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I have had a lot of folks ask me about smoking fish recently and while fish has never been my favorite dish, I aim to please. I have produced a newsletter or two on salmon but I wanted to do something with a more common fish even in places where fish is not such a big part of the diet and something a little easy on the pocketbook.
I have to admit that I was skeptical about something like tilapia being good enough to recommend much less blow me away but alas.. I had nothing to be worried about.
For my experiment I went to my local grocer and ordered a few pounds of tilapia filets, put them in a short brine and smoked them until they just started flaking slightly.. I was quite surprised at the unexpected goodness and my wife exclaimed that they were perfect!
This meal was supremely easy and my goal in this newsletter is to merely show you what I did so you can try this at home.. I think you will be equally impressed and maybe even a little bit enamored if you are a fish connoisseur.
- 2-3 lbs Tilapia filets
- Jeff's Rub recipe
- 1/2 gallon Brine (recipe below)
- Tahini Noodles (recipe below)
What to Buy
Purchase fresh tilapia filets if possible from the local fish market, grocer or wherever you normally purchase fish. Frozen filets should be fine as well if that is your only resort. The filets will normally be about 8-10 ounces each so just purchase one for each person that you are serving and that should be plenty. Kids and very light eaters will probably only eat 1/2 filet.
place the filets in a large ziploc bag or a lidded non-reactive container such as plastic or glass. Pour enough brine (recipe below) over the fish to cover and place in fridge for about 1 hour.
1/2 gallon water
1/2 cup kosher salt
Put 1/2 gallon of water into a large pitcher or other suitable container. Add the salt and mix until the mixture is completely clear (the salt is dissolved).
Note: Many folks have asked me why I use kosher salt in the brine instead of sea salt and the answer is “no reason”. I have always purchased the kosher salt and it works good for me. Sea salt works just as well if not better as long as it is of the coarse variety.
Seasoning the Fish
When the fish are finished brining, place the filets on a Bradley rack or a shallow pan. Brush on some melted butter to help the rub to stick or you can spray or brush on some olive oil if you prefer.
Sprinkle a generous amount of my rub onto one side of the fish. Use the picture below to give you an idea of how much. It's not caked on but the fish is completely covered. The rub will create a really nice crust on the outside of the fish while it smokes and the flavor will be amazing.
Once the fish are seasoned..leave them on the counter for a few minutes while you go out and get the smoker ready.
Smoking the Fish
I love to use real wood or charcoal for smoking but many of you use gas and electric to smoke and the fish will do really well in that setting. I decided to use the 4-rack digital Bradley smoker for the fish with the special blend smoking biscuits.
If you want to use the gas smoker or even a charcoal or wood burning smoker, that is great also just make sure to use a wood that is lighter in flavor such as alder, apple, or cherry so the smoke does not overpower the fish.
Prepare the smoker for cooking at about 220 degrees and once the smoke is starting to show, place the fish directly on the grate with the seasoned side facing up. I highly recommend spraying a non-stick oil on the grate before placing the fish to help keep them from sticking to the grate.
Smoke the tilapia filets for 45-60 minutes or until they just start flaking slightly. My filets took exactly 1 hour and they were perfectly done in that amount of time. The thickness of the fish will determine if they take more or less time to get done.
Keep the smoke going for at least 30 minutes but I recommend the entire time if possible.
Serving the Tilapia
You can serve the tilapia as is but I highly recommend serving it with some pasta such as cold cooked tahini noodles. The noodles are slightly spicy and served cold or at room temperature and go really well with the smoked tilapia laid right on top.
The recipe for my wife's tahini noodles is below:
1/4 cup sesame oil
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup soy sauce
3/4 cup tahini (sesame paste)
1 teaspoon Sriracha chili sauce (+ more if you like it hot)
3 cups cooked pasta, rinsed in cold water and cooled
1 cup thinly sliced green onions
1 cup shredded carrots (optional)
Be sure to stir up the tahini in the jar before using. It separates as it sits. In a medium bowl, whisk together oil, vinegar, soy sauce and tahini until smooth. Add chili sauce to taste. Toss with the pasta, green onions and carrots. Serve immediately.
- Purchase tilapia filets
- Brine fish for 1 hour in fridge
- Brush melted butter onto 1 side of fish filets
- Season buttered side of fish with Jeff's rub
- Smoke tilapia for 45-60 minutes (until slightly flaky)
- Apply smoke for at least 30 minutes (1 hour is better)
- Make tahini noodles when fish is almost done
- Serve fish over tahini noodles
- I do not worry about drying the tilapia (forming a pellicle) after brining as you would when cooking salmon and some other fish.
- Some folks feel that you should not cook fish in the same smoker that you use for other meats. It is believed that the smells and flavors will get into the walls of the smoker and make everything that you smoke taste like fish. I can only speak of my own experience and I can say that I have smoked fish, beef, pork and poultry in the same smoker and I have never been able to detect this problem. In my experience, this is not a valid concern.
- If tahini noodles are not your thing, this smoked fish would also taste great over almost any butter pasta or even pasta with an alfredo type sauce. Feel free to use whatever pasta that you like.