Smoked seafood is a delicacy to be shared. While commercial smokers have a place, do-it-yourself models can produce excellent results for those that put in the effort. Want to learn how to put one together? Here’s how…
It goes without saying that to meet the demands of a modern market, smoking fish needs to be a clean, fuss free process which above all needs to be easy and not too demanding on your time. Let's face it, who has the time to tend a smokey fire all day?
I've tried many different fish smoking devices over the years, including several of the methylated spirit fuelled hot smoking stainless steel boxes, converted ovens and an old 70s vintage clothes airer. The air drier and the oven did a great job but soon rusted out.
Some of the best smokers I've seen are made from concrete building blocks. Unfortunately I'm no brickie, so that was out of the equation for me. That really only left one option for me, timber and galvanised roofing, a genuine kiwi classic!
I went to the local building supplier armed with my plans. The friendly staff were helpful, luckily the guy I spoke to was a keen fisherman and had a few ideas of his own.
The dimensions I settled on were 1700-mm high, 1000-mm wide and 800-mm deep. I designed the smoker to have two main doors at the top to access the the fish and two small doors down low to tend the fire. The idea is that the smoke and heat rises and very little escapes when the lower doors are used, maximising the smoking and cooking effects. An empty 60 litre drum was perfect for the firebox, it just needed a few holes here and there to keep air circulating through it.
Oven racks would be used to hold the fish. They could then be loaded up and inserted or removed individually. I made the support brackets for the over racks removable, should I wish to hang the fish rather than lay it flat. By hanging the fish, juices don't pool on top and it generally does a better job of it.
Really, a new smokehouse needs a few burn offs to condition it before smoking anything, just so all the resins from the timbers inside get displaced. After two or three burns with green timber everything will be coated with soot and ready for action.
My design means a gas ring can be easily used instead of a fire and will be much more controllable.
• 3 x sheets of untreated 12-mm ply for inside lining and doors
• 10-m 50 x 50 rough sawn H3 for framing
• 8-m 100 x 100 rough sawn H4 for base and framing
• 20 x nail plates for door frames and base
• 8 x small gate hinges and 2 x latches for doors
• 4 sheets of galvanised roofing for cladding
• 6-m of 75 x 25 untreated rough sawn (from a pallet) for rack supports
• 6-m of scrap 75 x 25 on outside of ply for extra support for rack screws
• 6-m of 20-mm metal pipe or rebar for rack supports
• Fasteners – 40 x 8, 32 x 8, 25 x 8 csk galvanised square head screws
• Old oven racks
• Oldbricks to line the inside around the fire box (I used a drum for the firebox but bricks are a better option).
• Draw up a plan. As a guide, the smoker pictured is 1700-m H x 1000-mm W x 800-mm D
• Mark out the inside panels and ceiling and cut when you’re sure everything is square
• Frame around the panels and check frames are square – I used 50 x 50 for the sides
• I made the rear panel frame using 100 x 50 and cut the panel 100-mm narrower
• I kept the side panels 12-mm in from the rear stud and 12-mm down from the ceiling – this allows a good flush for the ply panels
• Screw the framed panels together
• Fit the ceiling using a piece of 50 x 50 to span the sides and support it from the inside
• Make the base from 100 x 50 H4 and screw it to the frame
• Brace across the doorway to keep it at the right width
• With the smoker on its back, make and add the door frames from 100 x 25
• Add the door panels and fit the doors
• Use some 100 x 25 on the outside of the panels to give screws for racking supports something to bite into
• Add an adjustable vent approximately 100-mm diameter to the top and bottom of the smokehouse
• Stand it up and add the cladding
• Fit the roof using framing that will give it 50-mm fall – allow the roof to overhang.
Remember - if you do build one out of timber, you do risk it catching fire, so it is important to build your smoker well away from dwellings or combustible items. I surrounded the firebox with old house bricks to prevent the drum from tipping and reduce the risk of fire.
Getting ready to smoke
You will need a supply of dry and green timber. Use the dry timber to create a heat source and get a good pile of embers glowing, then add the green to create the smoke.
A temperature probe will help you to understand the process, the hotter the temperature inside the smokehouse, the quicker it will cook. You want to aim for around four or five hours to give the best results.
Resinous timbers such as pine or macrocarpa are not good for burning but fruit trees are. Apple and plum are favourites for many seasoned smokers. Manuka is probably the most popular and pohutakawa is highly regarded too. One local guy uses mangroves with good results!
Of course preparation is the key when it comes to getting good results from your smoker and there are numerous recipes around for brines. A brine is simply water with a lot of salt dissolved in it. I've been told you must use non iodised salt, so that's what I use. You can add many things to your brine; herbs, sugar, cloves ñ the list is endless. Fish is best left in a brine solution at least overnight (longer for bigger fish) and then left to dry until the flesh feels tacky to touch.
This is known as the pellicle and is a very important part of the smoking process. Many people simply coat their fish with salt and brown sugar, leave it for a few hours and dry it off before putting it in to smoke. Some of my favourite smoked fish are grey mullet, trevally, kingfish, albacore tuna and snapper. Hapuka wings, backbones and heads are delicious and gemfish are reputed to be very nice smoked.
My design means a gas ring can be easily used instead of a fire and will be much more controllable, it takes practice to get the fire just right and each smoker design will be different, there's not really any formula for it. It's simply trial and error. Most of that trialing can be done without any fish in it. Just concentrate on getting a long slow heat going on rather than an enormous fire. If I persevere using the firebox I'll be closing off the large hole I cut near the bottom of the drum and instead drill a number of 12-mm holes around it. Iím experimenting with a lid on the drum to restrict the fire. That will also provide a surface to heat sawdust on.
So while it certainly isn't as fuss free as its more modern cousin, the good old smokehouse is still a kiwi classic and yes, you can build one in a weekend!