Hot smoked dry brined mackerel – You CAN have too much of a good thing.

Hot smoked mackerel (1 of 11)Warning to the weak of stomach: This post contains some pretty gory bits. Read on at your own risk.

Somewhere around 25 years ago, I was out having a few pints with “the lads”. We were socialising in Goggins of Monkstown, our then favoured haunt. The conversation was wide-ranging and often great ideas would be tabled for decision or debate. One such notion was to hire a boat from Bulloch Harbour so we could catch a few mackerel. Everybody agreed that this was a worthy venture and a couple of nights later, three of us took the trip to Dalkey, negotiated with Joe and took out a small open boat, complete with Seagull motor and hand lines.

Fishing off Dalkey involved put-putting on the Seagull engine south between Dalkey Island and the Mugglins (a rocky outcrop) and letting the current drift the boat north into Scotsman’s Bay, where one would fire up the little Seagull, motor south again and repeat the process. During this drifting, we fished the hand lines with six feathers. I let my line out and jiggled the feathers. Now, it’s the nature of mackerel fishing that things tend to be a feast or a famine. I jiggled away and suddenly; BANG, BANG, BANG! My line was alive with wriggling fish. I hauled the six gleaming beauties into the boat just as my two friends did likewise. There was much whooping and laughing as we hauled in ‘six pack’ after ‘six pack’. It being seen as failure to not land a half a dozen at a time.

As the sun went down, we put-putted our way back to harbour, loaded the large plastic sacks of mackerel into the car and returned to the pub like conquering heroes. 180 fish! Word of our great haul got around and we generously dispensed a few mackerel to almost everybody in the bar. This took care of the haul and I went home that night with two fish and fried them for my supper. Boy, were they sweet.

A week later, boosted by our success, five of us repeated the trip and the result. Over 200 fish were landed. Like Cesar returning to Rome, we made our triumphant trip to Goggins. We brought plastic bags and offered more free fish to the locals. We were met with nothing but polite refusals and assurance that last week’s were lovely but, “No thanks”. Crisis ensued.

Our solution was to go to my house and set up a small production line. We gutted, filleted, bagged and froze the fish. My share ended up being somewhere around 80 mackerel. I put them in our freezer. The sight of so many was pretty off-putting. To my eternal shame, I could not bring myself to eat any and, six months later, I consigned the lot to the bin.

I haven’t caught a mackerel since. So, when my good friend Pat and his son, Danny returned from a trip and left us four gleaming, fresh mackerel, I was reminded of my own ineptitude and prompted to cook Dry Brined Hot Smoked Mackerel for our tea.

All one needs for dry brining is some nice fresh fish, salt and sugar, (mixed about ten parts to one).

Warning: Now comes the gory bits.  Fish that doesn’t come from the fishmonger needs to be cleaned. The fishmonger ones do too but, you don’t get to see the process. First, insert the pointy end of a sharp knife into the blunt end (you know where I mean) of the fish. Cut towards the head until you reach the pectoral fins, just behind the head.

I did warn you. Trust me, it's worth it in the end. (pun intended).

I did warn you. Trust me, it’s worth it in the end. (pun intended).

Next, remove the head, like in the photo.

One treat use for the newspaper in the digital age. Try doing this on an iPad.

One great use for the newspaper in the digital age. Try doing this on an iPad.

Ease your thumb under the guts and lift out the innards.

A thumbs up for lifting out the innards. Be sure to get them all.

A thumbs up for lifting out the innards. Be sure to get them all.

You will be left with a pretty clean fish. The last messy job is to run a blade down the inside of the gut cavity to open the artery that runs along the spine. Press the contents of this out using your thumb. Then rinse the fish in cold water.

Beautiful looking mackerel fillets. Sorry about the gory stuff above.

Beautiful looking mackerel. The bloody stuff is essential to get to this stage.

Mix together a couple of handfuls of coarse salt and about one tenth of sugar. Rub this all over the fish, inside and out.

You have no excuse for being squeamish at this stage. Look at the mess you created above!

You have no excuse for being squeamish at this stage. Look at the mess you created above!

Cover and leave in the fridge for an hour. Just before putting it in the fridge, take a couple of ‘arty’ photos.

Arty fish fillets in salt and sugar dry brine. A gratuitous fish shot if ever there was one.

Arty fish in salt and sugar dry brine. A gratuitous fish shot if ever there was one.

Take the fish out of the fridge and rise them. Pat dry and leave back in the fridge for an hour at least, up to 24 hours at most. Bear in mind that mackerel is at its tastiest the nearer it is to having been swimming in the sea.

Into the smoker with them while they are still firm and meaty.

Into the smoker with them while they are still firm and meaty.

Pop the fish into the smoker (available online for small money) and smoke them for 20 minutes.

The photo, unlike the fish, is untreated. That's exactly how they look. Mmmmm.

The photo, unlike the fish, is untreated. That’s exactly how they look. Mmmmm.

Serve them with some of the Wife’s home-made brown bread and a nice salad.

There is nothing on this earth that tastes like fresh, hot smoked, mackerel. Glorious.

There is nothing on this earth that tastes like fresh, hot smoked, mackerel. Glorious.

I suppose it’s too late to apologise for the blood splattered photos above. But, if you want to have truly fresh and delicious hot smoked mackerel, you will just have to do the dirty work too. Don’t be afraid of it. Just remember to not catch too many and to enjoy them really fresh.

Final note: I have prepared brine smoked mackerel before. See the post here. They were really good. But these were really, really great.

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  • I miss smoked mackerel. We don’t have the real thing down here, just a spurious imposter called Spanish Mackerel, which isn’t either. Spanish, or mackerel, that is. I used to like fresh caught trout for breakfast when my brother got up at sparrowfart to toss a fly into the river at the bottom of the paddock. Fresh fish really is incomparable.

    • I am suffering trout envy now Kate. Love the dawn description too!

  • Now who between the two of us is Hannibal Lecter again? 😉
    The first photo with the big knife is scary indeed.
    Smoked mackerel is delicious and yours look great, Conor.
    Most fish mongers don’t bother with the artery that runs along the spine, but it sure is better to remove it. Great job 🙂

    • Thanks Stefan,
      I owe my smoking habit to you, as you know. The flavour was pretty epic. Freshness is vital with mackerel.
      Best,
      C

  • These look gorgeous. There is a big Korean market outside of Baltimore that has an insane fresh fish selection. My friend Manny bought some Mackerel–he fries his whole (maybe that is a Filipino thing?) ! If I ever get to try it, I will let you know how it is.

    I’ve never tried my hand at gutting a fish. I am sure it will happen at some point!

    • My late father was a pathologist. So we grew up with all sorts of slicing and dicing going on in the house (food, not people). I must have picked it up from Dad.

  • Mackerel are absolutely the mot beautiful fish aren’t they? I can only get fresh in the summertime if I go down south but I would love to try smoking them!

    • The fresh part of the equation is the most important thing I can emphasise. They are divine when really fresh. Only OK when a little (2 days) older. Awful after that.

  • The only way I’ve had mackerel was as sashimi when I was visiting California. Perhaps they weren’t fresh because the taste reminded me of salty mayonnaise. I’d gladly give them a try again though, they’re very pretty fish, and look easy to clean.

    • Hi Amber, They are pretty easy to prepare. The thought of eating salty mayonnaise flavoured raw fish makes me shudder. Get over here to Ireland, get a line in the water and catch yourself some real fresh fish!

      • I’m traveling to Europe this Winter/Spring. Maybe that would be worth looking in to! I’m hoping to be able to make three long weekend trips. Have to check, I suppose.

        • If you are getting to Ireland, let me know. I love having bloggers visit. There is always a meal on offer.

        • I’ll be in Germany for 10 weeks doing an internship. I never made it to Ireland the last time I was there. If Ryanair has some good rates, I might hop on across! I will definitely let you know!

  • Really wonderful post and the pictures are as good as I have ever seen for showing a preparation and cooking process…the fish looked wonderful in a row on the newspaper! I spent a lot of time mackerel fishing in Salcombe, in Devon, and with a Seagull on the transom. Pull starting those motors is a good way of building up the arms and shortening the patience:)

    • Pull starting those motors is a great way to build fear. “Christ! You’ve flooded it! Where are the oars!”

  • Nice post, Conor. I love mackerel but it is hard to get fresh in DFW. Somehow, I can get remarkably fresh ahi tuna from Hawaii but I can’t get fresh mackerel which is found off the Texas coast. Go figure. I love the story of the young adventurous fisherman and their over abundant catch. Fishing is one of my favorite recreational past times; however, nowadays I practice catch and release. I, too, have caught and filleted way too many fish than I could eat. 🙂

    • Thanks Richard. The scarcity of fish on Ireland’s east coast is a travesty. I won’t bore you with the history of mis-management and ineptitude. So, when the mackerel arrive, we go a bit daft. Though, I haven’t landed one in more than a quarter of a century. Probably a better average for the fish than your catch and release policy.

  • This is a wonderful post! As a former fish monger, I think it’s important that people know how their fish is cleaned. I spared the photos on my last sardine post. Your mackerel and cleaning job are wonderful. I also had no idea you could buy a small smoking device like that. I think I”m going to get one. I love smoked fish. Can you use it indoors? Does it smell a lot? I”m in a small apartment. Thanks again for this awesome post!

    • Amanda, you are too generous in your praise. The little smoker stinks to high heaven. Your neighbours would never forgive you. though, Stefan over at Stefan Gourmet uses his on the stovetop with the extractor on and has no issues. I suspect the trick is to get it cooked and get the smoker into the dishwasher quickly.

  • Very nice looking mackerel there Conor. I just got myself a new little smoke house which needs some of that kind of loving! 🙂

  • Wonderful Conor. Food doesn’t get much better than this. I had some lovely freshly caught (and rock hard) mackerel bought round by my brother in law a little while back and I must agree, it was some of the nicest fish I’d made…

    • Thanks Phil, it is hard to put in words how much better they are when fresh.

  • Fabulous photos. One of the most flavourful fish, and a personal favourite. I love potted mackerel too

    • Next time they drop some in, potted mackerel it is.

  • I’ve only cleaned trout, myself, but it looks like the same procedure. Not really gory to me. And that lunch? I could eat that every day. Beautiful post!

    • Thanks Mimi. If only we could get the fish that fresh every day.

  • Looks great Conor but I would need my fishmonger for the nasty bits 😀

  • I went fishing for mackerel in Wales when I was about 10. The trip out was fine. I got cocky. Easy I thought. Deep sea fishing’s a breeze. Caught some fish. Then i found out that the sailors life was not for me as I spent the trip back throwing up violently over the side of the boat. Never tried the fish.

    • Not the best thing to develop an appetite, a round of barfing!

  • Well I never knew Mackerel was an “eating” fish! I’ve done several chartered bottom-fishing trips in California and Oregon, and Mackerel was always used a bait fish. They had buckets and buckets of them so figured they weren’t good eating. Always a delight to discover some foodie fact I never knew, thanks!

    • They can be easy to catch and make food bait for the bigger stuff. Delicious for us too!

  • Great post Conor! Of course I had to read fast so I could get to the gory bit , but not so gory. I live in HK so you can’t shock me too much. Beautiful mackerel and so is your wife’s homemade bread.

    • I really should post the bread one of these days. It is really good and very easy to bake (or so I hear).

  • This sound terrific, Conor. I’m a little unclear on the smoking bit, especially since it only takes twenty minutes (and I’m going to give the whole thing a shot on my Big Green Egg). This is essentially low-temp grilling, with smoke, right? There is heat being generated below the fish, right? Sorry for being obtuse, I know you said HOT smoke, but as a non-smoker, I just want to be clear. Thanks. Also, great shots–I don’t feel so bad about showing my wife’s hands now. 🙂 Ken

    • Thanks Ken, Firstly, the smoker generates good heat that does cook the fish. The heat is generated below but circulates in the smoker, giving even enough heat and smoke. I should be flattered by your hands comment. Particularly as I am going into hospital to have a lumpy thing taken off one of my fingers later in the week. Don’t tell Jody!

  • I’m sorry to say that I must be one of the very few people that don’t care for mackerel or any of the oily fish, as a matter of fact. What I did like was your technique which I’m sure could be used with trout which I love.

  • Ha ha – 200 mackerel probably is too much of a good thing all at once. However, smoked mackerel and smoked mackerel paté do taste wonderful 😉

  • This is fascinating. The fish too. Call me stupid, but what’s the science behind the sugar?

    • I believe that it combines with the salt and helps form a coating to which the smoke adheres and gives lovely flavour. When wet brining, this is definitely the case. So I assume. Though you know what they say when one assumes….

  • Hi Conor, nice to catch up earlier. Brings back great memories of camping in Sneem, Co. Kerry when we were younger. We caught a pile of mackerel, a friends Dad hot smoked them and we ate them with local new potatoes and pints of Guinness.

    • Ditto on catching up. Sneem is a lovely part of the world. They must have been wonderful with potatoes and pints. You have made me very hungry, just thinking about it.

  • I first had mackerel when I moved to Austria and I enjoyed it. Smoked mackerel is now my staple breakfast on weekends. Would I go fishing for mackerel in the sea? Highly unlikely. I will continue ‘fishing’ for my smoked mackerel in Spar shop.

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