Smoking Fish & Sausage

All of us like to eat, matter of fact it is one priority to sustain life. Those of us that do occasionally catch fish might like to try different recipes at times. Fish can be fried, baked, broiled, barbequed, made into a stew or chowder, then there is one type that seems to excite many, and that is smoking.

There are probably about as many methods and recipes as there are cooks. But first off maybe we had better describe smoking.

Smoking is the process of cooking, flavoring or preserving food by exposing it to the smoke from burning or smoldering plant materials, most often wood. Meats and fish are the most common smoked foods, though cheeses can be processed also. Smoking alone does not preserve but has to be used in combination with other techniques, most commonly salt/sugar curing. The bacteria that cause spoilage can’t live above 140°F.

“Hot smoking” is a several-hours-long process that can be used to fully cook meats or fish. Barbecuing is a form of hot smoking. Generally, hot-smoking involves holding the food directly above the fire, or in an enclosure that is heated by the fire. The cooking temperature in a hot-smoking environment is usually between 175 and 225 and don’t exceed 250 degrees. The temperatures reached in hot smoking can kill microbes throughout the food.

This is the process that most fish/sausage would be smoked at.

You may want to baste some of these pieces but use a basting liquid that does not contain too much sugar because sugar may burn or blacken on the grill.

“Cold smoking” is an hours-or days-long process in which smoke is passed by food which is held in a separate area from the fire. Generally the food is held at just above room temperatures 60–80°F as it is smoked. Since no cooking takes place, the interior texture of the food generally isn’t affected, neither are any microbes living within the meat or fish. For this reason, cold-smoking has traditionally frequently been combined with salt-curing in such foods as hams, bacon and cold-smoked fish like lox or smoked salmon.

A number of wood smoke compounds also act as preservatives. Phenol and other phenolic compounds in wood smoke are both antioxidants, which slow rancidification of animal fats, and antimicrobials, which then slow bacterial growth, but smoke alone is insufficient for actual preserving of food. Use a meat thermometer if you aren’t sure and is a good and safe way to make sure it is cooked. The meat thermometers usually indicate the right temperatures for different types of meats.

The main problem is that the smoke compounds adhere only to the outer surfaces of the food, smoke doesn’t actually penetrate far into meat or fish. In modern times, almost all smoking is carried out for its flavor, and not its preservative qualities anymore like in the older days before refrigeration.




Internal Temperature (°F)

Beef & Veal



Steak and roasts medium


Steak and roasts medium rare


Chicken & Turkey



Ground, stuffing, and casseroles


Whole bird, legs, thighs, and wings


Fish & Shellfish

Any type





Steak and roasts medium


Steaks and roasts medium rare



Any type



Chops, fresh (raw) ham ground, ribs, and roasts


Fully cooked ham (to reheat)


Woods Used for Smoking : Common woods used for smoking that impart a flavor are hickory, mesquite, oak, alder, maple and fruit-tree woods such as apple or cherry are commonly used for smoking. Alder is a favorite and used by many as it imparts a mild flavor to the meat.

Use Fresh Fish or Frozen : Those of us that fish probably do not have time to smoke many of our fish when it is fresh, but will freeze it and then in the winter when fishing time slows down will retrieve it from the freezer and get busy. My wife recently went thru our deep freeze while cleaning it out to make room for a beef we had butchered. Wow, did she find things we did not know were there. Some I hate to say it, but up to 5 years old. She found some that the vacuum pack had failed and the fish was so locker burned that we used it for coyote bait.

We did put together a box of salvageable slightly locker burned salmon, sea bass and ling cod. I am amazed at what the vacuum packing can do in comparison to the old wrapping method. Some of these pieces required trimming off the edges and removing any of the dried out meat. These probably were not the best meat, but after trimming, the inner meat appeared salvageable, at least enough for me to learn on my new Big Chief smoker. The photos below show already trimmed fish on the left and 2 pieces of locker burned meat on the right. The photo on the right shows the same 2 pieces but after being trimmed.

I did found that it trimmed a lot easier if you did this when the fish was about 1/2 thawed out.

Locker burned fish on the right Same fish after trimming off the burned meat

The advent of modern small smokers has about killed the old time outdoor “outhouse” smokers that were common on about all the farms in my area in the 1950s. I remember cutting special wood and keeping it separate so it was not burned in the heating stove. We would get up in the middle of the night at times to stoke the fire with new wood. You did not want a large fire but one that just smoldered, so you adjusted the air intake in the bottom.

We smoked hams and bacon in the fall of the year after butchering time. We even made polish sausage by the #2 wash tubs full. It took me 5 years trying to get my mother-in-law to come up with a recipe. She always said “a couple of had fulls of salt, some pepper, boil and squeeze a few garlic cloves”. I finally after writing down what she put in each year over the years managed to compile a close resemblance of her recipe. We would mix it by hand squeezing the meats to dissipate the ingredients, then finally fry a sample for a taste fry it test. More pepper. More mixing, another test taste. We found that the salt would dissolve into the meat and the end product become saltier than the fresh fried sample.

I raised sheep for a while and even some of the older ones worked out well when mixed with venison for sausage.

I can not begin to count how many smelt and salmon were smoked in the fall of the year.

Now these small smokers are usually electric, however some are propane. The Luhr Jensen “Little and Big Chief” smokers shown in this article, have revolutionized the average fisherman’s desires to smoke fish. We don’t have to go out and cut smoking wood anymore, just buy the chips in a bag. One of these bags will fill the chip pan about 8 times. I usually prefer Alder chips which gives a milder flavor for my fish.

The smoker shown below is the Luhr Jensen Big Chief with a front loading door (they also make a top loader model, but it is harder to access the trays). The thickest pieces here may be 3/4″ and are off smaller 8-10# Coho salmon.

The meat just placed on the racks to dry for a couple of hours Finished smoking, but now for about another 4 hours of just heat

To give me some consistency in my final outcome, I installed a Bar-B-Que thermometer in the top of this unit. With power to the unit for an hour, the temperature reaches 150 degrees. If I want to up the temperature hotter, I have built a heavy cardboard box to slip over the outside (no top) giving about 1 1/2″ of clearance to somewhat insulate and keep any wind or night air from cooling it down. With this cover on continuously in good weather and after 6 hours the temperature cam read 180 degrees. The larger pieces of meat will now read 160 degrees on the thermometer. So by my experimenting, I can now remove the cover to regulate my internal meat temperature. The thinner pieces may not achieve this temperature, but USDA recommends 145 for fish and they will be done earlier anyway.

Now I have found that the electric heating element on this smoker, will over time, deteriorate and become colder. Like the last batch I did, it would only come up to 145 degrees and then with a cardboard box around the outside. To compensate for this until I could purchase a new element, I placed the fish in my Bar-B-Que at 225 degrees for an half an hour. However, it may be best to only run 2 of the 3 burners, and part way through the cooking to rotate the meat to somewhat even the heat distribution. This came out fine for the thicker parts, but overcooked the thinner flank meat.

My method of telling when fish is done, (the same as I use when Bar-B-Queing) is that I like to remove the skin after it is smoked/cooked. If the skin peels off easily without sticking it is about right, if it is burned into the thinner meat, you got it too hot, or on too long. Therefore it may be best if doing it this way to cut the flank meat off the thicker and only cook that thinner meat for 10 minutes or so.

If I had not placed the thermometer in my smoker, I would have not known for sure, only suspected that I did not leave the fish in there long enough, (8 1/2 hours on this batch).

These temperatures put me within the USDA guidelines for safe food.

Since your smoker is unattended for long periods of time it is recommended that you do not place it inside a building because of a possible fire hazard.

Most people tend to overcook their smoked salmon, so it may be best until you get the hang of it to pull some out 2 or 3 hours before listed and test it. You can always start the heat back up again, but it is rather hard to soften a hard piece of smoked salmon.


This formula below is for a mild flavored outcome.


This is enough for 4# of salmon, sturgeon or tuna fillets. The white meat fish needs to be sliced about ¾” thick.

16 oz (2 cups) Brown Sugar

4 oz (1/2 cup) White sugar

6 oz (3/4 cup) Salt

1/2 oz Garlic powder

1/2 oz Lowerys or Mrs. Dash seasoning

If you have enough meat to fill this above smoker then you will need to at least double the above recipe.

Or if you need more, (this is 4 times the above).

4# Brown Sugar (1 package)

1# White sugar

1 1/2# Salt

1/4 cup Garlic powder

1/4 cup Lowerys or Mrs Dash seasoning

You can save the seasonings for after the brining process and sprinkle them on after you put the meat onto the smoker racks, which allows you to experiment a bit and not have all of the batch the same seasonings.

Mix these ingredients together dry, break up any of the brown sugar that is lumpy. Use what you need to use for one smoking, and save the rest of this dry powder mix into zip-lock bags and freeze for future usage

In a crock or plastic pail, lay the fish fillets skin side down, sprinkle 1/8″ (or enough to cover meat) of dry the mix on top of fillets, place another layer of fish, but this layer have the meat side down so the brine is more of a meat-to-meat instead of skin-to-skin and again more brine mix on top. It is better to have slightly too much mix than to skimp and not have the meat covered when it liquifies. Place it in a refrigerator to soak.

The mix will form a thick liquid brine, there needs to be enough brine to cover the fish while soaking If salmon or any oily fish, let soak 12 hrs for normal fillets (up to 1 1/4″ thick), or longer for thicker fillets. For thicker fish, part way thru, remove and reposition top fish to bottom to get better coverage. One thing I have found is that if you use frozen fish, it takes less soak time than fresh fish (as in the final outcome, the frozen fish will become more salty).

For white meated fish like sturgeon, sea bass, tuna or even shark (if the shark is properly taken care of), cut the brine soak time in half.

Now the secret, remove from brine, rinse, then let soak for an hour and half in cold water, move meat around to ensure it gets a thorough soaking, then pat dry. If you do not let it soak, the salt seems to become more predominate in the thinner pieces. Place the meat on the smoker racks skin side down then let it set for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours to allow them to dry or until they glaze over before you start the smoking.

In placing the meat on the racks, put the thinner fish on upper racks, (they will be done sooner and it is easier to take them out first). Cover the smoker tray with aluminum foil to help retain any oily drippings and to promote a longer smoker life. However it is best that you replace this foil after each session as the pan is right above the burner which can cause enough heat to burn thru the foil, thereby allowing the grease to become burned onto the pan.

After the first hour of smoking, make up a small batch (1/4 a cup) of thick basting solution using the previous brine mix, or be inventive. For my last batch, I added a teaspoon of Soy Sauce. Using a cheap 1″ bristle brush baste this mix on the meat. This will give the meat a slight sugar glaze. Sprinkle some pepper or garlic salt over fish if you like. Replace the racks and continue smoking.

If you were going to do another batch following this one, you could now use this liquid brine again, but for health reasons, it would not be wise to refrigerate and keep it for later.

In a secure protected place out of the wind, locate your smoker. Select your chips, fill the pan and set it on the electrical hot plate coil in the smoker. (1 full pan of chips will burn up in 45 min to 1 hr), so dump then refill pan at least every hour (you can tell when the smoke dies off) until you have used 3 or 4 pans of chips if oily fish, 1 or 2 pans if white meated fish. Now remove chip pan and just run the electric heat only.

So, for oily fish like salmon you will have 3 hours of smoke time, PLUS the heat only as described below. This heat only time will also vary depending on your preferences as to moist or drier fish. I personally rather have a drier fish that I am sure is done inside. For me, using Coho salmon fillets off fish in the 12-14# range a TOTAL of 8 hours works out about fine on a warm fall day. Now remember this time may vary on the outside temperature and or wind, which could double if a cold winter time is selected and the conditions are against you.

heat only, 2 more hrs for trout

heat only, 3-5 more hours for white meated fish depending on thickness, or oily fish that are thin pieces

heat only, 6-7 more hrs for pieces of salmon 1″ (thinner pieces take off before)

heat only, 8-10 more hrs for really thick pieces of salmon

I like to have my fish not soft or gooey inside, but done and a little harder than some people like. So the heat only time can be adjusted for your likes/dislikes. Test the smaller pieces doing a professional sampling occasionally for taste/doneness. These smaller pieces will be done before the larger ones.

Test the larger pieces with a meat thermometer. I try to achieve 150 degrees with the probe in the center of the larger meat. This may be hard to get a good reading on thin pieces but they will be done before the thicker ones anyway, (play it by texture/taste). Just be sure to take the fish out before it gets hard, as this warm state it will appear it need more heat, but it will harden up as it cools. Most people tend to overcook their fish (me included).

Oily fish like salmon is a little forgiving, but if white meated fish, it will dry out considerably later.

It is best to plan it so you take the fish out of the brine in the morning. You can do all your preparation and smoke time to have the fish smoked by late evening. Some will place a electrical timer in line with the power cord and set it to turn off instead of having to get up at 2AM. It is also suggested to not have the smoker near any wood product nor leave town while it is running, as they have caught on fire before.

For smoking white meat (sturgeon, sea bass or filleted and skinned bottom fish), soak in brine 1/2 the time or less as the (oily) salmon. For white meat fish baste with cooking oil occasionally during smoking to keep it from drying out.

The Big Chief smoker will accommodate 4 1/2, 8-10# salmon or about 20# of filleted meat.

Little Chief Smoker ??


Smoke your fish 1/2 the amount of time you normally would for just smoking cure, then put in jars. Add 1/2 tablespoon olive or Wesson oil for 1/2 pints and a full tablespoon for full pints. Pack salmon into jars being sure to get as much air out of the bottom of the jar as possible. Also leave enough gap between the lid and the fish so it doesn’t interfere with the seal.

The above oil additives are needed for non oily river Coho. Fresh ocean fish or Springers require less or even no oil.

Optional to add to jars. One whole fresh garlic clove. Or one whole or half a jalepeno, pickled or fresh. Some also like a couple of white stalks of the green onions.

You will get a multitude of times for the canning if you ask, anywhere from 15 lbs at 10 minutes (sea level) or 10-11# at 90 minutes. Personally I prefer somewhere near the lower time. If in doubt look it up in a canning book yourself.

If kept for a period of time, tip jar upside down occasionally to allow oil to run over and thru meat to keep from drying out


Sausage Making / Smoking :

Sausage recipe (mild) Polish Sausage rings derived from John Hein’s long-time German method

Salt 1 1/2 cups (the wife likes a little less salt, like about 1/2)

Garlic 2 teaspoons garlic salt OR 12 med size cloves

Sage 2 1/2 Tablespoons

Pepper 1/2 cup


60# meat total

80% deer or elk, the rest pork trimmings

or 50% venison / 50% sheep


25# sheep

20# elk

10# deer


40# deer/elk

10# pork trimmings @ $1.39 #

Grind the meat using a course plate opening (1/4″) in the grinder. Blending the meat and pork trimmings together as you grind.

In a large tub, add the seasoning and mix thoroughly. When I say mix thoroughly, I mean by both hands. Roll it and bend from one side of the container to the other, squeeze the meat as you blend. When you get to where you think it may be mixed completely, fry a patty & taste it. Be advised that the salt will become slightly stronger as it dissolves and soaks into the meat.

Grind the second time using a smaller plate in the grinder (1/8″) at the same time you stuff casings.

These manufactured casings are designed to not be soaked, but threaded onto the stuffer nozzle dry. Push enough on and as far on as possible. Cut the casing off at the outer end when you can not get more on. This needs 2 people, one to feed the meat into the grinder and man the stop switch when the stuffer hollers. Start the grinder and proceed. The person doing the stuffing needs to twist the outer end as the meat starts out the nozzle. And put a slight amount of pressure on the casing so it fills but not enough pressure to burst the casing. We have found that making these links a max of 16″ will fit my smoker racks quite well. When the casing is filled to where you want it to stop, it may be best for the inexperienced, to have the other person stop the grinder. The stuffing person then needs to pull the now stuffed meat and casing out slightly then twist it to close that end. You can now cut that link off behind the twist with a scissors. Start over until finished. If you break a link, feed the meat back thru the second time. You will have some shorter links possibly when the end of the casing you threaded onto the nozzle comes to an end, or because of a break in the casing at an unexpected time.

Stuff with Weston Brand, Collagen Casing 33mm purchased at Sportco Weston advertises these casings at $33.59 a package

Weston Brand, Collagen Casing package says will stuff 70# of meat. Well maybe after you get the hang of it, as we were used to the old style pig intestine casings and with these man made casings which do not stretch as much, we apparently did not stuff them as tight and got only about 50# out of the package.

Big Chief smoker will take 25 links of a maximum of 16″ long with one space between on the grill to allow for circulation.

It took 2 1/2 fillings of the smoker to smoke 40#.

Run time — burn one pan of Alder chips on the first startup, run continuously with heat alone for 5 hours and another run of 5 more hours.

I thought of devising a thermostat on the electric heater element, so that I can run it at a lower heat for a longer time, which may not dry the links out and yet give enough heat to a complete cook job.

The time this batch of meat was left in may need to be increased a bit as it appears the center did not get done enough, so we boil for 10 minutes or micro-waved for about 2 minutes. Now with the thermometer in the unit and by checking with a meat thermometer, maybe this can be rectified.

Polish sausage just about ready to come out of the smoker


Here is another website about smoking fish

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