Smoking Trout: The End Of The Rainbow…
Last week the OTW crew played hooky for an afternoon and headed down to the local trout pond. There were plenty of freshly stocked delicious rainbow trout caught. Much to my surprise, I was the only one that kept fish that day – everyone else was releasing those tasty little buggers. Oh well, more for me! I know a good free meal when I see one.
Trout are stocked into our local waters in March and April. Catching them is easy. These fish have spent their entire lives in concrete pools and have never seen an artificial lure. They are, to be honest, quite dumb, and will attack just about anything that’s small and shiny. My all-time favorite trout lure is the Thomas Buoyant spoon. Fish it slowly, and allow it to sink and flutter. It will drive trout crazy, year after year.
If you’ve never eaten a freshly stocked trout, you are missing out on some very good eats. Sauteed, fried, grilled or broiled, they make for a great feast. Their fillets have a rich, orange hue to them, very similar to salmon. They also have a high fat content, which is a desirable characteristic to have in any fish.
I prefer to eat the younger, dumber ones, fresh from the hatchery. These fish have been fattened up on a nutrient-rich diet that enhances the orange color in their flesh. The longer a trout sits in a pond, the paler and softer their meat gets. I also prefer the fresh ones because I can be sure that they have not loaded up with any of the toxins found in many local ponds. (There is a reason why you are not supposed to eat freshwater fish more than twice a month).
So at the end of the day, I had a nice pile of fresh rainbow trout, carefully packed on ice. I’ve had a craving for smoked fish lately, and these trout were perfect for the smoker.
The first step is to fillet them. I actually find filleting a small fish harder than filleting a big fish. Take your time, and don’t worry too much about getting all the bones out; they can easily be picked out of the fillets after they are smoked. Leave the skin on. Thoroughly rinse them under cold water, and dry the fillets with paper towels.
Brining the fillets is a crucial step. There are hundreds of recipes out there, which can easily be found online. Here’s the one I use:
Smoked Trout Brine Recipe
1 gallon water
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup kosher salt
1 TBSP. pepper
3 garlic cloves, crushed
2 TBSP. minced onion
3 bay leaves
1 cup pineapple juice (orange juice will work as a substitute)
Place all of your fillets in a Tupperware container and fill it up with the brine solution. Let them soak in the refrigerator for around 8 hours. Trout fillets are thin, so they don’t need to soak as long as bigger fillets like those from bluefish or salmon.
When the brine-time is complete, rinse the fillets under cold water and dry them thoroughly with paper towels. This is also a good time to trim up the fillets and remove any bones that remain from the rib cage. Make the extra effort to wipe off any scales that are stuck onto the meat-side of the fillets.
The next step seems insignificant, but will make a big difference in improving the final product. Lay all of those nice little fillets on a cutting board lined with paper towels, and throw it into the refrigerator for at least 2 hours. This will completely dry out the outer layer of flesh, and result in a nice shiny glaze on the outside of the fillets after smoking.
Make sure the fillets are completely dry before placing them in the smoker. They will develop a nice glossy sheen on their surface when they are ready.
If you don’t already have one, a decent electric smoker can be purchased for under $100. Many die-hard smokers prefer charcoal smokers over electric models, but for most purposes, an electric model will work just fine. I like to use hickory chips as the smoke source, but there are plenty of other options such as mesquite, oak or apple. It’s important that you soak the chips in water for an hour before starting smoking, otherwise they will burst into a pile a flames and burn out quickly.
A useful trick that I learned the hard way is to cover the grate in the smoker with a sheet of aluminum foil. (If you place the fillets right on the grates there is a good chance the fish will stick.) Poke a bunch of holes in the foil to allow the smoke to get through. Give it a quick spray of Pam, and you’re ready to smoke!
Arrange the wood chips around the perimeter of the heating unit. Make sure none of the chips touch the heater, or they will quickly burst into flames. You will want to check on the chips about every 1/2 hour during the smoking process. Use a small stick to keep fresh chips near the heat source, and replenishing the chips as needed.
Smoke the fish until it’s done. There is no secret number on the time, there are a lot of variables like the outside air temperature, the amount of meat in the smoker, and the size of the fillets. Basically, your eyes will tell you when it is done. The fillets should have a nice glaze to them and look something like the photo below. This batch took around 5 hours to complete.
I like to eat smoked fish caveman-style. Grab a fillet with your hands and dig right in. It’s good stuff and quite addictive. If you want to get fancy, you can pick it apart and make a nice dip for crackers. Simply mix it with cream cheese, lime juice and spices and it makes a great simple appetizer.