Smoked whole trouts for retail : troubleshooting. Anyone else had / solved this problem?

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Original poster
Jul 10, 2021
Hey Y'all,

New to the forum. Joined in order to get some community support for a recurring problem I'm experiencing.

Bear with me here.

I own a food business called Fet-Fisk. We focus on Nordic inspired prepared foods : deli salads, pickles, namely smoked / cured meats. One of our flagship items is a whole hot smoked ruby steelhead trout.

Unfortunately I've been consistently experiencing an issue with the texture of the finished product. 70% of the time I get a perfectly textured fish, but often some of the fish within a batch will not cook/dry the same as other fish. During a smoke I'll squeeze the fattest part of the fish, along the back - some will be perfect and firm (Indicating what I believe to be a successful cook / dryness) others will be soft, indicating trapped juices , resulting in steamed + overcooked meat. The flesh alongside the ribs usually turns out ideal despite the cook along the back and spine.

I'll outline my entire process now and then go through my hypotheses:

Fish come in - generally around 16-24oz fish. I can't control the size grading past that. The balloon issue occurs seemingly randomly to smaller or larger fish within a batch.

Fish go into an equilibrium wet brine for around 72 hours - 3% salt 3% brown sugar .25% pink salt, well enough water to cover

Hang fish on meat hooks overnight at 38 degrees F

Hang fish to dry at room temp 2hrs

Hot smoke (w/ alder chunks) fish @ 140 for two hours

Increasing heat, Hot smoke fish @ 200 two hours (this is where problem arises, as fish finish cooking)

Remove to cool.

Whether or not the fish feel firm (and ideal) or they feel softer / overcooked they always come out after four hours total. This seems to be the amount of time that they finish cooking and receive an ideal amount of smoke. Some fish in the batch always feel perfect, others get this balloon effect. I have tested fish out of each weekly batch for months and can safely correlate how the fish feels towards the end of the smoke to the quality of the finished product. firm = succelent, well textured smoked flesh and the juice balloon feel = suboptimal product. I sell the fish regardless of this as no one but me seems to be able to tell, or care, and it's still a unique product to my area. However I do not like executing things poorly.

Initially I believed this to be a problem in the cure time, but It's hard for me to believe this is the case. I increased my brine time to three days, still resulting in inconsistent results. I jostle the fish every 24 hours to facilitate an even brine. However when the balloon issue occurs, the flesh often tastes less salty + cured. In theory the wet brine at that time frame should be more than enough to cure everything evenly.

The other cause that I can hypothesize is that some fish are drying out faster in the smoker than others, trapping juices inside the skin, resulting in steam and then overcooked fish. In my experience, a proper brine and drying does seem to make a cook more forgiving - fish can withstand extra heat and smoke if this is the case. I've been having trouble mustering up the courage to pierce some sort of drainage outlet in the fish, or otherwise finding a covert location to do it which could address the symptom but not the root cause.

The kicker is that I used to smoke all my whole fish in a smokin tex smoker - I would lay the fish out horizontally, cavity side open and resting on the rack. I never had this problem in those days, however I could only smoke 8 or so fish at a time and unsticking them from the rack was a royal pain. I converted an old fridge into smoker over last winter and now I can smoke 16-20 fish at a time hanging them from meat hooks and smoke sticks. I do cut down bamboo meat skewers to prop the cavities open to receive smoke.

I have been considering switching to a high density brine as a final control test, but my demand is such that I don't want to switch all my product to a new method without a test run, and feel more comfortable using an equilibrium brine knowing the end result would be consistent. Harder to control a high density brine if you ask me.

Any suggestions are welcome. I'm sure someone out there has had this problem and would love any and all advice. I could be missing something obvious, or just not paying enough attention to a certain aspect of the process.

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Hi,I'm also a new poster, as of today and hope I can help. I've been smoking trout for little while now and have not seen the problem you are having.Here, in tropical far north Queensland in Australia, I can only obtain my farm raised trout by special order from my local supermarket and they are smaller than yours. I picked up 4 on Friday and they only weighed 1422grms all up.
I also use an equilibrium cure, almost identical to yours, as I have found that the results are always the same, regardless of brining time.
I lay the fish flat on the grill in a bullet smoker and smoke at 90 to 100 deg C until internal temp. is 64deg C. This usually takes about an hour and a half, so I wonder if your smoking time is a bit long. I think perhaps any juice etc trapped under the skin, is actually boiling and giving you that result.
Anyway, keep trying as the photo of your trout looks pretty good.
Cheers for now, Ben.
Hey, thanks for both these replies.

SmokinEdge SmokinEdge : I think this is probably the most likely scenario.

I did try a rotation early in the process a few weeks ago and what I feared would happen would, and I lost a rack of fish. They are extremely delicate in the first few cycles of smoking @ 140 - as they start to warm up. As soon as I picked up the racks the fish fell apart where the hooks where placed. Unfortunately I think the fish should be rotated within the first cycle before I bump the temperature, before the exterior dries out trapping any remaining juices. By the end of the first two hours the fish are dry but are still undercooked and pretty delicate. There might be another solution for rotation but I haven't figured it out yet. I'm still not ruling out the brine time, the fish sometimes do feel a bit softer than they should around the fattest part of the back - however if I keep the fish in the brine longer than three days they will often start to stink and I don't feel good selling them. I might dry a dry cure or a heavier salt pack and see if that helps.

B Ben Taxil : At the end of my 2hrs @ 140 F + 200 F my fish are around 155 F internal temp when they come out.. They definitely don't get hot enough to boil, thats @ 212F. The fish are much larger than what you are working with and do require a longer cook. Thanks for the insight though I appreciate your response.

I'm not really sure there is a great solution to this problem. I haven't found a lot of great literature on the subject of smoking fish - or at least dedicated solely to the subject. I have AJ Maclane's encyclopedia of Fish which is great, but other info in there has been a little misleading and I suppose I'd be looking for something more technical on how larger operations systematize their business. Any leads on good fish smoking books would be much appreciated! Everything I've figured out has been mostly on my own - I also do a pickled mackerel that took me forever to figure out, achieving a perfect, lasting texture.

I'm not in a mad rush to figure out this problem, I was just hoping someone out there had experienced the same thing and had some specific insight into the problem. The fish are still really good, and I sell a lot of them and feel good about the product. They are probably a 7/10 in my book but I'd like to be at 10/10 is reader supported and as an Amazon Associate, we may earn commissions from qualifying purchases.

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