Here's How To...

Keep Your Fish

Landing a fish is great sport, but converting a prize catch into flavorful fillets, steaks or pan-fried entrees is just as challenging and awesomely rewarding.

Great fish flavor doesn't begin at home, or even at the campfire, however, but as soon as the catch is removed from the hook.

"There are only two ways to keep your catch impeccably fresh: by keeping them alive or by keeping them on ice," explains Minnesota fishing guide and chef Ron Berg in Northwoods Fish Cookery.

"Stringers and live wells are of limited value in keeping fish alive, especially when the surface water is warm. The fish are soon floating belly up and your fine meal is well on its way to being ruined."

Berg recommends killing fish as soon as they are landed and putting them on ice in a cooler. The optimum temperature for fish storage is just at freezing.

Once gutted and cleaned, the preferred storage method depends on how soon the fish will be cooked and consumed:

1-4 days: wrap loosely and store under refrigeration (30-34 degrees F)

5-6 days: wrap loosely and store in ice under refrigeration in a self-draining container such as a colander set over a bowl, replacing ice as it melts

7 days to 3 months: wrap tightly in plastic wrap and aluminum foil -- as airtight as possible -- and store in a freezer. (Freeze lake trout no more than 1 month.)

 Stovetop Smoker
Stovetop Smoker
In Northwoods Fish Cookery, Berg offers instructions for water-glazing fish in the freezer to protect them against freezer burn as well as recipes for making frozen breaded fish that can be deep-fried directly from the freezer.

Another way to keep fish for long periods of time is by drying or smoking the meat. "Food smoking is a human invention. No other species on the planet incorporates any similar activity into its food gathering, preparation, and strategy for survival," writes John Manikowski in Fish Grilled and Smoked.

Smoking preserves fish by reducing moisture content, thereby retarding the growth of bacteria.  But there are still heat-resistant microorganisms that survive the smoking process, like Clostridium botulinum,  capable of causing food poisoning. To stay safe, refrigerate smoked fish.

The smoking process consists of five basic steps -- cleaning the fish, brining the fish, drying the fish, building the smoker, and smoking the fish.

Step 1. Cleaning the Fish

Depending on the species to be smoked, fish may be: (1) dressed in the round (whole); (2) gutted, split, and beheaded; (3) filleted; (4) halved; or (5) cut into pieces with or without the skin. For smoking in the round small fish are best. Large fish like king mackerel do well when filleted. Mullet can be halved at the backbone, and catfish are best smoked with the body skinned but intact. Fish should be cleaned and scaled immediately after removal from water. They may also be cleaned and frozen for later smoking.

Step 2. Brining the Fish

Step two, brining the fish, means steeping fish in a solution of salt, water, and spices. Brining is important for two reasons--it helps firm and preserve fish by removing moisture, and it adds flavor to fish flesh. Fish may, however, be smoked without salt curing, in which case they are cooked but have no keeping quality. (That is, they are cooked and have good smoke flavoring but must be eaten immediately to prevent spoilage.) There are as many brine recipes as there are individual tastes. The strength of the brine (salt content) determines the type of cure the product receives. One gallon of brine using 12 cups salt is enough for about four pounds of fish. Here's a basic brine recipe: 

6 gallons water
4 pounds salt
1.5 pounds sugar
1.5 ounces saltpeter
3 ounces whole cloves (optional)
1 ounce bay leaves (optional) 

Mix ingredients well. Place cleaned fish in an enamel, earthenware, or glass container large enough so fish lie flat and straight. Submerge fish in brine solution and refrigerate 12 hours. Remove fish from brine and freshen under running water for 10 minutes.

Step 3. Drying the Fish

After brining comes step three, drying the fish. Pat fish dry with a cloth, then place them on a racking the refrigerator and drain one to three hours. Drying increases keeping quality and promotes development of the Apellicle, a glossy finish of dissolved proteins on fish surfaces which gives them the desired appearance, retains natural juices, and helps spread smoke evenly.

Campfire Smoker
Campfire Smoker

Step 4. Building the Smoker

A simple smokehouse may be designed from a large cardboard box, a metal oil drum, a wooden barrel, an old refrigerator, or even plywood.

The cardboard box is perhaps easiest to obtain; it should be 30 inches square and 48 inches high. Here are the construction directions:

a. Remove one end of box to form bottom of smokehouse.

b. Unfasten flaps at opposite end so they fold back and serve as a cover.

c. Strengthen box, if necessary, by tacking 0.75 inch strips
of wood on outside of vox--vertically at corners and horizontally across sides.

d. Cut a door 10 inches wide and 12 inches high in bottom center of one side. Make one vertical and one horizontal cut, so uncut side serves as hinge. 

e. Suspend several rods or sticks (iron or wood) across top of box. Cut holes through box, so rods rest on wooden strips. A rack of wire mesh (0.5" or 0.25" mesh hardware cloth) may replace rods. Refer to diagrams at right.

Step 5. Smoking the Fish

Smoking is the final hurdle before tasting that anxiously awaited fish treat. Here are the simple steps to follow:

a. Arrange fish on rods or rack so they do not touch. Fish may be hung on "S"-shaped hooks, strung through gills by rods, split and nailed to rods, or simply laid on rack. Use regular nails, 8 or 10 guage steel wires, S-shaped iron hooks, or round wooden sticks.

b. Build fire on level gound with nonresinous (hickory, oak, maple, apple) wood chips or sawdust to produce light, constant volume of smoke. Soft (resinous) wood gives an acrid flavor and odor to fish. Never use wood containing pitch, such as pine. Liquid smoke is also less satisfactory. 

c. Center smokehouse over smoldering fire and close flaps. Danger of fire is minimized if ventilation is controlled to promote smoke rather than flames. Alternate method: fire may be built in covered pit or trench outside chamber. Smoke is conducted into bottom of smoking chamber via tile or stovepipe. Outside fire can be controlled without disturbing chamber, and provides cooler smokeHow to Keep Your Catch Fresh

Catching your fish and getting it from the water to the table, while keeping it fresh, is essential to enjoying the great flavor of fish. Here are some simple tips to keep in mind the next time you go fishing for your dinner. Click here. supply.

d. Put fish in smoker at inside air temperature of 100°F, where fish flesh will be about 180°F. (Monitor fish temperatures by inserting meat thermometer into fleshiest part of fish.) Maintain this temperature for well-kippered fish.

e. Smoke four to five hours. Don't overcook fish. Fish well-smoked have a glossy, brown surface. Flesh will flake easily from bones and be moist and tender. Allow fish to cool a few hours before eating or storing. Wrap in waxed paper and refrigerate or freeze for later use. 

Cooperative Extension Service
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

How to Keep Your Catch Fresh

Catching your fish and getting it from the water to the table, while keeping it fresh, is essential to enjoying the great flavor of fish. Here are some simple tips to keep in mind the next time you go fishing for your dinner. Click here.

Fish Grilled and Smoked
150 Recipes for Cooking Rich, Flavorful Fish on the Backyard Grill, Streamside, or in a Home Smoker  by John Manikowski

"I have discovered what I believe to be an exciting new fuel for smoking fish, a fuel easily found in any farm supply store, hardware store, and even supermarket," writes outdoorsman and author John Manikowski. "It's inexpensive too. Corn. Dried whole corn kernels."

In the pages of this how-to guide and recipe book, Manikowski reveals the secret of his “soft smoke” method using dried corn that can make a fish smoker out of almost any grill.

Manikowski includes step-by-step illustrated directions for building three separate smokers: a streamside smoker, a home smoker, and a large backyard smokehouse. 

He discusses the best species of fish to smoke—bluefish, yellowtail, whitefish, herring, and lake trout -- and provides recipes for curing solutions and special rubs.

There's more ways to cook a fish than smoking it, of course, and Manikowski covers most of the basics, from directions on cleaning fish, techniques for boning and scaling, and advice on wine pairings.

The 150 recipes in the book include main dish meals like Striped Bass with Cattail Shoots and Morels, Grilled Butterflied Trout, and Grilled Small-mouth Bass Wrapped in Corn Husks.There are also recipes for side dishes using wild mushrooms, grilled eggplants and tomatoes, as well as an assortment of condiments, sauces, and desserts.

Recipe Excerpt: 
Salmon and Corn Chowder

Preheat a grill and lay a 1-pound salmon fillet and two fresh ears of corn, husked, on the oiled grill. Cook 6 minutes, then turn and cook 5 minutes more. Cool, then slice off corn kernels; cut salmon bite-size. Set aside.

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a 4-quart pan over medium-high heat. Add 1 cup finely chopped onion and 1 diced Yukon Gold potato. Cook, covered, 10 minutes.

Add 2 cups whole milk, 1 cup light cream, 1/2 stick butter, and 1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce. Simmer 10 minutes, then stir in corn, salmon, 1/4 teaspoon dried tarragon, 1 teaspoon paprika, salt and pepper. Simmer 5 minutes.

Cleaning and Preparing Gamefish:
Step-by-Step Instructions, from Water to Table
Missouri outdoor writer Monte Burch explains how to safely prepare and serve fish and shellfish in this guide to the most commonly caught and consumed gamefish. Both freshwater and saltwater species are included, from whitefish and clams to barracuda and scallops.

Northwoods Fish Cookery
by Ron Berg

The recipes in this northwoods-style cookbook range from quick-and-easy fishing camp meals and homestyle family dishes to elegant entrees and showcase creations from top Minnesota resorts and restaurants.

Whether the catch comes from a brook or a local market, this book shows how to convert it into panfried fillets, grilled meat or smoked fish. Some of the fancier recipes include:

Walleye with Green Chile Stuffing
Ancho Grilled Lake Trout with Smoked Yellow Pepper Remoulade wand Tomato-Basil Salsa
Asian Roasted Salmon with Sesame Crust, Ginger Beurre Blanc, and Tomato Concasse
Coho Salmon with Fresh Basil and Four-Cheese Alfredo Sauce on Spinach Fettucine
Citrus-Glazed Salmon with Cilantro-Ginger Beurre Blanc

Most recipes are for walleye, Minnesota's premiere game fish, but there are also presentations of sauger, northern pike, muskellunge, lake trout, bass, stream trout, splake, catfish and panfish.
Chef, fishing guide and cookbook author Ron Berg includes information on how to catch, clean, prepare and cook these fish. He devotes one chapter to "Camp and Shore Cookery," giving instructions and recipes for cooking over a campfire, and another chapter on "Fishing Camp and Cabin Recipes" that features quick and easy recipes to prepare while staying in a cabin "up north."


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