Modern refrigeration has made it possible to have fresh fish all year round, but hobbyists and commercial producers still make a variety of smoked and cured fish, as well. It's not a vital part of the food supply anymore, but it's still appreciated just because it tastes good. Lean fish such as cod is easy and forgiving for novices learning the craft, and fillets can be smoked with the skin on or off.
Cod is the best-known of a large group of predatory fish that are enjoyed for their culinary virtues. Others include haddock, ling, pollock and the freshwater burbot or "eelpout" that's familiar to Midwestern anglers. All have a firm, lean, mild-tasting white flesh that's well suited to curing and smoking. Oily fish such as mackerel or herring can be trickier for hobbyists, because their fats quickly become rancid if they're not handled correctly. Cod, on the other hand, retains its clean flavor and provides a mellow base for the flavors of your curing mixture and smoke.
Curing Your Cod
Cod can be prepared in either a dry curing mixture or a wet brine, but brines are easier and safer for beginners. The mixture usually contains sugar as well as salt to provide a sweeter and mellower flavor. Brine small, single-serving fillet portions for an hour or less and thicker, salmon-sized portions for six hours or longer as directed in your recipe. Rinse the pieces carefully, then dry them and leave them uncovered overnight in your refrigerator. The fillets will dry slightly, forming a tacky surface called a "pellicle," which helps the smoke adhere.
Skin On or Off
It's fine to smoke your cod with or without the skin, depending on your preference. The skin is completely edible and contains a great deal of natural gelatin, which can help thicken sauces and keep the cod moist during cooking. Skin-on cod has a mellower smoke flavor, since the skin acts as a partial barrier to the smoke. Cod smoked with the skin off is slightly dryer and smokier, and its flavors are more concentrated. Both are good.
Smoking Your Cod
Prepare your smoker according to the manufacturer's directions. A mild fish such as cod works best with light-flavored hardwoods such as alder, birch or apple and other fruit woods. Avoid heavy oak, hickory or mesquite, which can overpower the cod's own flavor. Hot-smoke your fillets at 180 to 200 degrees Fahrenheit until they reach an internal temperature of 150 F or higher when tested with an instant-read thermometer. Hold them at that temperature for at least 30 minutes before removing them from the smoker.