By: Captain Tyler Barrack
Just because we’re not in Alaska doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy incredible smoked fish here in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina! Due to it’s dense consistancy and high omega 3 oil content (50% higher than salmon), I figured King Mackerel would be a great substitute for the Sockeye Salmon I learned to smoke and can out west. Needless to say it didn’t disappoint! Here’s the step by step process on how to stock up your pantry for the winter.
1. Get Your Fish!
While King Mackerel are around most of the year, October and November are by far the best months to go load up. While the bigger fish will stick closer to the beach, the more abundant and tasty 15lbs and under will hang out a little further offshore around structure. Our captains are happy to take you out and show you how and where to target these beauties. For canning purposes, 2-3 good size fish will yield 20-30 8oz jars which is the perfect amount for a full size pressure cooker. Steaking the fish and vaccum sealing is another great way to keep your fish tasting fresh for many months.
2. Filleting and Brining
I typically like to steak my Kings and cook them on the grill. When smoking; however, it’s best to fillet. King Mackerel are super easy to clean and yield good size fillets. Be sure to leave the skin ON though so it does not stick to the smoker grates. As for the brine, there are 1,000 differing opinions on how and what to use. No matter what though there are 2 standards… salt and brown sugar. Simply fill large mixing bowls with water and add a 1/4 cup kosher salt and 3/4 cup brown sugar per gallon. From there it’s up to you, being a Chesapeake Bay native I add a little Old Bay seasoning but the key is take it easy, let the fresh fish speak for itslelf.
Leave the fish to brine covered in the refrigerator overnight or up to 16 hours.
Probably the biggest mistake and overlooked step people make when they start smoking fish is the glazing process. Not properly glazing your fish will result in a mushy, ugly consistancy. Patience is key! While brining, the fish will soak up all the goodness but need the opportunity to seal it in. I’ve found the easiest method is to just elevate the grates and load the fish on to dry. An oscillating fan will speed up the process exponentially. Do NOT stop until you get a good sticky consistancy and glare like you can see in the picture, again… patience!
Finally! Transfer your racks to the smoker and get some charcoal going. Soak your wood chips in water for at least a half hour before putting them on the coals. Alder is the preferred wood but anything other than a nut wood works just fine. I used Peach in this batch and it came out great. The great thing about canning the fish is you’re only smoking the fish for flavor. They will cook in the pressure cooker regardless of how long you smoke them. I typically do 2 hours or so with lots of smoke and low heat and leave them underdone on purpose so they don’t overcook while canning. Just look for a color and smell that you like and call it good! If you do plan to eat it fresh out of the smoker, be sure to have an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees.
Run all your mason jars through the dishwasher and boil the lids (alway use new lids). Fill the jars but leave an inch of room between the fish and the top. I like wide mouth 8oz jars but any size you like will work. Add 2 quarts of water to the bottom of the pressure cooker and put the metal insert in. Be sure to stagger the jars when you stack them. Bring to a boil and let steam for 10 minutes before putting the stopper on. Bring pressure up to 11 for 100 minutes before turning off the heat. Let the pressure reduce to 0 before removing the lid. Transfer the jars to a dry cloth and wait for the sealing to begin! You’ll hear jars popping like crazy as they seal. Tap on each jar to ensure a seal after 30 minutes as unsealed jars will have a much different sound (keeping everything clean and wiping down lids before sealing helps!).
A long but incredibly fullfilling process, smoking and canning fish is not only fun but delicious! Check out this recipe I use every chance I get!
Captain Tyler’s “King Me!” Cheese Ball
8 oz Smoked King Mackerel
8 oz Cream Cheese (softened)
1/3 Cup Shredded Cheddar Chesse
1 tbsp Worcestershire Sauce
2 tbsp Lime Juice
3/4 cup finely chopped Pecans
Mix all ingredients minus pecans in large mixing bowl. Mix thoroughly and roll in chopped nuts. Serve with crackers of choice. As simple as it gets and a crowd pleaser every time! Give it a try and it’ll become a tradition for you like it has for me. Please call with any questions, we’ll help you out in any way we can! Just another way to enjoy our local, fresh seafood.