. Thawed

1/2 to 1 inch thick, 18 to 24 16 12 to 14
fillets or split hours hours hours

Large whole fish 48 to 72 36 to 60 24 to 48
10 lb. or larger hours hours hours

Salt Concentration- The stronger or more concentrated
the brine, the shorter the brining time required. However,
short (more concentrated brine) brining times will not salt
fish as uniformly as slow (less concentrated brine) times.
A brine concentration of 30 to 40 salimeter is recommended.
This is about 1 or 1 1/4 cups salt for each gallon cold

Amount of Brine to Fish
The amount of brine to the amount of fish affects how
uniformly and thoroughly the fish will be salted. A good
ratio is 2 parts brine to 1 part fish. One gallon of
brine weighs about 9 pounds. This means you would need 20
pounds (about 2 gallons brine) for each 10 pounds of fish.

Rate of Brining
Muscle fibers of freshly caught fish are still intact.
Intact muscle fibers absorb salt slowly. Freshly caught
fish will require about 18 to 24 hours of brining. Fish
held in the refrigerator for 24 hours will absorb salt
faster (about 16 hours). Thawed fish absorb salt still
faster and will be thoroughly brined in 12 to 14 hours.
Usethese times with brine concentrations of 30 to 40

Brining times are affected by the thickness of the fish
pieces. Fresh pieces 1/2 to 1 inch thick require 14 to 16
hours of brining. A large, whole fish such as salmon,
requires 48 to 72 hours of brining. For such large fish,
the concentration of the brine should not exceed 30


When fish are cured, remove from brine and rinse
thoroughly. Fish may be dried in the smokehouse or in a
protected area with heat and air circulation. Place fish
on smokehouse hangers or racks wiped with vegetable oil, and
allow surface to dry. A shiny skin-like pellicle will form
on the fish surface. The pellicle seals the surface and
prevents loss of natural juices during smoking.

Fish require approximately 1/2 hour of drying at 70 to
80 degrees Fahrenheit before smoking. Air circulation and
humidity will affect the time. A fan will speed the drying


Smoked fish should be kept in the refrigerator below 36
degrees Fahrenheit and consumed within 14 days after smoking
For longer storage, the fish may be frozen immediately after
smoking. Store smoked fish in the freezer for no longer than
2 to 3 months.
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