Incredible fresh red snapper prepared in garlic and thyme, and hot smoked on cedar planks for delicately sweet-but-smoky barbecue fish. Discover how to prepare and cook this American seafood classic today with our easy recipe.
If you’re looking to change up the sorts of things you’re cooking in your smoker but have always been a bit daunted by the idea of fish, this smoked red snapper could be just the thing to start with.
Think of it as the gateway fish to help introduce you to all kinds of seafood smoking. The mild yet slightly sweet white meat of red snapper is ideal for anyone who isn’t keen on overly fishy tastes, and it can be paired with just about any ingredient or seasoning to produce a wonderful meal.
From fish preparation and filleting to smoking woods, discover how to smoke red snapper from scratch with our easy hot smoked fish recipe and guide.
Red Snapper Explained
Red snapper is a saltwater fish found in oceans across the world, but the majority is fished in waters in the Gulf of Mexico and around Indonesia.
It is a versatile white fish popular in restaurants and with home cooks thanks to its sweet, slightly nutty flavor. red snapper produces a lean and firm meat that doesn’t have a strong fishy taste (when compared to the likes of some oily fish), making it an ideal fish to infuse with a variety of different flavors and spices or to serve for people who aren’t keen on strong seafood tastes.
Red snapper is suitable for cooking in a variety of ways, but it works particularly well for smoking. The lean meat absorbs a good amount of the smokey flavors, and the skin (once descaled) also tastes good and helps to keep the fish together when smoking either as fillets or as a whole fish.
How to Buy Red Snapper
Red snapper is a relatively easy fish to get hold of – fish markets regularly stock it, while supermarkets often sell pre-packaged frozen or fresh fillets. If you are looking for red snapper for smoking whole or filleting yourself, it’s best to opt for the freshest fish you can find, which could mean a trip to the fish market.
When buying red snapper, there are a few key things to look out for to ensure you get the freshest fish possible.
- Smell: Fresh fish shouldn’t have a fishy smell. red snapper is an ocean-caught fish that may smell of the ocean, but it shouldn’t have a bad odor.
- Skin: The skin of the fish should look bright and metallic; red snapper are naturally a vibrant blush color, and even if a fish has been filleted, the skin on the cut pieces of fish should still look vibrant. It should also feel firm when pressed.
- Eyes: If buying red snapper as a whole fish, you’ll want to look at the eyes as an indicator of freshness – you want them to look clear and bright; if the eyes look milky or cloudy, it suggests that the fish is not fresh.
- Gills: If buying a whole fish, it can also be handy to check the gills; they should be slightly red in color and moist. Avoid purchasing a fish if the gills feel slimy or dry.
How to Prepare Red Snapper for Smoking
Usually, we’d just cover how to fillet a fish without having to worry about the messy business of dealing with the guts, but as red snapper is popular for smoking as a whole fish, we’ve included instructions on how to deal with the process of cleaning, gutting and filleting a fish.
Red snapper are covered with tough scales, so you want to make sure you have a sharp fileting knife to work with. Protective gloves are also helpful to hold the fish steady and prevent knife mishaps.
- To start, we need to descale the red snapper. Have the fish placed on your work surface with the head facing your non-dominant hand (using your dominant hand for the descaling and filleting makes the process safer)
- Hold the red snapper by the head and scrape the scales with your knife (or a scaling tool), working against the grain of the scales. Start at the tail and work towards the head. Rinse the fish under cold running water to remove any loose scales.
You can also remove the fins at this point. Using a pair of sharp kitchen scissors, pull the fins away from the body and cut as low down as possible.
- Make an incision in the belly of the fish from the base of the head down to the small opening towards the fish’s tail. You will find a small section below where the fins sit that is harder to cut through with a knife; you can use kitchen scissors to snip this section.
- You also need to detach the gill filament. To do this, pull the gills forward so that you can see where they attach to the neck and snip through this with scissors. You can then carry on the cut all the way through from the belly to the head.
- Put your fingers (or a spoon) into the body cavity and pull out the innards, working from the gills to the back of the fish.
- The gills also need to be removed as they can give fish a bitter taste. To do this, cut around the area where the gills attach. They will come out as a whole piece with the gills and tongue.
- Ensure the cavity is clean of entrails, and then rinse thoroughly under cold running water.
If you are planning to smoke your red snapper whole, you may want to make several cuts or a criss-cross pattern with your knife through the skin and down to the bones. This will allow you to add extra spice or flavors to your fish before smoking, depending on the recipe you are following.
- Using a sharp knife, make an angled cut behind the gills to separate the fillet section from the head of the fish.
- Then, make a cut from the top of the head and the backbone to the fish’s tail. It should be deep enough to feel the knife running along the spine’s bones.
- Open up the meat slightly from the spine so that you can continue to make cuts to remove the filet from the bones, and keep going until the fillet is separated.
- Repeat the process on the opposite side of the fish to produce two fillets.
Times & Temperatures
For fish to be safe to eat, it has to reach an internal temperature of 145℉ (62℃). When smoking fish, the optimum temperature for a smoker is between 250-275℉ (120-135℃).
Average-sized red snapper fillets should take around 45 to 60 minutes to reach the ideal internal temperature on a smoker at this temperature. As always, timings are a guide, and internal temperature is the safest way to check the doneness of fish in the smoker.
When it comes to smoking fish, the advice on the choice of wood is generally the same; you want something that gives a pleasant smokey taste without being overpowering to the taste of the fish.
For smoking red snapper, Alder is a common choice for a nice smokey taste. If the recipe you are following, like ours below, uses lemon or lime as an ingredient, then using a citrus wood (Orangewood is easiest to find online) to smoke your red snapper could add an interesting flavor to the finished dish.
- When eating, it’s easiest to flake the meat away from one side of the fish with a fork until the spine is exposed. Once one side has been picked clean of meat, the tail can be picked up, and the spine (along with the head) should lift straight off the fillet on the opposite side. Care should always be taken to check for any rogue pin bones in fish meat before eating.
- We recommend using cedar planks (like these on Amazon) for most smoked fish recipes since they stop your snapper from sticking to your smoker grates. If you don’t have any to hand, try using a fish basket or lining your smoker’s grates with a thin layer of canola oil.
Smoked Red Snapper
- 2 whole red snapper (descaled, gutted and cleaned)
- ½ tbsp olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic crushed
- 2 tsp kosher salt
- 2 tsp ground black pepper
- 1 lemon thinly sliced
- 1 lime thinly sliced
- 1 bunch fresh thyme
- Fire up smoker to 250-275°F (120-135°C)
- While your smoker warms up, drizzle olive oil on both sides of the fish and inside the cavity. Apply the salt, black pepper, and crushed garlic to the fish surface and inside the cavity.
- Layer the lemon and lime slices in the cavity, and add some thyme sprigs.
- Arrange the fish on a cedar plank (you may need more than one) and place plank on smoker grates.
- Close the smoker door/lid and smoke until the fish internal temperature reaches 145°F (62°C). Approximately 60-90 minutes.
- Once the red snapper has reached the required internal temperature, remove it from the smoker and serve immediately.
Can you smoke red snapper whole?
Yes, you can most definitely smoke a red snapper whole! It may seem like a more daunting way to cook red snapper, but the main difference is in some of the prep work needed.
Depending on where you buy your red snapper, you can always ask the seller to remove the innards for you if you don’t want to do it yourself.
When is red snapper season?
The best time to fish for red snapper is during their spawning season in the summer. The exact dates of this change year to year depending on the conditions, but as a general rule, spawning hits its peak in June and July.