Smoked Fish

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

The smoking of fish may have begun with fishermen drying their catch over a fire when sun, wind, and salt were inadequate. Certainly many familiar smoked fishes come from cool northern nations: smoked herring from Germany, Holland, and Britain, cod and haddock from Britain, sturgeon from Russia, salmon from Norway, Scotland, and Nova Scotia (the origin of the “Nova” salmon found in delicatessens), and smoked skipjack from Japan. It turned out that smoke imparts a flavor that can mask stale fishiness, and it helps preserve both the fish and its own flavor; the many chemicals generated by burning wood have both antimicrobial and antioxidant properties. Traditional smoking treatments were extreme; the medieval Yarmouth red herring was left ungutted, saturated with salt and then smoked for several weeks, leaving it capable of lasting as long as a year, but also odiferous enough to become a byword for establishing—or covering up—a scent trail. When rail transport reduced the time from production to market in the 19th century, both salt and smoke cures became much milder. Today salt contents are kept around or under 3%, the salinity of seawater, and smoking is limited to a few hours, contributing flavor and extending the shelf life of refrigerated fish for a matter of days or weeks. Much modern smoked fish and shellfish is preserved in cans!