Delicious hot smoked herring fillets cooked low and slow over oakwood. These small fish fillets are great added to salads, rice dishes, or even just by themselves! From preparing the fish to dry brining, discover how to smoke herring with our easy barbecue fish recipe.
Smoked herring is a brilliant dish for any budding backyard smoker to try out. Not only do you end up with a delicious-tasting smoked fish, but this guide also provides a good insight into all the steps of properly preparing fish and dry brining it ready for smoking.
From filleting and preparing sea bass for smoking to quick smoker tips, discover how to smoke herring today.
What is Smoked Herring?
Herring is a small silver-colored fish that can be found in both salt and fresh waters worldwide. When cooked, they are an oily fish that produce large flakes of meat. They have a middling fish flavor, which is not as strong as salmon but more distinct than cod.
Herring swim in large shoals of fish and have been farmed for centuries since they are easy to catch and produce a high amount of food for relatively little effort on the fisherman’s part.
The only problem with a bountiful harvest of fish is being able to eat it all before it goes bad. This is why herring has been popular as a smoked fish for hundreds of years. Not only does smoking fish help to preserve it but it also creates a new unique flavor and texture.
Smoked herring is delicious as a stand-alone fish but also makes for a great ingredient in a ton of dishes, such as stews and soups. It’s a popular ingredient in Caribbean cuisine and is commonly enjoyed as a breakfast dish where the smoked herring has been shredded and sauteed with a simple sauce and accompanied by rice, roti, or dumplings.
Filleting Herring for Smoking
Ideally when buying herring to smoke you’d go to a fishmonger and ask them to prepare the fish for you (by gutting, descaling, and trimming the fish) so that it’s ready to go. Still, if you’re feeling adventurous, it is possible to buy whole herring and do it at home yourself.
Herring tends to have a classic ‘splayed’ shape when prepared for smoking, a bit like a spatchcocked chicken, so that’s what we’ll explain here. Smaller fish like herring can often be tackled with a good pair of kitchen scissors instead of a knife.
Here’s how to fillet herring in preparation for the smoker:
- Wash the herring under cold running water
- Cut off the head of the herring just behind where the gills start and remove the fins and tail.
- Going from the tail end of the fish, insert the scissors and snip up along the belly to the head. Open up the fish and, using your fingers (or a small spoon), scrape out the guts. The inside of the fish can then be rinsed to ensure it’s all clean.
- Open the fish so it can be laid flat on your work surface (scale side up) and press down with the palm of your hand to flatten it completely – this releases the backbone and rib bones.
- You can keep your herring in this splayed shape or cut down the backbone line to produce two fillets.
Skin On or Off?
If you leave the skin on your herring, ensure it’s free from any slimy coating, which can be a breeding ground for bacteria. Rub it with a paper towel to make sure it’s completely dry before brining.
Times & Temperatures
Herring works best when hot smoked at a temperature range of 200-275℉ (93-135℃). The fish will be fully cooked when it reaches an internal temperature of 145℉ (62℃), which should take around one to two hours.
Smoke time will vary depending on the size of a fillet, so be sure to keep an eye on your herring’s internal temperature with a digital meat thermometer to ensure it isn’t overcooking and drying out.
Oak is a popular choice of wood for smoking fish as it infuses a rich flavor to the fish that doesn’t overpower it. Another benefit of using oak is that it is a slow-burning wood, which makes it perfect for the longer process of smoking fish.
- When preparing to dry brine your herring, make sure you have a large enough container to hold the fish and a good amount of the brine mixture
- Make sure to space the herring out evenly so that they don’t touch each other (if they overlap it can cause some discoloration)
- airtight container
- wire rack
- 2 lbs fresh herring filleted and deboned
- ½ cup kosher salt
- ½ cup dark brown sugar
- ¾ tsp black pepper
- 1 ½ tsp dried lemon zest
- 1 tsp granulated garlic
- ½ tsp dried ginger
- In a small bowl, add the dry brine mix ingredients. Combine well and then leave to one side.
- Rinse the herring under cold water and then pat dry with paper towels
- In a plastic container, sprinkle a thin layer of the dry brine mix to cover the bottom. Place the herring on top of the dry brine mix layer, and then sprinkle the remainder of the dry brine over the fish, covering it evenly.
- Cover the container with the lid and then transfer to the refrigerator. Leave to brine for at least 2 hours.
- Remove the herring from the refrigerator and container. Rinse under cold water to remove any excess brine solution, and then dry thoroughly with paper towels.
- Arrange the herring on a wire rack and allow to dry and come to room temperature while your prepare your smoker
- Fire up smoker to 275°F (135°C). Oil the smoker grates to help stop the herring from sticking.
- Once the smoker is at temperature, place herring on the grates. Close smoker and smoke to an internal temperature of 145°F (63°C), about 1-2 hours. The herring should have developed a golden brown color and flake when touched with a fork.
- Once done, pull from smoker and serve immediately