Delicious smoked ahi tuna steaks, prepared in an easy wet brine and cooked low and slow over oak wood. Discover how to smoke tuna with our easy hot smoked fish recipe.
Chances are if you’ve seen fish on the menu at a restaurant, tuna is among the dishes listed. Tuna is a highly versatile fish, being used for not only cooked dishes but also raw ones such as sashimi and sushi.
Tuna is often referred to as the ‘chicken of the ocean’ as its mild taste and firm, meaty texture means it can be cooked in a variety of ways and with a range of flavors without tasting overly like fish.
It almost seems closer in characteristics to regular meat than it does other types of fish, which is why it works so well as a grilled or smoked dish. If you’ve been a bit wary about venturing into cooking seafood in your smoker, this smoked tuna recipe is the perfect place to start.
From preparing your tuna steak for the smoker to nailing cooking times, discover how to smoke tuna today!
Tuna Steak Explained
Tuna are found all over the world and can grow to enormous sizes, which makes them ideal for commercial fishing and affordable for home cooking. Since tuna are such large fish, ranging anywhere from 3 to over 16 feet (0.9 to 5 meters), they can be cut into both steaks and fillets.
Tuna steak has a unique deep red color and firm texture that’s similar to traditional beef steaks, and can be cooked in similar ways! Cut perpendicular to the spin, tuna steaks are available bone-in or boneless.
How to Buy Tuna Steaks
When looking to buy tuna steak, you might come across a few different named species, which can make the selection process a bit harder. Generally, there are four main varieties of tuna that are sold commercially:
- Yellowfin (or ahi) tuna is most comparable to bluefin in taste and quality. Yellowfin has a deep red-colored flesh and is the kind you’re most likely to find sold as tuna steaks in the grocery store or fish market.
- Albacore is the type of tuna you find canned and sold as ‘white tuna’. It’s the only tuna species referred to as ‘white meat’ tuna as it’s got the mildest flavor and the lightest color flesh.
- Bluefin tuna is mainly caught around the oceans in Japan. It has a much deeper color flesh, which can be almost purple-red, and has more fat and a stronger flavor than other albacore or yellowfin tuna. It is the most expensive type of tuna to buy and is often used for sushi or sashimi.
- Skipjack has the strongest flavor and highest fat content of these four varieties of tuna. It’s usually sold canned as ‘light chunk’ tuna.
When picking tuna to smoke, yellowfin/ahi or albacore are the top choices due to their milder taste. For our recipe, we’ll be using boneless ahi tuna steaks.
Here’s what to look for when buying tuna steaks for smoking:
- Color: When raw, tuna steaks should be bright in color – this color can range from a deep purple-red to pinkish orange. If it looks more brown or greyish, then it’s not fresh and should be avoided.
- Smell: Fresh fish shouldn’t actually smell fishy (that fishy smell comes from proteins that have begun to break down). It will have an aroma, probably best described as salt water or an ocean scent, but if it has a bad odor, it’s not fresh.
- Texture: If you press on a tuna steak, there should be an even firmness, and any indent you make should disappear where the meat springs back. If the tuna steak feels softer or mushy in any area, has a slimy appearance, or doesn’t spring back when pressed – it’s not fresh.
How to Prepare Tuna Steak for Smoking
Buying tuna steaks for smoking means that they will already have been trimmed and cleaned, so we don’t need to get overly hands-on and messy with them, but we do need to brine them.
Brining helps to add some extra flavors to our tuna, keep the tuna steaks moist when smoking, and also helps to cut down on the amount of albumin that’s released (the white stuff that you sometimes see coming out of fish when it’s cooked).
Since the muscle fibers in tuna are looser than in other meats, they don’t need to brine for an extended amount of time – anything up to an hour should be fine.
A simple tuna brine can be made with 4 cups cold water, ⅔ cup brown sugar and ¼ cup kosher salt. Here’s how to brine tuna steaks for smoking:
- Using a large pot or dish, dissolve the brown sugar and kosher salt in your water
- Place your tuna steaks into the brine so that they are submerged
- Leave them to sit in the refrigerator for 45-60 minutes before removing them and rinsing them thoroughly under cold running water
- Pat them dry with a paper towel and then place them on a wire rack to allow them to air dry further
It might seem counter-intuitive to wash the tuna steaks thoroughly after leaving them to soak in brine, but the flavor we want from the brine is on the inside of the steak. If you leave brine on the outside of fish before smoking or cooking, it will be much too salty.
The longer you can leave the tuna steaks to air dry, the better pellicle they will form.
The pellicle is where the sugar and salt infused from the brine make their way back to the surface of the fish; a good pellicle helps to absorb even more flavor when smoking and creates a tasty crust on the tuna.
Times & Temperatures
When smoking tuna steaks, you want your smoker set up for an indirect cooking temperature of around 250-275℉ (120-135℃).
We need our tuna steaks to reach an internal temperature of 145℉ (62℃) to ensure they are fully cooked and safe to eat.
If your smoker is set to 250-275℉ (120-135℃), it should take an average-sized tuna steak 45-60 minutes to reach the required internal temperature. This will, of course, differ depending on the size and thickness of a tuna steak, so the easiest way to check the internal temperature is with an instant-read thermometer.
As with most fish, when smoking, you don’t want to infuse an overly strong or distinct flavor of smoke; you want the smokey flavor to complement the fish. For tuna, a light-flavored wood such as alder or oak will give a nice taste without being overpowering.
Are Tuna Steaks Supposed to Be Pink in the Middle?
It depends! If you are smoking tuna steaks, you do not want them to be pink in the middle. When smoking tuna, it is a low and slow method of cooking over indirect heat, where we are looking for and even ‘cook’ and an internal temperature of 145℉ (62℃) to be reached.
If you were grilling tuna steak, you might want it to be pink in the middle; it’s all personal preference. When grilling certain meats (namely steak or fish) over direct heat, a lot of people will opt to have medium doneness to ensure that the meat doesn’t dry out or become chewy. If your tuna has been brined beforehand, it shouldn’t run the risk of drying out regardless of if your smoke or grill it, but if your grill it set to too high of a temperature, you can run the risk of searing the outside of the tuna too quickly causing an uneven cook and texture.
As long as the internal temperature of tuna, whether grilled or smoked, reaches 145℉ (62℃), it is considered safe to eat.
Do Tuna Steaks Need to Rest After Smoking?
No, tuna steaks do not need to rest after smoking – they can be served and eaten straight out of the smoker or off the grill