Smoked tilapia lightly seasoned and cooked low and slow over alder wood. These beautiful skinless fillets are rich in omega 3 fatty acids, with all the flavor coming from just the fish meat. Made in just 2 hours, tilapia will soon become your new favorite smoking recipe.
Tilapia is, since 2002, the fourth most consumed fish in the U.S and one of the most affordable fish in the market. Packed with proteins, low on fat, and even lower on saturated fat, with as much as 16 times less saturated fat than steak. It is usually baked or fried, but smoking takes its flavor to the next level. If you want to know how to smoke tilapia, check this out.
What is tilapia?
Tilapia is a common name that refers to a family of fish, of which 3 species are the most commonly sold in markets. It’s high in phosphorus, potassium, selenium, and vitamin B while maintaining a low-calorie profile (130 per 100 grams).
Due to its rapid growth and its (mostly) vegetarian diet, they accumulate very little mercury compared to other popular fish, higher in the food chain, like salmon or freshwater trout. For the same reasons, they are very cheap and easily produced.
When cooked, its meat remains tender and offers a mild, light flavor. It’s a very versatile meat because its mild flavor goes well with almost everything. It can be served with salads, dips, etc.
Choosing the wood
As I’ve said, tilapia has a mild flavor so we don’t want to overpower it. Choosing the right wood is important.
When smoking heavier meats like steak, you would usually choose hardwood like mesquite or oak. We don’t want that right now. Lighter woods like maple, cherry, mulberry, or alder (this one goes very well with most fish) are more recommended.
Other fruit woods like apple will work fine too, but don’t use mesquite nor hickory.
Let’s go through the best options when it comes to choosing the best wood:
- Alder: One of the most popular woods when it comes to smoking fish due to its very subtle, slightly sweet flavor. It’s a perfect partner for our tilapia.
- Apple: Light, sweet, and fruity flavor
- Peach: An alternative to apple, very similar flavor
- Mulberry: Another popular wood for smoking fish, mulberry wood for smoking boasts a flavor similar to apple, albeit a bit lighter
- Cherry: Has a slightly stronger flavor, but not overpowering. Just like apple, it is sweet and fruity.
- Maple: Maple is on the stronger side of these woods, but its flavor is still mild and sweet
You should by no means use any softwood. They can’t be used when smoking because they are too high in resin and will ruin your food with a greasy, odd flavor. As a rule of thumb, most trees that produce enjoyable fruits or nuts will produce enjoyable smoke.
Preparing the tilapia
You have to prepare your tilapia beforehand. Clean it and make sure you take out all the bones. You can make a simple brine with a cup of salt to a gallon of water proportion.
Put the tilapia in a ziplock bag or a container and make sure it’s fully covered with the brine, then let it rest in the fridge for about 30 minutes (an hour if it’s frozen). If you use a container, make sure it’s plastic or glass, metal containers can react with the brine and we don’t want that to happen.
Brining tenderizes the meat and locks the moisture inside so it’ll come out very juicy and flavorful. Tilapia, especially, dries very easily so brining it will surely help. Brine can also help infuse some flavors into the meat. If you want to get fancy, you could try this:
Add a little sugar to the brine to balance out the saltiness and some citrus to make it acidic (which will also tenderize the meat further). Then, you can throw in any herbs or spices you want.
Tilapia absorbs brine very quickly so it will get all that great flavors. But be careful, don’t put too much in or your tilapia will end up tasting more like spice mix than like tilapia.
Before lighting up the smoker you should let your wood chips soak in water for a while. Most charcoal smokers will take around 30 minutes to be ready, gas usually takes just 10 minutes, but it totally depends on your smoker. You should wait until charcoal is glowing with an ashy white color before you put the fish on.
Meanwhile, you can prepare a spice rub for your tilapia. Now, if you used a spicy brine, don’t go crazy on this. Your tilapia will already have soaked most of the flavors from the brine. Be gentle.
You can get creative here, it’s up to your taste. Here you have a spice rub that goes well with tilapia if you don’t feel like inventing anything today:
- Onion Powder
- Garlic powder
- Celery seed
Go with approximately equal parts on anything, though you can taste and fix it if needed. You don’t need too much rub, you want to gently sprinkle the filets, do not cover them in spices.
A rub will not only impart flavor into the fish but also it will help develop a nice smoky bark on the outside. You can dilute the rub in some oil so it sticks better to the fish.
We are smoking, so slow and slow is the way to go. Set your smoker at around 185F. If you’re using a grill you could find it hard to set such low temperatures. Don’t worry, just go as low as it’ll get.
Once it’s ready, throw your filets in and let them smoke for 2 hours. If you’ve set a higher temperature, it could take around an hour and a half, so keep checking them.
By cooking the tilapia at such a slow temperature for a long time, we are keeping it moist and tender while imparting that great smoky flavor. When the time’s over, take it out from the heat and serve.
You can serve it along with some lemon drops or accompanied with white rice or pasta. Because of its light flavor, white and light wines are recommended. Drizzle it with some oil or dressing if you want, but it has a great taste by itself.
Be it alone, with your family, or friends, you will surely enjoy the wonderful flavor of your smoked tilapia.
- Alder smoking wood
- 4 tilapia fillets cleaned and deboned
- kosher salt to taste
- ground black pepper to taste
- 2 tbsp fresh basil chopped
- 4 cloves garlic minced
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 lemon halved
- Heat up smoker for indirect cooking, or charcoal grill for 2-zone cooking. Aim for temperature of 170°F /76°C. Add wood chips.
- As smoker or grill heats up, prepare the fish. Combine the basil, black pepper, salt, garlic, and olive oil in a small bowl. Use a basting brush to apply the mix to both sides of each fillet of tilapia.
- Place tilapia on smoker or grill grates. Close lid and set vents to open. Closely monitor temperature using a grill or smoker thermometer. If temperature starts to drift, adjust vents accordingly.
- Smoke for 1 ½ – 2 hours
- Remove tilapia from smoker. Serve each fillet with a lemon slice squeezed on top.