I use an inexpensive offset smoker: basically a two-compartment grill, where the fire goes in one side and the food in the other. By keeping a low, smoldery fire going in the little firebox, you can quickly desiccate (not roast) the food in the adjacent chamber, while imbuing it with wonderfully complementary smokiness. Handy dampers allow you to minimize the air reaching the fire, pushing the temperature down and the smoke level up. As to woods, I use debarked chunks of apple, oak, or maple—all snagged around my neighborhood following storms, tree-work, and other exigencies of suburban life. You’re fine with any hardwoods we have around here; no softwoods like pine or cedar.
The technique is the same whether you have one fish or twenty. If you are lucky enough to have to, just work in whatever size batches your equipment dictates.
Scale and fillet the fish, but leave the skin on for easier handling.
Make brine enough to cover the fillets. My seat-o’-the-pants method is to dissolve enough kosher salt in very cold water so that the result that tastes like the North Atlantic. If you’re the measuring kind, that comes out to 1 cup kosher salt for every half-gallon cold water. A quarter-cup sugar deepens the color and may tighten up the texture a bit. A splash of soy sauce? Some juniper berries? A hot pepper? Up to you.
Immerse the fillets in the brine for about 30 minutes, after which remove them from the brine, shaking off as much moisture as possible. Blot very lightly with a paper towel and arrange, skin side down, on wire cookie racks. (The racks are not essential, but they make handling the fillets a lot easier from here on in.)
Air-dry the fillets thoroughly—an important step; count on 30 to 60 minutes. A shady breezy cool place is ideal. An electric fan on a gentle setting is not amiss if you wish to expedite the process.
Get your smoker going in the meantime. Making sure all the dampers and vents are open, start a small fire in the firebox using twigs or shavings of any easy-to-light wood. Gradually transition to small pieces of hardwood so that you begin to get a stable blaze that is creating some coals. Begin to close down the dampers so that the fire burns steadily and slowly.
Smoke the fish. When the fillets are mostly dry on the exterior, place them on their cookie racks in the smoke chamber. Add chunks of your favorite wood to the fire, and close the dampers most of the way so that you get smoke, not flame. Make sure that a nice calm plume of pale smoke is emerging from the exhaust of the unit. Continue adding chunks of wood as needed; if they want to ignite rather than smolder, dip (or even soak) them in water first.
If you have the technology to measure the temperature in the smoking chamber, try to maintain it between 160 and 180 degrees F. That range usually gives me the smoked fish I like inbetween one and two hours. I find I have to shift and rotate the cookie racks partway through for even smoking. Remove finished fish from the smoker and cool to room temperature. Pack in sealable containers and refrigerate until serving time.
I love smoked bluefish best as an appetizer with rye bread or crackers, maybe a mustard-mayo sauce, some finely sliced red onion, and a sprinkling of fresh parsley or capers.
Paula Marcoux is a food historian and author of Cooking With Fire. She lives in Plymouth. www.TheMagnificentLeaven.com.