Smoking Fish & Sausage



All of us like to eat, matter of fact it is one priority to sustain life.  Those of us that do occasionally catch fish might like to try different recipes at times.  Fish can be fried, baked, broiled, barbequed, made into a stew or chowder, then there is one type that seems to excite many, and that is smoking.


There are probably about as many methods and recipes as there are cooks.  But first off maybe we had better describe smoking.


Smoking is the process of cooking, flavoring or preserving food by exposing it to the smoke from burning or smoldering plant materials, most often wood.   Meats and fish are the most common smoked foods, though cheeses can be processed also.  Smoking alone does not preserve but has to be used in combination with other techniques, most commonly salt/sugar curing.  The bacteria that cause spoilage cant live above 140F.

"Hot smoking"   is a several-hours-long process that can be used to fully cook meats or fish.   Barbecuing is a form of hot smoking.  Generally, hot-smoking involves holding the food directly above the fire, or in an enclosure that is heated by the fire.  The cooking temperature in a hot-smoking environment is usually between 175 and 225 and don't exceed 250 degrees.  The temperatures reached in hot smoking can kill microbes throughout the food.


This is the process that most fish/sausage would be smoked at.


You may want to baste some of these pieces but use a basting liquid that does not contain too much sugar because sugar may burn or blacken on the grill.


"Cold smoking"  is an hours-or days-long process in which smoke is passed by food which is held in a separate area from the fire.  Generally the food is held at just above room temperatures 6080F as it is smoked.  Since no cooking takes place, the interior texture of the food generally isn't affected, neither are any microbes living within the meat or fish.  For this reason, cold-smoking has traditionally frequently been combined with salt-curing in such foods as hams, bacon and cold-smoked fish like lox or smoked salmon.


A number of wood smoke compounds also act as preservatives.  Phenol and other phenolic compounds in wood smoke are both antioxidants, which slow rancidification of animal fats, and antimicrobials, which then slow bacterial growth, but smoke alone is insufficient for actual preserving of food.  Use a meat thermometer if you aren't sure and is a good and safe way to make sure it is cooked.   The meat thermometers usually indicate the right temperatures for different types of meats. 


The main problem is that the smoke compounds adhere only to the outer surfaces of the food, smoke doesn't actually penetrate far into meat or fish.  In modern times, almost all smoking is carried out for its flavor, and not for it's preservative qualities anymore like in the older days before refrigeration. 




Internal Temperature (F)

Beef & Veal



Steak and roasts medium


Steak and roasts medium rare


Chicken & Turkey



Ground, stuffing, and casseroles


Whole bird, legs, thighs, and wings


Fish & Shellfish

Any type





Steak and roasts medium


Steaks and roasts medium rare



Any type



Chops, fresh (raw) ham ground, ribs, and roasts


Fully cooked ham (to reheat)



Woods Used for Smoking :  Common woods used for smoking that impart a flavor are hickory, mesquite, oak, alder, maple and fruit-tree woods such as apple or cherry are commonly used for smoking.  However for mild flavored white meat like fish, alder is my favorite because I have found many of the others can impart a bitter taste to your finished product.  And once you pull your  bitter meat out, it is very hard to undo this situation.


Use Fresh Fish or Frozen :  Those of us that fish probably do not have the time nor the quantity of fish to smoke our fish when it is fresh, but will freeze it and then in the winter when fishing time slows down will retrieve it from the freezer and get busy.   My wife recently went thru our deep freeze while cleaning it out to make room for a beef we had butchered.  Wow, did she find things we did not know were there.   Some, I hate to say it, but was up to 5 years old.   She found some that the vacuum pack had failed and the fish was so locker burned that we used it for coyote bait. 


We did put together a box of salvageable slightly locker burned salmon, sea bass and ling cod.   I am amazed at what the vacuum packing can do in comparison to the old wrapping method.   Some of these pieces required trimming off the edges and removing any of the dried out meat.  These probably were not the best meat, but after trimming, the inner meat appeared salvageable, at least enough for me to use to learn on my new Big Chief smoker.   The photos below show the differences, as on the right below, show already trimmed fish, and on the left the 2 large pieces of locker burned meat.  Where the photo on the right shows the same 2 pieces but after being trimmed.


However be aware, that depending on the degradation of the meat, the end product may not be the highest quality (like being slightly bitter).


If it's bad enough to have freezer burnt meat, and it's been frozen long enough that it's gonna thaw out a bit soft/mushy... very difficult to trim/cut cleanly, even with a sharp fillet knife.   Therefore I would recommend trimming this freezer burnt meat while the fish is still partially frozen as it's a lot easier if you do this when the fish was about 1/2 thawed out.


Locker burned fish on the right Same fish after trimming off the burned meat

With the advent of modern small smokers has about killed the old time outdoor "outhouse" smokers that were common on about all the farms in my area in the 1930s and up until about 1980.   I remember cutting special wood and keeping it separate so it was not burned in the heating stove.  For a while dad tried vine maple or crabapple, but finally settled on dry Alder, which he learned from a local commercial smoker.  We would get up in the middle of the night at times and then early in the morning to stoke the fire in the smokehouse with new wood.  You did not want a large fire but one that just smoldered, so you adjusted the air intake in the bottom.


We smoked hams and bacon in the fall of the year after butchering time.  We even made polish sausage by the #2 wash tubs full.  It took me 5 years trying to get my mother-in-law to come up with a recipe for their sausage.  She always said "a couple of hand fulls of salt, some pepper, boil and squeeze a few garlic cloves".  I finally after writing down what she put in each year over the years managed to compile a close resemblance of her recipe.  We would mix it by hand, squeezing the meats to dissipate the ingredients, then finally when your hands were so tired, fry a sample for a fried taste test.  More pepper.  More mixing, another test taste.  We did find that the salt would later dissolve and dissipate into the meat where the end product become saltier than the fresh fried sample.


I raised sheep for a while and even some of the older ones worked out well when mixed with venison for sausage.


I can not begin to count how many smelt and salmon were smoked in the fall of the year.   


Now these small smokers are usually electric, however some are propane.  The Luhr Jensen "Little and Big Chief" smokers shown in this article, seem to have revolutionized the average fisherman's desires to smoke fish.   We don't have to go out and cut smoking wood anymore, just buy the chips in a bag.  One of these bags will fill these chip pans about 7 times.   I usually prefer Alder chips which gives a milder flavor for my fish.  Hickory chips would be my second choice, but probably better for sausage.

The smoker shown below is the Luhr Jensen Big Chief with a front loading door (they also make a top loader model, but it is harder to access the trays).   In the left photo, the thickest pieces here may be 3/4" and are off smaller 8-10# Coho salmon.   In the photo on the right, you will see it full of finished Kokanee.  These fish were 14" to 16" range and the trays were lacking just one fish of being full with 14 fish in the smoker.  For these thinner fish, the smoke / heat time is about half of the larger pieces.

The unsmoked meat just placed on the racks to dry for a couple of hours, with sea bass on the upper racks Finished smoking Kokanee, ready for testing


To give me some consistency in my final outcome, I installed a Bar-B-Que thermometer in the top of this unit.  With electric power to the unit for an hour, the temperature usually reaches 150 degrees.  If I want to up the temperature hotter, initially, I had built a heavy cardboard box to slip over the outside (no top) giving about 1 1/2" of clearance to somewhat insulate and keep any wind or night air from cooling it down.  I later purchased and made up a 3/16" sheet of plastic type thermal insulation and fitted as an outside cover which was duct taped in place.  At this insulation time, I also added a top aluminum sheet cover spaced 1" off the original top so as to not interfere with the top louver vents.


With this new cover on and ran continuously (with no opening the cover) even in winter weather, after 6 hours the temperature will usually reach from 165 to 172 degrees.   The larger pieces of meat will now read 155 degrees, on the meat thermometer  (well above the USDA suggestion of 145).   So by my experimenting, I can now open the chip pan door or pop the front loading door slightly to regulate my internal meat temperature.   You can not just load it and walk away, as you need to monitor it every hour or so.  Also in addition to colder outside winter air, WIND of any slight amount will cut your heat down considerably, so I try to find a protected corner in my patio.


The thinner pieces may not achieve this temperature, but USDA recommends 145 for fish and they will be done a few hours earlier anyway.


Now I have found that the electric heating element on this smoker, will over time, deteriorate and produce a colder temperature.  Like the last batch I did, it would only come up to 145 degrees and then with a cardboard box around the outside.  But if you are having problems getting the temperature up high enough, here is an idea that may help.  Before you add the chips, place a Charcoal Briquette in the pan, then add the chips.  This briquette will burn hotter enough to raise the temperature a bit along with maintaining the heat for a bit longer after the chips are used up, maybe under the right (or wrong) conditions, you will even want to add two of them.


In trying to compensate for this cooler condition until I could purchase a new element, after what I considered the proper time, but it was not really done to my satisfaction, I placed the smoked fish in my Bar-B-Que grill at 225 degrees for an half an hour.  However, it may be best to only run only 1 or 2 of the 3 burners, and part way through the cooking to rotate the meat to somewhat even the heat distribution.  This came out fine for the thicker parts, but overcooked the thinner flank meat.  So there is a learning  curve to most things. 


Considering the time it takes, you can not be near the smoker all the time it is operating, so it may be hard to actually be able to keep track of smoke/heating time.


In the LH photo below, you will notice the meat has dried out and is separating down the center, which for these thin pieces would be normal.  When removing it from the rack, the skin can/will readily be removed without sticking to the meat.  The thin tail sections will of course be overdone and somewhat hard, but sorry, that seems to be the way of life.   In the RH photo below these pieces were cut about 1 1/2" wide.  The skin was removed soon after taken from the smoker (while still warm) and the dark meat (fat, which tends to be bitter) was removed at the same time.


Here the Kokanee fillets are about right  Here are results of a 11# Coho salmon


If I had not placed the thermometer in my smoker, I would have not known for sure, only suspected that I did not leave the fish in there long enough.  With the thermometer operational, I found from 7 hours on one batch, and 9 hours on another was about right, with the thinner pieces coming off earlier.  So a lot of this depends a lot on the size and thickness of the fish.


These temperatures put me within the USDA guidelines for safe food.  However in the winter when I get around to thaw out some salmon and smoke it the weather is cold enough that the temperature were unattainable.  So I purchased 6 1/2' X 24" of the thin double backed aluminum covered thermal insulation and wrapped/duct taped it on the sides and back of this smoker, cutting out holes for the vents.  I also thought about adding this insulation to the front door of my front-loader smoker, but  could not find a good method of attaching it.  I did leave the top uncovered, mainly because of the many vents there.  I did later make a thin aluminum top cover that is secured and spaced above the top by about 1".  This allows the smoke/heat to disperse and yet give it some protection, while providing some insulation value.  And as said above it gets too hot, I can prop the chip tray door open or crack the main door.


Here we see the thermometer in the top of the aluminum top cover where the probe is extended down into the center of the smoker



Since your smoker (when operating) will be unattended for long periods of time during this smoking, it is recommended that you do not place it inside a building because of a potential fire hazard.  One thing that I did find, once the electrical power became burned badly at the smoker end plug to the heat element.   Maybe it would be wise to purchase a spare power cord.

Most people will tend to overcook their smoked salmon, so it may be best until you get the hang of it to pull some out 2 or 3 hours before the suggested time and test it.  You can always start the heat back up again, but it is rather hard to soften a hard piece of smoked salmon.  AND different meats will come out different.

It seems best to not try to use full fillets or even half fillets, but to cut them crosswise in about 1 1/2" strips.  They will smoke more thoroughly and are easier to handle later, making more of a bite size snack product.


This formula below is for a mild flavored outcome.


This is enough for 4# of salmon, sturgeon or tuna fillets.  The white meat fish needs to be sliced about thick.

16 oz   (2 cups)  Brown Sugar
4 oz     (1/2 cup) White sugar
6 oz     (3/4 cup) Salt
1/2 oz  Garlic powder
1/2 oz  Lowerys or Mrs. Dash seasoning

If you have enough meat to fill this above smoker then you will need to at least double the above recipe.

Or if you need more, (this is 4 times the above).

4#       Brown Sugar (1 package)
1#       White sugar
1 1/2#       Salt
1/4 cup  Garlic powder
1/4 cup  Lowerys or Mrs Dash seasoning

Now I have found that it works better for me to not put the seasonings in the brine, but save them (mentioned above or others) for use after the brining process and sprinkle them on after you put the meat onto the smoker racks, which allows you to experiment a bit and not have all of the batch using the same seasonings.  But be very liberal in sprinkling them on because the flavor does not have the same ability to soak in as with in the brine.  Trial and error will be your method until you figure out what you or your friends want.

Mix these ingredients together dry, break up any of the brown sugar that is lumpy.   Use what you need to use for one smoking, and save the rest of this dry powder mix into a tight fitting lid 1 gallon jug, OR zip-lock bags and freeze for future usage

In a crock pot, stainless steel or plastic pail, lay the fish fillets skin side down, sprinkle 1/8" (or enough to cover meat) of dry the mix on top of fillets, place another layer of fish, but this layer have the meat side down so the brine is more of a meat-to-meat instead of skin-to-skin and again more brine mix on top.  It is better to have slightly too much mix than to skimp and not have the meat covered when it liquefies.  Place it in a refrigerator to soak.

The mix will form a thick liquid brine, there needs to be enough brine to cover the fish while soaking   If using fresh salmon or any oily fish, let soak 12 hrs for normal fillets (up to 1 1/4" thick), or longer for thicker fillets.  For thicker fish, part way thru the soak, remove and reposition top fish to bottom to get better coverage.  One thing I have found is that if you use frozen fish, it takes less soak time (maybe 4-6 hours less, like a total of 8, depending on the thickness, than fresh fish (as in the final outcome, the frozen fish seem to absorb the salt faster).

For white meated fish like sturgeon, sea bass, tuna or even shark (if the shark is properly taken care of right after landing, by continually soaking it in fresh saltwater, then dumping that, then soak again).  FOR THESE, I have found I need to cut the brine soak time shorter yet, possibly to 5 or 6 hours when using thawed meat, as this type of meat seems to accept the brine faster.

Now a small but important secret, when you remove the meat from brine, rinse it, then let it soak for about an hour in cold water, move meat around to ensure it gets a thorough soaking, then pat dry.   If you do not let it soak, the salt seems to become more predominate in the thinner pieces.  Place the meat on the smoker racks skin side down then let it set for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours to allow them to dry or until they glaze over before you start the actual smoking process.

Before placing meat on the racks, be sure they (the racks) are clean and it is best to spray them with PAM, or at least wipe some olive oil on them to help alleviate sticking when removing the meats.


In placing the meat on the racks, separate and put the thinner fish on upper racks,  (they will be done sooner and it is easier to take them out first).   Cover the smoker pan tray with aluminum foil to help retain any oily drippings and to promote a longer smoker life.   However it is best that you replace this foil after each session as the pan is right above the burner which can cause enough heat to burn thru the foil, thereby allowing the grease to become burned onto the pan.


After the first hour of smoking, (first pan of chips) make up a small batch (1/4 a cup) of thick basting solution using the previous brine mix, or be inventive.  For one of my last batches, I added (as an experiment) a teaspoon of Soy Sauce.  Using a cheap 1" bristle brush, baste this mix on the meat.  This will give the meat a slight sugar glaze, while also providing a base for sprinkling some garlic salt or pepper over fish if you like.  You will notice I said Garlic Salt not Garlic Powder as it can be easy to get too much powder on.   Replace the racks and continue smoking.   On white meated fish like sturgeon that has been frozen, I found that a repeat of this process before the second pan of chips provides a nicer flavor.

If you were going to do another batch following this one, you could now use this liquid brine again, but for health reasons, it would not be wise to refrigerate and keep it for a longer period of time.


In a secure protected place out of the wind, locate your smoker.  Select your chips, fill the pan and set it on the electrical hot plate coil in the smoker.  For the Little or Big Chief smokers, 1 full pan of chips will burn up in 45 min to 1 hr, so then dump the ashes in a secure place, then refill the pan at least every hour (you can tell when the smoke dies off) until you have used 3 or 4 pans of chips if oily fish, 1 or 2 pans if white meated fish.  Now remove chip pan and just run the electric heat only.


So at this point, for oily fish like salmon you will have 3 hours of smoke time, PLUS the heat only as described below.  This heat only time will also vary depending on your preferences as to moist or drier fish AND the time of the year and how well your smoker is insulated.  I personally rather have a drier fish that I am sure is done inside.  For me, using Coho salmon fillets off fish in the 12-14# range a TOTAL of 8 hours works out about fine on a warm fall day.   Now remember this time may vary on the outside ambient temperature and or wind, which could double if a cold winter time is selected and the conditions are against you. 

Below is for the heat time only AFTER the initial 3 hour smoking process.
heat only, 2 more hrs for trout
heat only, 3-5 more hours for white meated fish depending on thickness, or oily fish that are thin pieces
heat only, 6-7 more hrs for pieces of salmon 1" (thinner pieces can be taken off before)
heat only, 8-10 more hrs for really thick pieces of salmon


I like to have my fish not soft or gooey inside, but done and possibly a little harder than some people like.  So the heat only time can be adjusted for your likes/dislikes.  Test the smaller pieces doing a professional sampling occasionally for taste/doneness.  These smaller pieces will be done before the larger ones.  Then you have to understand that the product will dry out a bit more after it cools down.  You are not trying to make jerky here, and until you get the hang of it, maybe it would be best to stop the heat process, let it sit  for a few hours at the end and sample a piece.  Remember, some people like it soft, (not completely done, while others prefer it harder).  If it is not totally done you can always place it into a Microwave to finish it to your likings.   


You have to understand that each time you open the door, you have lost possibly 20 minutes of smoke/heat time and drop the inside temperature from 20 to 35 degrees depending on the outside air temperature.  It is best to test the larger pieces with a cable probe meat thermometer as you near the final time.   I try to achieve a minimum of 145 degrees with the probe in the center of the larger meat.  I have found that with all the time involved and the desire not to produce a inferior product, that I now ALWAYS use a probe type thermometer to test if the meat is done.  It may be hard to get a good reading on thin pieces but they will be done before the thicker ones anyway, (play it by texture/taste on these). 



Like mentioned before, put all the thinner pieces on a top rack, so they can be removed separately a few hours early.  Just be sure to take the fish out before it gets hard, as this warm state it will appear it need more heat, but it will harden up as it cools.  Most people tend to overcook their fish (me included at times). 


Oily fish like salmon is a little forgiving, but if white meated fish, it will dry out considerably later.


It is best to plan it so you take the fish out of the brine in the morning.  You can do all your preparation and smoke time to have the fish smoked by late evening.  Some will place a electrical timer in line with the power cord and set it to turn off instead of having to get up at 2AM and every couple of hours thereafter.   It is also suggested to not have the smoker near any wood product nor leave town while it is running, as they have caught on fire and burned buildings down before.


Again for smoking white meat (sturgeon, sea bass or filleted and skinned bottom fish), soak in brine 1/2 the time or less as the (oily) salmon.  For white meat fish baste with cooking oil occasionally during smoking to keep it from drying out.


The Big Chief smoker will accommodate 4 1/2,  8-10#  salmon or about 20# of filleted meat.
Little Chief Smoker ??



Smoke your fish 1/2 the amount of time you normally would for just smoking cure, then put in jars.   Add 1/2 tablespoon olive or Wesson oil for 1/2 pints and a full tablespoon for full pints.    Pack salmon into jars being sure to get as much air out of the bottom of the jar as possible.   Also leave enough gap between the lid and the fish so it doesn't interfere with the seal.


The above oil additives are needed for non oily river Coho.   Fresh ocean salmon or Springers require less or even no oil.


Optional to add to jars.  One whole fresh garlic clove.  Or one whole or half a jalapeno, pickled or fresh.   Some also like a couple of white stalks of the green onions.

You will get a multitude of times for the canning if you ask, anywhere from 15 lbs at 10 minutes (sea level) or 10-11# at 90 minutes.  This seems to because some just smoke it a couple ofg hours to get the color and flavor, then can it before it is done, requiring the longer canning time.  However if you take completely smoked fish, then just enough time to seal the jars is needed.   Personally my wife prefers somewhere near the upper time as on my fish I only smoke for a couple of hours just to impart the flavor.  If in doubt look it up in a canning book yourself.

If you keep canned fish for a period of time, tip jar upside down occasionally to allow oil to run over and thru meat to keep from drying out.


Sausage Making / Smoking :

Sausage recipe (mild) Polish Sausage rings derived from John Hein's long-time German method

Salt 1 1/2 cups (my wife likes a little less salt, like about 1/2)
Garlic 2 teaspoons garlic salt OR 12 med size cloves
Sage 2 1/2 Tablespoons
Pepper 1/2 cup


60# meat total
80% deer or elk, the rest pork trimmings
or 50% venison / 50% sheep

25# sheep
20# elk
10# deer

40# deer/elk
10# pork trimmings @ $1.39 #

Grind the meat using a course plate opening (1/4") in the grinder.  Blending the meat and pork trimmings together as you grind.

In a large tub, add the seasoning and mix thoroughly.   When I say mix thoroughly, I mean by both hands.  Roll it and bend from one side of the container to the other, squeeze the meat as you blend.  When you get to where you think it may be mixed completely, fry a patty & taste it.  Be advised that the salt will become slightly stronger as it dissolves and soaks into the meat.


Grind the second time using a smaller plate in the grinder (1/8") at the same time you stuff casings.


These manufactured casings are designed to not be soaked, but threaded onto the stuffer nozzle dry.   Push enough on and as far on as possible.  Cut the casing off at the outer end when you can not get more on.  This needs 2 people, one to feed the meat into the grinder and man the stop switch when the stuffer hollers.  Start the grinder and proceed.  The person doing the stuffing needs to twist the outer end as the meat starts out the nozzle.  And put a slight amount of pressure on the casing so it fills but not enough pressure to burst the casing.  We have found that making these links a max of 16" will fit my smoker racks quite well.  When the casing is filled to where you want it to stop, it may be best for the inexperienced, to have the other person stop the grinder.  The stuffing person then needs to pull the now stuffed meat and casing out slightly then twist it to close that end.  You can now cut that link off behind the twist with a scissors.  Start over until finished.  If you break a link, feed the meat back thru the second time.  You will have some shorter links possibly when the end of the casing you threaded onto the nozzle comes to an end, or because of a break in the casing at an unexpected time.

Stuff with Weston Brand, Collagen Casing 33mm purchased at Sportco Weston advertises these casings at $33.59 a package

The Weston Brand, Collagen Casing package says it will stuff 70# of meat.   Well maybe after you get the hang of it, as we were used to the old style pig intestine casings and with these man made casings which do not stretch as much, we apparently did not stuff them as tight and got only about 50# out of the package.

Big Chief smoker will take 25 links of a maximum of 16" long with one space between on the grill to allow for circulation. 
It took 2 1/2 fillings of the smoker to smoke 40#.


Run time --- burn one pan of Alder chips on the first startup, run continuously with heat alone for 5 hours and another run of 5 more hours.

I thought of devising a thermostat on the electric heater element, so that I can run it at a lower heat for a longer time, which may not dry the links out and yet give enough heat to a complete cook job.

The time this batch of meat was left in may need to be increased a bit as it appears the center did not get done enough, so we broil for 10 minutes or micro-waved for about 2 minutes.  Now with the thermometer in the unit and by checking with a meat thermometer, maybe this can be rectified.


Polish sausage just about ready to come out of the smoker



Bar-B-Queing Salmon :

My method of telling when fish is done on the Bar-B-Que, is that I want to remove the skin after it is cooked and this is my indicator of when it is done.   If the skin peels off easily without sticking, it is about right, if it is burned into the thinner meat, you got it too hot, or on too long.  Therefore it may be best if doing it this way to cut the flank meat off the thicker and only cook that thinner meat for for a shorter length of time.  My time at a medium heat (350 degrees) will be pretty close to 10 minutes for the smaller Coho and from 12 to 15 minutes for thicker Chinook.



Here is another website about smoking fish


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Originated 02-25-07  Updated 10-31-2017  ***
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