How to Make Close Proximity Smoked Fish

Most fish do not need to be heavily smoked. Salmon is a different story. But most fish have such wonderfully delicate flavors that a lot of smoke destroys their elegance and subtle complexity. Just a touch is enough. Fish also cooks fast because it is usually thin. Fish tastes best when you take only up to 125 to 135°F in the thickest part. Within that narrow cooking window, if you want to get some smoke on it, you need to place the fish in close proximity to smoldering wood. To solve these problems, I use a special tool called GrillGrates. These are not your ordinary grill grates. They are specially designed with a plate that can hold wood pieces in close proximity to the food. In addition, the special tongs that come with GrillGrates are perfectly designed for lifting delicate fish.

This technique that I created for fish was named “close proximity smoking” by my friend Greg Rempe (he produces an informative podcast for members of our Pitmaster Club). When the GrillGrates are hot, I scatter pellets or wood chips between the rails and let them smolder. Then I place the fish right above the wood on the GrillGrates and close the lid so the wood doesn't burst into flame.

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smoked chilean seabass

Chilean seabass is a good fish for demonstrating Close Proximity Smoking. Allow me to propagate an opinion which I hold so dearly I am tempted to try to pass it off as fact: Chilean seabass is the single best tasting creature in the sea. Originally called Patagonian Toothfish, this large fish, often 25 pounds, is most often found in the cold waters of the Southern Hemisphere, like Patagonia, Southern Chile, or Argentina. It is not to be confused with other varieties of fish named seabass. They are not related. Not even kissing cousins.

Chilean seabass once was overfished, but in recent years, regulation has brought the fishery back so we can now buy it with a clear conscience. Filets are snow white and thick, and the cooked meat has large flakes that remains moist even if overcooked. There's only one problem: at the time I wrote this, Chilean seabass was selling for about $30 a pound in Chicago. Shop around. Or use sablefish (black cod), which has similar flesh.

Course. Entree. Dinner.

Cuisine. American.

Makes. Two servings

Takes. 20 minutes prep. 10 minutes to cook.

Special tools. GrillGrates brand grill grates and their tongs. Wood pellets or wood chips.

Ingredients

2 filets of Chilean seabass, 6 to 8 ounces each

Morton’s kosher salt

2 teaspoons dried tarragon

1 tablespoon neutral cooking oil or mayonnaise

About 4 ounces hardwood or fruitwood pellets, wood chips, or sawdust

Method

1) Remove the skin. When cooking fish hot and fast, leaving on the skin makes it a crispy treat. But some skin is too thick to crisp, especially if it is not in contact with metal. So for this technique, the skin must go.

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In this video, you can see the technique for skinning fish as demonstrated by our Chef Ryan.

2) Prep. Lightly salt the fish and sprinkle on the tarragon. If you wish, paint the fish with oil or mayonnaise. This helps keep it from sticking. Yes mayo. It is mostly oil and surprisingly it does not change the flavor of the fish.

3) Fire up. Preheat the grill with the GrillGrates directly over hot flames or coals.

3) Cook and smoke. Toss the wood into the valleys directly below where the fish will sit. It should start smoldering quickly. Place the fish directly over the smoke and close the lid. After no more than 4 minutes, flip the fish. The underside should have dark grill marks and a golden color from the smoke. Cook another 4 minutes and test the internal temp. Take the fish off when the internal temp is between 125 and 135°F.

"Do not tell fish stories where the people know you; but particularly, don't tell them where they know the fish."Mark Twain

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