Even the most experienced pit masters in the world know that when it comes to smoking fish, it’s much easier to get wrong than smoking meat.
Perhaps that’s because barbecuing and smoking is mostly synonymous with darker meats and bigger animals like beef and pork.
When it comes to seafood, however, it’s a different kettle of fish. Fish meat tends to be much more delicate than anything else you’re liable to cook, and so it takes a light, tender touch to get right.
The Top Tip For Smoking Fish
Bigger cuts and types of meat stand up to smoke well, because they’ve got plenty of surface area and fat to act as an absorptive barrier.
Fish, on the other hand, tends to be much leaner, and can quickly dry out and become tough if smoked for too long. Being a lover of seafood, especially smoked seafood, my top tip is to opt for fattier fish.
Fattier fish, like tuna, mackerel, and swordfish, are meaty enough, and have high enough oil and fat contents to retain those wonderful smoky flavors, without being overpowered.
The Best Woods For Smoking Fish
Different fish require different woods, just like different palates prefer different smokes, that’s why I’m going to give you a list of my favorite woods for smoking fish, and let you decide which is going to suit your taste buds best.
Note, you can use wood chips or pellets as well, though I much prefer chunks, especially when smoking fish.
Taste profile: very smooth and mellow, with just a little smokiness, earthy rather than sweet.
Mix with: pecan, grapevine, oak or hickory to elevate the smokiness.
Best fish: just about any.
Alder is a real saving grace when it comes to the smoking of fish. With a really smooth, mellow profile, it’s hard to overpower and thus ruin a cut of fish when smoking it with alder.
And yet, alder still retains a nice earthy flavor, rather than being sweet. You’ve heard of surf ‘n’ turf , right?
Well the earthiness of alder marries the fishiness of seafood as perfectly as does that classic lobster and steak combo.
Even if cold-smoking fish (a process which can take a full 24 hours), it would be hard to add too much alder.
- Versatile wood, can be paired with almost any fish from fatty salmon to lean cod.
- Gentle, well-rounded flavor profile delivering a smooth, mellow smokiness.
- Great wood for beginner fish-smokers, as hard to add too much of it.
- Few, if any.
Taste profile: nutty, light, clean and cool.
Mix with: fruitwood for a sweet, fruity tang, cherry for color, oak for smokiness.
Best fish: lean white fish, medium-strength dark fish (tuna, salmon), trout.
Beechwood is unique in that it delivers a really crisp, light, slightly nutty flavor to your fish; a profile which is hard to find matched in any other wood.
Fish tends to work well with ingredients which serve to elevate its freshness (think of how the Japanese focus on freshness by serving fish raw as sashimi, sushi, and so on).
That’s exactly why beechwood is such a perfect combination for delicate meats like fish.
You can pair beech with plenty of other wood, too, since it’s so subtle and gentle that it won’t clash with other smokes.
Only thing to be aware of is that beech may not be strong enough for those heavier, oilier fish like mackerel, anchovies, sardines, sablefish, and swordfish.
- Can be paired with almost any other wood to give the smokiness a light, refreshing twist.
- A lovely taste pairing for most light-medium fish.
- Good beginner smoking wood since it’s subtle enough that it shouldn’t overpower your meat.
- Not necessarily strong enough for fattier, oilier fish.
Taste profile: mild, fruity, tart.
Mix with: beech, alder, citrus.
Best fish: oily, fatty fish like mackerel, haddock, tuna, salmon, and so on.
Grapevine is a controversial fruit wood when it comes to smoking fish.
Some would argue that grapevine smoky flavor can be far too strong, and impart a tart, bitter flavor to your meat, whilst others would argue it’s a perfect wood for fish, as it has a nice mild fruitiness, whilst still carrying a pleasant smoky aroma.
Whatever your opinion, the answer seems clear: use grapevine sparingly, and only on fish which can handle it: i.e. fish with high oil and fat contents like swordfish, tuna, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, salmon and so on.
Be aware that when grapevine burns too hot it releases an acrid, tart smelling smoke, which can overpower the fish; keep the fire burning low and slow!
- Unique flavor with a distinctly mild, fruity profile.
- Not a very popular wood for smoking.
- If you get the smoke wrong, your fish will end up tart and overpowered (not ideal for beginners).
- Not as easy to come across as other woods.
Taste profile: earthy, smoky, savory.
Mix with: citrus, alder, beech.
Best fish: salmon, tuna, trout, seabass, sablefish, sardines, anchovies, mackerel, swordfish.
Smoking fish has a long history in Europe, and one of the most widely available trees on that continent is oak.
As such, it should come as no surprise that, despite its relative strength, oak and smoked fish have gone hand-in-hand for centuries (especially Scottish smoked salmon!).
Oak smoke flavor is earthy and very savory, almost musty, which means it can easily overpower lean white fish.
As such, I recommend only using oak sparingly, and only ever with oily, fatty fish, like those listed above.
Pair with something fruity and light like alder, beech, or citrus to elevate the freshness of the fish whilst grounding it in smokiness.
- A truly classic smoking wood for fish.
- Fairly easy to handle, making it a good beginner’s choice (provided they go easy on the amount).
- Great with a wide range of strong-tasting fish.
- A powerful smoke, can overpower any fish (including the oilier, fattier ones) if misused.
- May be too smoky for some people’s seafood palates.
Taste profile: hickory-family, but milder; smokiness more rounded; very sweet.
Mix with: hickory or oak to bring down its sweetness, alder or beech for cool lightness.
Best fish: mackerel, amber jack, tuna, salmon, swordfish.
Pecan is an unusual pairing for fish, I’ll be the first to admit it. Intensely sweet, with a well-rounded smokiness, it’s not many people’s first choice.
Nevertheless, a strong-tasting fish like mackerel, amber jack, or swordfish have just the right oil and fat contents to handle the kick, whilst their meatiness is nicely complimented by the sweetness of pecan.
I wouldn’t, however, recommend using pecan for anything too delicate; you’ll end up overpowering the fish and the sweetness would be too much for a white fish that’s already pretty mild.
Pairing with a little oak or hickory could be a great shout for those bolder-tasting fish.
- Delivers a sweetness without any fruitiness.
- Smokiness is nice and rounded, so less likely to make your fish bitter or acrid.
- Goes great with heavier, meatier fish.
- Very sweet, perhaps too much so for some.
- Will most certainly overpower light lean fish like cod or halibut.
- Probably the least common choice of fish-smoking wood on this list.
Citrus (Orange and Lemon)
Taste profile: mild flavor, good strong smokiness, little tangy, citrusy sweetness.
Mix with: pecan for added sweetness; hickory or oak for an extra kick, beech for freshness.
Best fish: any.
Here, we come to my very favorite wood for smoking fish: citrus wood (which is to say, orange or lemon wood). Citrus and fish go together like bread and butter, PB and J, fries and ketchup, ribs and BBQ sauce.
Need I say more?
The tangy, fruity, citrussy sweetness compliments literally any fish, from those which need a gentler touch (like cod and tilapia), to those which can handle an intense smoky finish (like sea bass, trout, or salmon).
My number one piece of advice is simply this: if you’re smoking lean white fish, use only a little citruswood; whilst if you’re smoking fatty, oily fish, you can afford to be a bit more generous.
- One of the ultimate flavor combinations for fish.
- Super versatile, can smoke most fish or be paired with most other woods.
- Sweet, fruity, and tangy whilst also delivering a nice medium-strength smokiness.
- Few, if any.
Taste profile: rich, hearty, sweet and savory (a little like bacon); a mild nuttiness, like pecan.
Pair with: any fruitwood, to elevate its sweet side; oak (sparingly) for savory.
Best fish: only the strongest-tasting, oiliest and fattiest fish.
Hickory and pit masters have a long and fruitful history together.
Beloved across the Midwest and Southwest United States, if you’re looking for that classic ‘barbecue’ flavor, you’re probably looking for something cooked over hickory.
Only thing is, it’s got a very powerful flair profile, and imparts its flavor quickly.
What this means for fish is that the fish best be meaty and fatty enough to handle hickory smoke, or else it will quickly be overpowered and turn bitter.
I recommend smoking only the fattiest, oiliest fish with hickory, and would strongly suggest you pair it with something subtler, sweeter, and cooler, like beech, alder, or citrus wood, in order to cap its smokiness, and keep your fish tasting fresh and light.
- Really classic BBQ flavor.
- One of the few (other than oak) woods on this list which can deliver a real earthy smokiness to your fish.
- Can be paired with almost any wood.
- Only useful for smoking the fattiest, oiliest fish.
- Easy to overpower delicate meat like fish (not a good beginner’s choice).
- Can turn fish bitter.