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A Look at Fermented Sausages and much much more

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    Posted: 11 June 2015 at 20:52
    Really Nice set of articles on Fermented Sausages and related information...pretty much a no hype approach to sausage making. 





   Check the link for the full article on Fermented Sausages

Fermented Sausages

Fermented sausages are cured sausages and to produce salami of a consistent quality one must strictly obey the rules of sausage making. This field of knowledge has been limited to just a few lucky ones but with today's meat science and starter cultures available to everybody, there is little reason to abstain from making quality salamis at home. It is unlikely that a home sausage maker will measure meat pH (acidity) or Aw (water activity) but he should control temperatures and humidity levels in his drying chamber.

There is a difference in fermented sausage technology between the United States and the European countries. American methods rely on rapid acid production (lowering pH) through a fast fermentation in order to stabilize the sausage against spoilage bacteria. Fast acting starter cultures such asLactobacillus plantarum and Pediococus acidilactici are used at high temperatures up to 40º C (104º F). As a result pH drops to 4.6, the sausage is stable but the flavor suffers and the product is sour and tangy. In European countries, the temperatures of 22º -26º C (72º -78º F) are used and the drying, instead of the acidity (pH) is the main hurdle against spoilage bacteria which favors better flavor development. The final acidity of a traditionally made salami is low (high pH) and the sourly taste is gone.

Some known European sausages are French saucisson, Spanish chorizo, and Italian salami. These are slow-fermented sausages with nitrate addition and moderate drying temperatures. North European sausages such as German or Hungarian salamis are made faster, with nitrite addition and are usually smoked.

Fermented sausages can be divided into two groups:

  1. Sliceable raw sausages (Salami, Summer Sausage, Pepperoni)
  2. Spreadable raw sausages (Teewurst, Mettwurst)

OR depending on the manufacturing method:

  • Fast-fermented
  • Medium-fast-fermented
  • Slow-fermented. These can be smoked or not, or made with mold or without

Depending on the amount of moisture that they contain, they can be grouped as:

  • moist - 10% weight loss
  • semi-dry - 20% weight loss
  • dry - 30% weight loss

There is also a group of non-fermented cooked salamis that are made in many European countries. This group will cover any sausage that is smoked, cooked and then air-dried for 1-3 weeks at 10º-12º C (50º-52º F). This reduces Aw (water activity) to about 0.92 which makes the product shelf stable without refrigeration. The fact that a raw sausage is safe to consume may sound questionable to some but we have been eating them for thousands of years and as far as we follow the rules of meat science we have nothing to be afraid of.

The Magic Behind Fermented Sausages - It's All About Bacteria

Making fermented sausages is a combination of the art of the sausage maker and unseen magic performed by bacteria. The friendly bacteria are working together with a sausage maker, but the dangerous ones are trying to wreak havoc. Using his knowledge the sausage maker monitors temperature and humidity, which allows him to control reactions that take place inside the sausage. This game is played for quite a while and at the end a high quality product is created.........






Check the link for the full article on Starter Cultures...

Starter Cultures for Making Fermented Sausages

Starter cultures ferment sausages, develop color and flavor and provide safety. The addition of any commercial culture to the sausage mix provides a safety hurdle, as those millions of freshly introduced bacteria start competing for food (moisture, oxygen, sugar, protein) with a small number residing in meat bacteria, preventing them from growing. It may be called a biological competition among bacteria. Bactoferm™ F-LC has the ability to controlListeria monocytogenes at the same time as it performs as a classic starter culture for fermented sausages.

Cultures can be classified into the following groups:

  • lactic acid producing cultures (fermentation)
  • color fixing and flavor forming cultures (color and flavor)
  • surface coverage cultures (yeasts and molds)
  • bio-protective cultures (producing bacteriocins). You may think of bacteriocins as some kind of antibiotics which kill unwanted bacteria. Some of the lactic acid cultures (Pediococcus) possess antimicrobial properties which are very effective in inhibiting not only Staph.aureus but alsoSalmonella, Cl.botulinum and other microorganisms, including yeasts.

The advantages of starter cultures are numerous:

  • they are of known number and quality. This eliminates a lot of guessing as to whether there is enough bacteria inside meat to start fermentation or whether a strong curing color will be obtained.
  • cultures are optimized for different temperature ranges that allow production of slow, medium or fast-fermented products. Traditionally produced sausages needed three (or more) months to make, starter cultures make this possible within weeks or even days.
  • production of fermented sausages does not depend on "secrets" and a product of constant quality can be produced year round in any climatic zone as long as proper natural conditions or fermenting/drying chambers are available.
  • they provide safety by competing for food with undesirable bacteria thus inhibiting their growth.

Although commercially grown starter cultures have been around since 1957, it is only recently that sausage equipment and supplies companies carry them in catalogs. As the hobbyist-sausage maker becomes more educated in finer aspects of the art of sausage making he will undoubtably start making more fermented sausages at home.

The most important microorganisms used in starter cultures are:.........






Check the link for the full article on Equipment

Equipment for Making Fermented Sausages

Making fermented sausages at home, definitely presents some difficulties, which we don’t have to face when making other types of sausages. To be able to precisely control temperature, humidity and air speed requires expensive, computer controlled drying chambers and a home sausage maker must use his ingenuity to come up with suitable solutions.It is very helpful to have a system capable of automated temperature and humidity adjustments, but those with limited funds will have to improvise a bit. Without a doubt the precise control of such a vast range of temperatures (10-40º C, 50-104º F) and humidity (60-95%) is not easy.

There are not any small drying chambers designed for home production of fermented sausages, and one has to assemble his own system. Commercial producers use huge rooms with air conditioning ducts supplying air at the right temperature, humidity and speed.

There is a refrigerator in every kitchen and that appliance can be quite easily adapted for fermenting and drying sausages. A used refrigerator can be obtained everywhere and as long as it works it will fit our purpose. Most refrigerators are made with a separate freezer door which is normally located in the upper part of the unit. Well, this unit is not needed and will not become part of the system. If a one door refrigerator can be found it works even better.

Temperature Control

There is a problem with the refrigerator’s temperature range as its thermostat is made to control temperatures between 0-4º C (32-40º F). Such temperatures are not needed during fermenting and drying sausages. Fortunately, there is a commonly available device called a line voltage thermostat. It is an electronic temperature control or rather a combination of a temperature sensor, switches and electronic control which can transform an ordinary refrigerator into a wonderful drying chamber.

Line Voltage Thermostat - Single Stage

Voltage controller

Electronic temperature control in cooler mode. The above drawing depicts a single stage control which means that it can control only one device at a time. There are two stage units which can control a heater and a cooler from the same control. A line voltage thermostat set to "cooling mode" can only decrease temperature lower than the temperature that remains outside the refrigerator.

The refrigerator is unplugged from the outlet and is then plugged into the temperature control which is plugged into the electrical outlet. The refrigerator’s thermostat is not controlling temperature anymore and is taken over by the temperature sensor in the controller, which is inserted into the refrigerator. There is no need to drill a hole as the refrigerator door has rubber insulation and the sensor’s cable is thin. In short terms, the microprocessor monitors the temperature through the sensor and when the temperature is warmer than the set point, the processor will energize the internal relay (switch). This allows the refrigerator to draw the current from the outlet. The drawing is not to scale and the typical unit is about: 6.5" x 2.7" x 2.5". The beauty of this set up lies in the fact that no damage is done to the refrigerator. These units can control coolers, heaters or any electrical device.

There are instances when the temperature inside the chamber must be higher:

  • fast fermented sausages made with starter cultures which require fermentation temperatures of around 30-45º C (86 -113º F)
  • drying chamber is located in a cool climate where temperatures are below 20º C (68º F) for a larger part of the year. Under such circumstances the same line voltage thermostat can be combined with a heater and used in the heating mode.

In such a case the temperature control is switched to "heating mode", the refrigerator is disconnected and the heater is plugged into the temperature control.

Voltage controller

Electronic temperature control in heater mode. Refrigerator not working but used as a fermentation/drying chamber. Any little heating element, ceramic heater, heat lamp or even UL approved light fixture will easily raise the temperature in small unit such as a refrigerator. Using an ordinary light bulb is not recommended as prolonged exposure to light creates rancidity in fat.

Temperature control can be used in the heating mode during fermentation, which lasts on the average about 1-2 days and even less for fast fermented products. Then, when a product enters the drying stage, the heater can be removed and the control unit is switched back into the cooling mode.

When ambient temperatures are low and the heating mode is selected, the refrigerator can still be used as a drying chamber, even though it is disconnected from the power supply. In cooler climates it is practical to build a large drying chamber (even a walk in unit) from any materials, as long as a good insulation is included. Then, not being limited by space, any kind of a free standing heater and humidifier can be placed inside as long as there is electricity close by. These electronic temperature controls are very precise and can maintain the set temperature within 1 degree.

Voltage controller

Line voltage thermostat in heating mode. Drying chamber can be any type of an insulated box or unit............






Check the link for the full article on Fermented Sausages and Safety Hurdles

Fermented Sausages and Safety Hurdles

Magnifying glass

Fermented sausages and air dried meats are at an extra risk, as in most cases they are not subject to the cooking/refrigerating process. There is less risk involved when we make a simple fresh sausage which will end up in a refrigerator, and will be cooked and eaten within a day or two. Cooked or smoked/cooked products are microbiologically clean as the heat kills bacteria and the product is kept under refrigeration. They will be either eaten soon or frozen for a later use. When making fermented sausages we are playing a totally different game as in most cases the meat is neither cooked nor refrigerated, yet the sausage must be safe to consume. It sounds almost impossible - making a quality product by leaving meat at room temperature for an extended period of time. We know it is not a trick because we have been eating fermented sausages for thousands of years. It is the Bacteria Magic which makes the manufacture of fermented foods possible.

Regardless of what precautions are taken, some bacteria will always be present when fermentation starts. And they will start multiplying rapidly in the first hours. Then, as the lactic bacteria (friendly ones) start feeding on sugar, they produce lactic acid and the sausage becomes more acidic (lower pH) what prevents unwanted bacteria from growing. All this time moisture evaporates from the sausage, and that makes life for bacteria even more difficult as they need free water to survive. Although moisture evaporates from the sausage, salt remains inside which makes the sausage even saltier to bacteria. The scale starts slowly tipping in our favor and there comes a moment, when the sausage is stable and will not spoil when kept at low temperature and at low humidity.

The manufacture of fermented sausages at home conditions creates formidable hazards as:

  • in warmer climates temperatures in the kitchen will be much higher than in a commercial meat plant, even with a fully running air conditioning system
  • the temperature of the sausage mass may be higher than recommended
  • home sausage making equipment such as grinders and stuffers process meats very slowly increasing the temperature
  • mixing and stuffing are not performed under a vacuum which may affect color and make fats rancid
  • fermenting and drying chamber in most cases is without proper temperature, humidity and air speed control
  • lack of proper testing equipment (pH, Aw) and the list goes on......

The only way fermented sausages can be successfully made at home, is to exactly follow the good manufacturing practices and use the safety steps known as hurdles.

Types of Hurdles

When a sophisticated alarm system is installed on the premises it consists of many components: perimeter protection (switches on doors, foil on windows, switch mats, trap wire etc), then a second line of defense comes into play: (motion detectors, glass breakage detectors, photo-electric eyes etc). Fermented sausages are like a sophisticated alarm-it needs many security measures (hurdles) to stop intruders (undesirable bacteria). To prevent the growth of unwanted bacteria we employ a combination of steps known as hurdles:

  • using meats with a low bacteria count
  • curing with salt
  • curing with nitrite/nitrate
  • lowering pH of the meat to < 5.3
  • lowering Aw (water activity) by drying to < 0.91
  • using bio-protective cultures
  • smoking
  • cooking
  • spices
  • cleanliness and common sense

Using a combination of different hurdles is more effective that relying on one method only. For example the first hurdle is an application of salt and sodium nitrite which slows down spoilage and keeps pathogenic bacteria at bay. This first hurdle is a temporary one and if we don’t follow up with additional hurdles, such as lowering pH (increasing acidity) and then lowering water activity Aw (eliminating moisture by drying), the product will spoil.

Bacteria will multiply when conditions are favorable but will become lethargic when temperatures drop lower. When temperatures are high enough they will die, some of them will not survive in an oxygen absent atmosphere. Keeping them in check is of utmost importance during the manufacture of fermented and air-dried products as these products are usually not heat treated. In the following table we have compiled data that indicates the physical parameters which can be regulated in order to control the growth of bacteria. It should be noted that when the two hurdles (or more) are applied (pH drop, drying, sugar, starter culture etc), their cumulative strength is magnified and bacteria are constrained more effectively.  Adding salt and nitrite creates the first hurdle against the growth of bacteria and as the acidity of the sausage increases and moisture continues to evaporate, the sausage becomes more stable.

The first 24 hours are the most crucial and moisture removal must be slow enough to permit lactic acid bacteria to grow. Lactic bacteria Lactobacillusand Pediococcus like other species need moisture to live and will not produce lactic acid if the Aw - water activity drops below 0.93 which can happen during fast drying. Accelerated drying will decrease moisture levels in the outside area of the sausage and will inhibit curing and color fixing bacteriaStaphylococcus, Kocuria (also known as Micrococcus) from doing their job. The resulting hardened and dried surface area of the meat will not be red, it will be grey which will subsequently show on a sliced sausage.

Meat Selection

Meat of a healthy animal is clean and contains very few bacteria. Any invading bacteria will be destroyed by the animal’s immune system. Most bacteria are present on the skin and in the intestines. The slaughtering process starts intruducing bacteria into the exposed surfaces. Every time a knife cuts meat, the blade introduces new bacteria which multiply and slowly migrate towards the inside of the piece. In a stressed animal bacteria are able to travel from the animal’s gut right through the casing into the meat. Some bacteria are present on our hands, others live in our nose and throat and personal hygiene is of utmost importance. In addition, each meat processing facility develops its own microbiological flora in which bacteria live on walls, ceilings, machinery, tools etc. This is the reason why meat plants have to be continuously sanitized and cleaned. All those bacteria are just waiting to jump on a new piece of meat and start working in. Going into details on selecting meats according to their pH or using terms like PSE, DFD or MDM meats is beyond the scope of these pages and will make them confusing to read. What we want to stress is that meat must be perfectly fresh with the lowest count of bacteria possible.

Commercial producers try to keep this number between 100 and 1000 per gram of meat but a home based sausage maker must make sure that:

  • meat is very fresh and always kept cold
  • facilities and tools are very clean
  • working temperatures are as low as possible
  • take what you need rule always applies

If the above conditions are not met, bacteria will multiply and will compete for food with cultures inhibiting their growth. The acidity of the meat influences its ability to hold water, and meats with pH > 6.0 can bind water better than meats with pH < 6.0. This moisture helps bacteria to multiply. Selecting meat with lower acicity (5.7-5.8) provides more safety, as it creates less favorable conditions for the growth of undesirable bacteria. It also shortens the fermentation time needed to drop pH to a safe level. By adding different amounts of GDL to the sausage mass commercial processors can adjust the pH level of meat. This will be performed when making fast or medium-fermented sausages. There is little we can do about a selected meat’s bacteria count when buying it in a local supermarket but we have to keep it refrigerated at home. Meat must not be processed above 12° C (54° F), for an extended time, as the growth of Staphylococcus occurs at 15.6° C (60 °F).

Using hurdles as criteria, fermented sausages can be classified as:

TypeAwpH
Very perishable> 0.95> 5.2
Perishable0.95 - 0.915.2 - 5.0
Shelf stable< 0.955.2
single hurdle enough< 5.0 (4.6)
< 0.91 (0.85)single hurdle enough

The Aw criteria for dry sausages in Europe differ from those mandated in the USA, and European dry sausages must have Aw < 0.90 which makes it drier than its American counterpart.

Curing with Salt

Salt is one of the oldest methods of food preservation. Hundreds years ago heavy salting was commonly used to preserve and to transport fish to different countries, but that fish was non-edible in its original state. It had to be soaked in water first to eliminate any excess salt, and only then it would be cooked. Bacteria hate salt and different strains posess different degrees of resistance. Our initial safety hurdles revolve around this knowledge. For example Lactobacillus lactic acid bacteria as well as curing bacteria Staphylococcus and Kocuria show more resistance to salt than spoilage or pathogenic types. By competing for nutrients with spoilage and pathogenic bacteria they prevent them from growing.

The more salt applied to meat the stronger fence is created against unwanted bacteria, but to stop them from growing by salt alone, the salt levels will have to be so high that the product will not be edible. Such a product will have to be soaked for long time in running water in order to be consumed. What’s more, such elevated salt levels (over 4%) will prevent lactic bacteria from producing lactic acid and as a result no fermentation will take place. Not a practical solution. Well, if stopping them with salt entirely is not a practical solution then how about making life for them just miserable? And this is exactly what we do by adding between 2.3% - 3% salt into the minced meat.

Curing with nitrite/Nitrate

In addition to inhibiting the growth of Cl.botulinum, nitrite also suppresses Salmonella. Although cases of food poisoning by Cl.botulinum are rather rare, they have one thing in common-they are fatal. There has been not even one documented case of food poisoning when nitrite was added to meat.

Lowering pH ( increasing acidity)

When using acidification as a main safety hurdle, most fast-fermented sausages are microbiologically stable when pH 5.3 or lower is obtained within a prescribed time (see standards). Depending on the culture chosen and fermentation temperature, this can be easily accomplished within 7-36 hours for a fast-fermented sausage, and 72-96 hours for a medium-fermented type. In slow-fermented sausages the acidity of meat increases very slowly and never reaches the point that might guarantee safety of the sausage. These sausages depend on lowering water activity (drying) to become microbiologically stable. The introduction of more sugar leads to a lower pH and stronger acidification. About 1 g (0.1%) of dextrose per 1 kg of meat lowers pH of meat by 0.1 pH. This means that 10 g of dextrose added to meat with initial pH value of 5.9 will lower pH by one full unit to 4.9. Sugar levels of 0.5% - 0.7% are usually added for reducing pH levels to just under 5.0. About 1 g (0.1%) of GDL per 1 kg of meat lowers the pH of meat by 0.1 pH. It shall be noted that the addition of sugar already lowers the pH of the meat and adding GDL will lower the pH even more. As it is a natural acid, adding more than 10 g may cause a bitter and sour flavor. In slow-fermented salami pH does not drop generally lower than 5.3 but the sausage is microbiologically stable due to its low moisture level (Aw 0.87-0.88). Most American semi-dry sausages exhibit pH of 4.8 or even lower.

pH drop

Decrease in pH in slow, medium and fast-fermented sausages

Once the pH reaches 5.3 or less, Staphylococcus aureus and other pathogens are kept in check and further lowering pH or drying sausage at low temperatures would will make it microbiologically stable.

Lowering Aw (removing moisture)

Just adding 3% salt reduces intitial water activity level to 0.97. Then the sausage starts to lose moisture from the time it enters the fermentation process and continues to do so through the drying process. In about 3-6 days the Aw drops to about 0.95 and the sausage is more stable as some pathogenic bacteria (Salmonella, Bacillus) stop multiplying. Drying too fast (Aw 0.95) at the begining of fermentation may inhibit lactic acid bacteria from producing acid. Most microorganisms do not exibit growth below 0.91 water activity with a few exceptions, notably Staphylococcus aureus which remains active until 0.86. Molds of course show great resistance to low moisture levels. The activity of most spoilage and pathogenic bacteria stops when Aw of 0.89 is reached. Aw drop is little affected by pH or number of bacteria, and is more linear in nature. Stated simply, the drying process is time dependent and factors that affect drying will also influence a decrease in water activity. There is a certain relationship between water activity (Aw), food acidity (pH) and the microbiological safety of the sausage:

aw drop

Decrease in Aw in fast, medium and slow-fermented sausages

"The higher Aw, the lower pH is needed to protect sausage against undesirable bacteria and vice versa"

Bio-protective cultures

Bio-protective cultures like Bactoferm™ F-LC may be added for production of fermented sausages with short production type where a higher count ofL.monocytogenes bacteria may be suspected.Bactoferm™ F-LC has the ability to control Listeria at the same time as it performs as a classic starter culture for fermented sausages. The culture produces pediocin and bavaricin (kind of "antibiotics"), and that keeps Listeria monocytogenes at safe levels. These proteins, generally known as bacteriocins, act as a defense mechanism against competitive flora by attacking competitors. This is known as competitive exclusion-use of desirable competitive microorganisms to inhibit udesirable microorganism.The addition of any commercial culture provides a safety hurdle as those millons of freshly introduced bacteria compete for food (moisture, oxygen, sugar, protein) with a small number of bacteria residing in meat, preventing them from growing. It may be called a biological competition.Keep in mind that all cultures, although in varying degree, go through a lag phase, which is generally longer for slow fermenting types but can last 6-12 hours, the shorter time corresponding to higher temperatures. Fast-fermenting cultures go through a much shorter lag phase, from 30 minutes to a few hours, also depending on fermentation temperature. During lag phase there is little fermentation taking place, lactic acid bacteria just get comfortable, and they start growing in numbers. Then, they suddenly go into action feeding on sugar and producing lactic acid. The lag phase can be compensated for by: 1. increasing fermentation temperature, 2. increasing the amount of culture, 3. using frozen cultures instead of freeze-dried.

Smoking

Smoking imparts a different flavor, fights bacteria, especially on the surface of the product and thus prevents the growth of molds on fermented sausages. Mold is desired on some traditionally made Italian salamis and obviously smoking is not deployed. It should be pointed out, that when making slow-fermented sausages only cold smoke should be applied and its temperature should correspond to the fermentation or drying temperature present at particular time. Applying smoke which is much cooler than the fermentation temperature, will slow down fermentation. Applying smoke which is much hotter than the fermentation or drying temperature, will create favorable conditions for the growth of undesirable bacteria. When making traditional slow-fermented sausages we apply fermentation temperatures around 18° C (66° F) and even less when drying. To match these values we have to apply cold smoke that falls more or less in the same temperature range (< 22° C, 72° F).

It is a known fact that smoke posesses antibacterial properties and smoking meats was one of the earliest preservation methods. Prolonged cold smoking is the most effective of all smoking methods as it thoroughly penetrates meat. This is possible due to the absence of a hardened outside surface area of the sausage (cooked proteins), typical of sausages that are hot smoked. Smoke which is applied early in the fermentation stage will definitely inhibit to some degree the growth of lactic acid bacteria, especially if the diameter of the sausage is small. In such a case it will be wiser to wait until fermentation is over before the smoke is applied. Applying smoke during the fermentation period creates a barrier to the growth ofStaph.aureus at the surface of the product where toxin production may be a problem.

Cooking

Cooking is a very effective way to kill bacteria but it is hard to imagine a classical traditionally made salami that will be cooked. Slow-fermented and spreadable fermented sausages are not cooked as this will alter their texture, taste and flavor. Fast-fermented sausages such as summer sausage, Thuringer, cervelats are made very fast and cooking provides a recognized and approved by the Food and Drug Administration measure of safety. By cooking their products, commercial producers avoid fights with meat inspectors and cover themselves with a strong wall of protection in case something goes wrong and legal litigation might follow. Keep in mind that the fermentation process can be stopped at any time (if no chemical acidulants are added) by submitting sausages to heat treatment.

Cooking fermented sausages makes them definitely safer as the heat will kill bacteria. On the downside, this heat also kills bacteria which are instrumental in developing meat flavor. For example raw semi-dry products exibit higher sensory values than cooked products. The texture of a cooked sausage will suffer too, as the individual specs of fat, so typical in these sausages, will melt down during heat treatment and will not be visible anymore. The texture of the sausage will become creamier. The sausage may be additionally dried to lose some of its weight, but the drying process must be performed at proper drying temperatures (12-15° C, 53-59° F). Many recipes ask for cooking sausages to 137° F ( 58° C) as the risk of trichinosis is eliminated at this temperature. Commercially grown pigs are disease free in the USA and they have been disease free in Europe for long time, where every slaughtered pig is inspected for trichinosis. Freezing meat also prevents the possibility of contracting worms, and cooking such meat does very little. It makes more sense to fully cook meat to FDA recommended 160° F ( 72° C) internal meat temperature. This way all bacteria will be effectively killed and there won’t be any reason to worry.

Guidelines for Cooked Meat Products

Cooked beef, pork, lamb and other meat products can be prepared using one of the following time and temperature combinations to meet either a 6.5-log10 or 7-log10 reduction of Salmonella. The stated temperature is the minimum that must be achieved and maintained in all parts of each piece of meat for at least the stated time:

Minimal Internal TemperatureMinimum processing time in minutes or seconds after minimum temperature is reached
º Fº C6.5-log10 Lethality7-log10 Lethality
13054.4112 min121 min
13155.089 min97 min
13255.671 min77 min
13356.156 min62 min
13456.745 min47 min
13557.236 min37 min
13657.828 min32 min
13758.423 min24 min
13858.918 min19 min
13959.515 min15 min
14060.012 min12 min
14160.69 min10 min
14261.18 min8 min
14361.76 min6 min
14462.25 min5 min
14562.84 min4 min
14663.3169 sec182 sec
14763.9134 sec144 sec
14864.4107 sec115 sec
14965.085 sec91 sec
15065.667 sec72 sec
15166.154 sec54 sec
15266.743 sec46 sec
15367.234 sec37 sec
15467.827 sec27 sec
15568.322 sec23 sec
15668.917 sec19 sec
15769.414 sec15 sec
15870.00 sec0 sec
15970.60 sec0 sec
16071.10 sec0 sec

Guidelines for Cooked Poultry Rolls and Other Poultry Products

Cooked poultry rolls and other cooked poultry products should reach an internal temperature of at least 160° F (71.1° C) prior to being removed from the cooking medium. However, cured and smoked poultry rolls and other cured and smoked poultry should reach an intermal temperature of at least 155° F (68.3° C) prior to being removed from the cooking medium.

Guidelines for Cooling Meat Products

During cooling, the product’s maximum internal temperature should not remain betweem 130° and 80° F (54° and 27° C) for more than 1.5 hours nor between 80° F and 40° F (27° and 4° C) for more than 5 hours. This cooling rate can be applied universally to cooked products (e.g., partially cooked or fully cooked, intact or non-intact, meat or poultry). The following process may be used for the slow cooling of ready-to-eat meat and poultry cured with nitrite. Products cured with a minimum of 100 ppm in-going sodium nitrite, may be cooled so that the maximum internal temperature is reduced from 130° to 80° F (54° and 27° C) in 5 hours and from 80° to 45° F (27° and 7° C) in 10 hours (15 hours total cooling time)......










Check the link for the full article on Standards for Fermentation Stadards for Making Sausage

Fermentation Standards for Making Fermented Sausages

USA Standards for Making Fermented Sausages

Fermented sausages must be fermented within certain time, otherwise product will spoil and might become dangerous.

In the USA the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the United States department of Agriculture requires that the shelf-stable dry sausages be nitrite cured, fermented, smoked, reach a final pH of 5.0 or less, and have a moisture/protein ratio of 1.9:1 or less.

Dry sausages are products that, as a result of bacterial action or direct acidulation should reach a pH of 5.3 or less and are then dried to remove 25-50% of the moisture, resulting in a moisture/protein ratio complying with the standards.

Semi-dry sausages are products, that as a result of bacterial action or direct acidulation should reach a pH of 5.3 or less and are then dried to remove 15% of the moisture, resulting in a moisture/protein ratio of 3.1:1 or less. Some semidry susages receive a pasteurization treatment following the fermentation period and some are shelf stable. Since the pH is lowered during the fermentation period, the degree-hour concept applies only to the time required to reach a pH of 5.3.

Fermented and acidulated sausages (citric acid, lactic acid or GDL added) shall attain a pH of 5.3 or lower within the proper time frame (defined in temperature-degrees below) in order to control the growth of pathogenic bacteria such as E. coli 0157:H and Staphylococcus aureus.

During fermentation of sausages to a pH 5.3, it is necessary to limit the time during which the sausage is exposed to temperatures exceeding 60° F (15.6° C), otherwise the product will spoil, even though the recommended pH was attained. This time frame is temperature dependent and these are the following criteria:

Time in F degree-hours above 60° F (16° C)Maximum chamber temperature
less than 1200less than 90° F (32° C)
< 100090-100° F (32-38° C)
< 900greater than 100° F (38° C)

Degrees are measured as the excess over 60° F (15.6° C), the critical temperature at which staphylococcal growth effectively begins.

Constant Temperature Fermentation

Time in F degree-hours above 60° F (16° C)Chamber temperatureMaximum hours to pH 5.3
° F° C
1200752480
1200802760
1200853048
1000903233
1000953528
10001003825
9001054120
9001104418

The above table provides maximum hours that a product may be fermented at given constant fermentation temperature (measured in ° F) to obtain pH 5.3. For example, at 80° F constant temperature a sausage must reach pH 5.3 within 60 hours or less. Those hours can also be calculated for any temperature.

Example A

Sausage fermented for 48 hours at the constant temperature 86° F (30° C) to pH of 5.3.

For the calculation time in degrees over 60° F (16° C) is taken and:

Degrees: 86 - 60 = 26

Hours: 48

Degree-hours (above 60° F) = 26 x 48 = 1248 degree hours. The result fails the guidelines of 1200 degree-hours by 48 hours. The time has to be decreased by 2 hours:

Degree-hours = 26 x 46 = 1196 degree-hours. Process A passes guidelines of 1200 degree-hours.

Example B

Constant 90° F for 40 hours with a pH decline to 5.3

Degrees: 90 - 60 = 30

Hours: 40

Degree-hours: 30 x 40 = 1200 degree-hours

Process B fails the guideline limit of 1000 degree-hours.

Variable Temperature Fermentation

In many cases fermentation proceeds at different temperatures and for each temperature setting, a separate degree-hours are calculated and then added together. In testing each process, each step-up in the progression is analyzed for the number of degree-hours it contributes, with the highest temperature used in the fermentation process determining the degree-hour limitation. Degree hours is calculated for each temperature during fermentation.

Example C

Time in F degree-hours above 60° F (16° C)Chamber temperature° FAdjusted TemperatureDegrees ResultMaximum hours to pH 5.3
10 hrs7575 - 60 =1510 x 15 = 150
10 hrs8585 - 60 =2510 x 25 = 250
14 hrs9595 - 60 =3514 x 35 = 490
Total F degree-hours:890

In the above example a product was fermented at three different temperatures (75, 85 and 95° F) for a total time of 34 hours. The total sum of the calculated degree-hours is 890 hours which is less than the maximum of 1000 hours for 90 - 100° F temperature range. Process C passes the guidelines.

Example D

Time in F degree-hours above 60° F (16° C)Chamber temperature ° FAdjusted TemperatureDegrees ResultMaximum hours to pH 5.3
10 hrs7575 - 60 =1510 x 15 = 150
12 hrs8585 - 60 =2512 x 25 = 300
18 hrs9898 - 60 =3818 x 38 = 684
Total F degree-hours:1134

Process D fails the guideline because the limit is set at 1000 degree-hours for these times and temperatures and the process has taken 1134 degree-hours to reach pH 5.3

Understanding these tables is of utmost importance as one can set his own fermentation temperatures and times without blindly relaying on unproven recipes and be in strict compliance with the government standards. Besides, it provides a great deal of satisfaction knowing that the process is safe and that we are in total control.






Check the link for the full article on Traditional Fermented Sausage 

Traditional Fermented Sausages

Traditionally made fermented sausages are made without starter cultures or sugar and relies entirely on bacteria present in meat and in surounding microflora. Before the starter cultures were discovered there was a practice of adding fermented sausage mass from the previous production to a new sausage mass that will be stuffed into casings. This increased the number of lactic bacteria in a new sausage mass. This questionable practice today was called "backslopping" and is very seldom used as it introduces not only lactic bacteria that are needed for fermentation but also any unwanted bacteria that had developed in the previous sausage mass.

Home made traditionally fermented products are made in conditions that take advantage of the weather conditions that are typical for a particular season of the year. There is little one can do to finely tune the temperature or relative humidity levels. Because of that, temperature range and humidity levels are somewhat more relaxed than stringent requirements of comercial drying rooms. It should be noted that if the temperature goes up the relative humidity goes down and vice versa.

Making traditional slow-fermented sausage

Traditionally manufactured sausages are predominantly made from pork, pork fat (back fat) and beef. About 80% lean meat and 20% fat are the most often used proportions and selection of spices plays a secondary role. One of the reasons is that there is not much original spice aroma retained by the sausage is that it is drying for 3 months and hanging in storage for another 6 months. The taste and flavor of the sausage is the result of a long drying period when many naturally occuring reactions take place with meat protein producing a very characteristic and desired flavor.

The beginning of the process is very similar to making any kind of a sausage (grinding, mixing, stuffing) the main difference being the utmost attention directed towards the freshness of meat, cool production temperatures, cleanliness of the equipment and personal hygiene. The second part of the process (fermenting, drying, storage) is completely different and requires basic knowledge of the theory that governs the making of fermented and air dried products.

1. Meat selection. Meat of a healthy animal is clean and has no bacteria. Some bacteria reside on an animal's skin and inside its intestinal tract (casings). Bacteria which is present everywhere are introduced when we start to process meats: every time a knife cuts meat, the blade introduces new bacteria which multiply and slowly migrate towards the inside of the piece. As more cuts are made, the easier it is for bacteria to penetrate the piece. This is why ground meat (small particles) has the shortest shelf life. Bacteria will find their way into the sausage mass that will be stuffed into the casings by the following:

  • cutting animal carcass - the knife will open the way for them to travel from the skin into the meat. Some of the bacteria which live in the intestinal tract (they are needed to digest food) will also find a way to contaminate meat. During the slaughtering process the carcass is sprayed with water which facilitates the transport of bacteria.
  • mowing meat around on tables, carts and different surfaces. There are bacteria on those surfaces and they will contaminate meat, too.
  • air movement on the premises.
  • human intervention - there is bacteria on our skin, clothes, when we are sneezing etc.

We can not eliminate bacteria altogether but we can restrict their growth to the minimum and this is the most important step during the manufacturing of fermented sausages. It should be noted that placing meat in a refrigerator will not stop the growth of bacteria but merely slow it down. At this temperature (4º C, 40º F) they will double up in number every 12 hours anyhow. If we have 300 bacteria in 1 gram of meat and we keep this meat for one day (24 hrs) in a refrigerator we will have 1200 bacteria at the start of the grinding. But if we have 1000 bacteria in our meat to start with, after 24 hours we will have 4000 bacteria and a commercial producer will not process this meat for fermented sausages but he may use it for making fresh meat products (they will be cooked to 160º F, 72º C before consumption).

The example above shows how crucial it is to select fresh meat for making air dried sausages and processing it (grinding, mixing and stuffing) as soon as possible and at the lowest temperatures. If those conditions are not met we may be doomed on day one and we will waste 3 months of our time on producing a low quality sausage or even throw it away.

2. Curing. Adding salt, sugar and nitrate to meats has been practiced for centuries and the general consensus is that curing contributes positively to the color, flavor and shelf life of the product. The curing step has been employed in traditionally made fermented sausages (without cultures) to increase the number of lactic acid, color and flavor forming bacteria. When making fermented sausages the main purpose of curing was twofold:

  • increase the number of color and flavor forming bacteria (StaphylococcusKocuria)
  • increase the number of lactic acid producing bacteria (LactobacillusPediococcus)

The curing step is simply adding extra time for beneficial bacteria to develop. Although the process will be slow due to cold temperatures, the bacteria count will somewhat increase. There is a little problem with this curing procedure as other bacteria such as spoilage and pathogenic (dangerous) will grow as well, and when subsequently introduced to the fermenting chamber they will also multiply. Fortunately, they are little salt tolerant and their growth is slowed down by salt and nitrite. Besides, those millions of bacteria (culture) introduced to meat will start competing for nutrients with beneficial, spoilage and pathogenic bacteria and their growth would be severely restricted. There is no need to perform this curing process when starter cultures are added to meat. We are assured of a huge number of lactic acid bacteria which will start the fermentation process as soon as the stuffed sausage is placed in a warm fermentation room. Placing the sausage mix that includes starter bacteria in a refrigerator makes little sense and will unnecessarily increase the number of spoilage and pathogenic bacteria.

Let’s speculate that we have 500 lactic acid bacteria in 1 gram of meat to be cured. At 42º F (6º C) they might double under perfect conditions (no salt and no nitrite). That means that after 48 hours we end up with 8,000 bacteria ready to start fermentation. This number pales in comparison with 10 million (10, 000,000)/g bacteria which are introduced with a starter culture. This proves without any doubt the advantage of using starter cultures. As mentioned earlier, the curing step is seldom practiced today as every manufacturer adds starter cultures to the sausage mix to better control the process. Nevertheless, it is still a fine and recommended procedure for making unfermented meats and sausages which will be subsequently smoked and cooked.

Original way to cure meat was as follows:

  • meats were manually cut into 2" cubes, salt, sugar and nitrite were added and thoroughly mixed. If meats are not manually cut but processed through a grinder, that should be accomplished with a large plate 1/2-3/4". Then meats were packed tightly (to remove air) about 6-8" high, into pans
  • meats were covered with a clean cloth (to prevent air from oxidizing meat which will discolor it and allow gases to escape)
  • pans were placed in a refrigerator for 72 hours

This time could be shortened to 48 hours by grinding meats with a plate as smaller particles are penetrated faster by salt and nitrite. A cured sausage mix has a tendency to firm up and the stuffing process becomes harder to perform especially when using home equipment. For this reason the sausage mix was re-ground with a correct final plate, often 3/16" and mixed with spices. Back fat is salted only as it does not contain myoglobin and there is no need to mix it with nitrite (no color forming will occur).

3. Grinding. All grinders, even manual types, generate heat which warms up the meat. If possible meat processing should be done at temperatures not higher than 12º C (54º F). "Take what you absolutely need" should be applied to all processes and that means that only the necessary amount of meat to complete a particular operation should be taken out of a cooler. Don't take 50 lbs of meat out of a refrigerator when operating a manual grinder which is slow. Take what you need. Make sure that the meat is very cold or even partially frozen as this allows for cleaner cuts and keeps the meat temperature down. Fat should be partially frozen to prevent smearing which affects drying.

4. Mixing. Adding water to facilitate mixing is a common practice when making sausages but in the case of fermented sausages this technique is strongly discouraged. Water removal (lowering water activity Aw) is one of the hurdles employed to safeguard the sausage against microbial spoilage and bringing extra water in beats the purpose of drying. It does not matter much when making a smoked/cooked sausage as this water will evaporate rapidly during smoking and cooking. Besides, cooking will kill all bacteria anyhow. In case of a fermented sausage this water becomes a wonderful playground for bacteria.

5. Stuffing. Natural casings of different diameter or synthetic fibrous casings can be utilized. More attention must be dedicated to the preparation of the casings for the following reasons:

The parts of the animal that are most contaminated with bacteria are skin and intestinal tract (casings). Although casings are cleaned, washed and packed in salt nevertheless they still remain contaminated and can contribute to the total contamination (bacteria count) of the sausage. The following steps must be undertaken to minimize the danger of contamination:

  • visual inspection-casing should be of white color
  • they should be salted and kept in a refrigerator
  • they should be desalted at least one hour before stuffing in cold running drinkable water. Then they can be washed in 2% solution of vinegar which will eliminate the majority of bacteria.

6. Mixing of all ingredients should be done at the temperature between 0º and 5º C (32º-41º F). Higher temperatures may start fementation too early which will lead to quality problems later (rancid taste, case hardening). In such a case the sausage mass should be cooled down in a refrigerator before proceeding to the stuffing.

A typical process:

No sugar nor starter cultures added
TemperatureHumidityTimeNotes
Fermentation12º-16º C, 54º-61º F82-98 %3-8 daysThe temperature must not exceed 22º C, 72º F. Expected pH value 5.2. pH below 5.0 may lead to sourly sausage.
Drying12º C, 54º F75-80 %2-3 monthsHigher temperatures must be avoided. Expected pH around 5.3, expected Aw 0.88.
Storage12º-18º C, 54º-66º F75-80 %  

Mediterranean style products (Italy, Spain) produce sausages that are only air-dried.

Northern style products (Germany, Poland) produce sausages that are smoked and air-dried. A thin, cold smoke (no more than 20º C, 68º F), humidity 70-80%, produced from burning hard wood logs is applied after the fermentation stage. Good air draft (ventilation) is needed.

If sugar and starter cultures are used use the following parameters for fermentation:

temperature: 20º C (68º F)

humidity: 85%

time: 3-5 days

and monitor pH values

Note: some manufacturers don't carry out the fermentation stage at all and the stuffed sausage is directly submitted to the drying process at 6º -15º C (42º -59º F)

Staphylococcus aureus starts to grow fast at 15.6C (60º F) and higher. For this reason, sausages made without starter cultures should not exceed this temperature. When cultures are used, lactic acid bacteria produce lactic acid and this increases acidity of the meat, inhibits growth ofStaph.aureus. This pathogen can survive high salt levels and funtions remarkable well at low moisture level (down to Aw 0.86). Staph.aureus is sensitive to acidity (low pH).

7. Fermentation means increasing the temperature of a stuffed sausage which allows the naturally occuring bacteria in meat to grow and react with the meat. As a rule the higher the temperature, the faster bacteria growth and their energy to react with meat or any other food. For most bacteria the best temperature for growth is around our body temperature (36.6º C, 98.6º F). This temperature is too high for any kind of traditionally made slow-fermented products. Unless a pH meter is used to check the acidity of the sausage, it is hard to predict when fermentation ends and when drying begins. Once pH value reaches 5.2 there is no need to lower it further as it will affect the taste and color of the sausage and at this point there is little need for bacteria to produce more lactic acid and lower pH even more. The flavor of the product will taste sour and the color will suffer too. This may be acceptable for a fast-fermented economy sausage but not for a traditional sausage...............

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   Here's another great page, from Wedliny Domowe...they cover so many topics in such a manner to blend the new with old world Polish technique.  Before I post the article I wanted to, on smoked fish, I'll include the "about" page.

http://www.meatsandsausages.com/

Who We Are

Certificate of Authenticity.
Website Recommendation.

2012 National Convention

In November 2004, a Pole, Miroslaw Gebarowski, became so dissatisfied with the deteriorating state of Polish meat products that he decided to do something about it. He started a Polish forum on the Internet dedicated to the proper methods of meat preparation and the idea took off like a roller coaster. Little he imagined that he would create one of the most popular sites in Poland and the biggest site of this kind on the Internet.

At that time Stanley Marianski lived in the USA and one day at a party he was arguing with his friends over some Polish sausage recipes. He jumped on the Internet and started to look for more information but the information he got in English was far from satisfactory. Finally in desperation he formed the question in Polish and imagine the surprise when he found his answer on the newly created forum. That started the relationship that continues to this day. The Forum became so popular that in February 2005 its web presence was established www.wedlinydomowe.pl (Polish version) and the English site www.meatsandsausages.com was created in July, 2005.

And as of this writing (November 2011) the Wedliny Domowe is the biggest site of this kind in the world. Due to a popular demand it carries information on bread, cheese and butter making as well. The explanation for this incredible popularity of the site was the general dissatisfaction of the people with the steady decline in quality of once great meat products. The main reason was the opening up of Polish borders (after the collapse of the Communist system) to Western Europe. This brought previously unknown chemicals and preparation procedures to Poland, which were designed to produce meat products in the fastest and cheapest way. From the manufacturer’s point of view, the most important step is to pump as much water as possible into the meat. They think of it as a win-win situation; it’s good for profits and healthy for the consumer. Every doctor says we should drink more water, so why not eat it as well? We like water ourselves, but we hate paying five dollars a pound for it.

Our group consists of hundreds of professional and home based sausage makers who have been making those Polish products all their life.They know how they were made and how they tasted 50 years ago and they can see the difference when they buy the product today. Another reason is to preserve the centuries of knowledge and tradition that were instrumental for the development of so many wonderful products. We are simply people that love making sausage and other meat products the right way. Unfortunately this is a dying art and there is almost no way to obtain quality products unless they are home made.That does not mean that our meat plants are not capable of making quality products. After all, in 1969 we put a man on the moon, the internet has been running for 25 years, and computers allow us to change the very rules of nature. So why can’t we make a decent sausage? We can’t because everything is controlled by the dollar, including sausages. They must be made in the most efficient manner, and that means cheap and fast. As long as supermarkets accept these products, and the Food and Drug Administration does not object to the ingredients, quality plays a secondary role.

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Selecting Fish

Fish must be of good quality, plump, firm and of a pleasant smell. Fresh fish is the best material, however, frozen fish is acceptable. A quality product cannot be made from stale fish; heavy smoking may disguise the bad quality to some extent, but only for a day or two. Frozen fish can be used for smoking, however, freezing fish will not improve its quality, we can only hope to match the quality of the fresh material.

Fat Content

Fats carry the flavor and provides a pleasant mouth-feel. For these reasons fatty fish taste better when smoked. The same species of fish, depending where they live (Europe, Atlantic or Pacific Ocean), may have a significantly different fat content in their flesh which changes throughout the year.
Lean fish: Cod family (cod, haddock, pollock, whiting), grouper, snapper, flatfish (flounder, sole, halibut), perch, pike, clams, scallops, tilapia, yellowfin tuna.
Semi-fat: mullet, sakmon, trout.
Fat fish: bluefish. carp, eel, herring, mackerel, salmon.

All fish may be smoked, but the fat fish absorb smoke better, stay moister during smoking and taste better. This does not mean that lean fish cannot be smoked, the best example are million pounds of haddock that have been smoked in England.

A great amount of fat is found under the skin along the lateral line where the flesh is much darker (see the arrows). Removing some of this flesh will decrease the fishy flavor of the fish.

Fat Content of Different Fish
Lean Fishless than 2.5%can be smoked
Medium Fat Fish2.5-6.5%best for smoking
Fat Fishmore than 6.5%best for smoking

The following table lists fat content of popular fish:

NameProtein (%)Fat (%)Water (%)
Bluefish20.044.2470.86
Carp17.835.6076.31
Catfish16.382.8280.36
Clams14.670.9678.98
Cod, Atlantic17.810.6781.22
Cod, Pacific15.270.4183.95
Eel18.4411.6668.26
Flounder12.411.9384.63
Grouper19.381.0279.22
Haddock16.320.4583.38
Halibut18.561.3380.34
Herring, Atlantic17.969.0472.05
Herring, Pacific16.3913.8871.52
Mackerel-Atlantic18.6013.8963.55
Mackerel-King20.282.0075.85
Mackerel-Spanish19.296.3071.67
Mullet19.353.7977.01
Mussels11.902.2480.58
Oysters, Eastern5.711.7189.04
Oysters, Pacific9.452.3082.06
Salmon, Pink20.504.4075.52
Salmon, Atlantic, wild19.846.3468.50
Salmon, Atlantic, farmed20.4213.4264.89
Scallops12.060.4982.53
Sheepshead20.212.4177.97
Shrimp20.100.5178.45
Snapper20.511.3476.87
Squid15.581.3878.55
Tilapia20.081.7078.08
Trout, rainbow, farmed19.946.1873.80
Tuna, yellowfin24.000.4974.03
Tuna, bluefin23.004.9068.09
Whiting18.301.3180.27
Data: U.S. Nutritional Database

Fish Flesh Color

Meat color is determined largely by the amount of myoglobin a particular animal carries. The more myoglobin the darker the meat. To some extent oxygen use can be related to the animal’s general level of activity; muscles that are exercised frequently such as the legs need more oxygen. As a result they develop a darker color unlike the breast which is white due to little exercise. Fish float in water and need less muscle energy to support their skeletons.

Most fish meat is white, with some red meat around the fins, tail, and the more active parts of the fish which are used for swimming. Most fish don’t have myoglobin at all. There are some antarctic cold water fish that have myoglobin, but it is confined to the hearts only (flesh of the fish remains white but the heart is of a rosy color). The pink color of some fish, such as salmon and trout, is due to astaxanthin, a naturally occurring pigment in the crustaceans they eat. Most salmon we buy is farm raised and as it is fed a prepared commercial diet that even includes antibiotics, its meat is anything but pink. The only reason that farmed raised salmon flesh is pink is that canthaxanthin (colorant) is added to the food the fish eats.

The pink color of smoked meat is due to the nitrite reaction with myoglobin. As most of the fish don’t have myoglobin the meat is not going to be pink even if cured with nitrite and that explains why very few fish recipes include cure. Some red- flesh fish such as mackerel or jack may have dark muscles that will become blackish-red after processing. Such fish will benefit from curing them with salt and sodium nitrite (cure #1) to preserve their red color. In addition, nitrites are not allowed in all species of fish used for smoking. The Food and Drug Administration currently allows nitrites to be used in salmon, sablefish, shad, chubs, and tuna. Why out of millions of species of fish swimming in the ocean, only five species can be cured with nitrite? What made those fish so special? A letter of inquiry was sent to the Food Safety and Inspection Service and this was the answer:

“The reason nitrite is approved for use in those species is because someone submitted a petition for its use in those specific fish. Other species can be added through additional petitions.”

Sodium nitrite is used in Japan to preserve red color of dark flesh fish such as tuna and bonito which are processed for sausages. If not treated with nitrite, the red color changes to blackish red after heat treatment. To prevent this the meat is cured with 3-4% salt and 0.1 g sodium nitrite.



Cleaning Fish

Cleaning fish can be intimidating to many newcomers. There are different fish, and although they may follow the basic anatomical structure, nevertheless there are differences. Flounder, perch, trout, eel, mullet, all of these are fish, yet they are gutted differently. Cleaning fish does not conform to rigid rules as applied to chicken, pork or beef. Those animals may come in different colors, however the skeleton and organ placement remains the same for each animal, regardless of its origin. Preparing seafood products can be confusing, take for example mollusks which belong to seashell family. You have clams and mussels, oysters, shrimp, lobster, squid; they all look differently and are prepared accordingly.

The methods of cleaning a fish are as varied as the individual fisherman. The gills and guts of a fish should be removed a soon as possible since they contain the highest concentration of bacteria that cause spoilage. How the fish is processed depends on the planned method of cooking and the size of the fish. Whole fish is certainly easier to clean, hang and smoke, however, it is less appetizing to the eater. There are people who don’t eat fish not because of the flavor, but because they hate playing with fish bones. Well, for them nothing will work, but the fillet. So, to a large extent, the choice of the cleaning method is dictated by by the amount of work you are willing to dedicate to the project. It makes little sense to fillet a small fish as there would not be much left to eat and the fish would be wasted. Small fish should be left whole or split in “butterfly” version which is typical of mullet. Bigger, especially thicker fish like cod, red drum, halibut, sheepshead, king mackerel or jack can be filleted. Very large fish, for example swordfish or tuna are usually cut across into steaks.

Adam Marianski with big jack.

Adam Marianski with big jack.

Very large fish like tuna or the jack above, are usually cut into steaks.

Very large fish like tuna or the jack above, are usually cut into steaks.

Small jacks are thick enough for filleting.

Small jacks are thick enough for filleting.

Filleted jack.

Filleted jack.

Whole fish should first be washed to remove slime, loose scales and traces of blood. Then they are beheaded (if required) and gutted. Washing removes slime, traces of blood and small particles that would otherwise cling to the fish. The belly cavity should be cleaned, some fish contain black belly wall lining which should be removed. The gills, entrails and all traces of blood are removed, especially the bloody kidney line along the back of the fish. The fish should be washed again before brining them. If fillets are cut, they should be trimmed and be reasonably free from blemishes. When filleting fat fish, it is recommended to leave the skin on as a significant amount of fat is deposited between the skin and the flesh. In lean fish, for example cod, the skin can be be removed. Previously frozen fish can be thawed in a refrigerator or under cold running water.

The following procedures and photos describe how to prepare Florida mullet for smoking, however, they can be applied to other fish as well. Mullet is not a huge fish, averaging about one foot in length and just over one pound in weight. You can occasionally catch bigger individuals, up to 24 inches long and weighing 2-3 pounds. Those are better suited for filleting. Mullet is a semi-fat fish and tasted great when smoked. The fish has a strong skin and quite large scales, which can be removed or not. Large fish can be filleted. The tender flesh tends to fall apart when the skin is removed so leave the skin on when smoking. The fish has an oily layer between the skin and its flesh and this oil makes mullet tender and juicy.

Dressing Mullet “Butterfly” Style

Mullet is usually split open “butterflied” or gutted and left whole. In both cases the head is cut off and the entrails are removed. Scaling is messy but you can place the fish inside of a trash bag and scrape off the scales. They will fly left and right so the best idea is to do it outside. Any dull knife, spoon or proper fish scaler will do the job, just make sure that the scales are wet. Wet scales come off much easier than dry ones.

Cutting the head off.

Cutting the head off.

A larger mullet has a stronger backbone and sometimes the knife will not cut through it. You can easily break the fish in two.

A larger mullet has a stronger backbone and sometimes the knife will not cut through it. You can easily break the fish in two.

Gently squeeze the body of the fish and all entrails can be removed with your fingers. It is much easier than it looks.

Gently squeeze the body of the fish and all entrails can be removed with your fingers. It is much easier than it looks.

There are no entrails left, the black stomach lining can easily be brushed away.

There are no entrails left, the black stomach lining can easily be brushed away.

You may keep edible parts such as gizzard or roe. Mullet and shad are the only fish that have gizzards. These can be fried up just like chicken gizzards.  With a little hot sauce they’re wonderful.

You may keep edible parts such as gizzard or roe. Mullet and shad are the only fish that have gizzards. These can be fried up just like chicken gizzards. With a little hot sauce they’re wonderful.

Scrape scales with knife, scaler tool or a spoon from the tail towards the front. Scaling can be done at any time, before the fish is gutted or after. It is easier to remove scales when they are wet.

Scrape scales with knife, scaler tool or a spoon from the tail towards the front. Scaling can be done at any time, before the fish is gutted or after. It is easier to remove scales when they are wet.

Make the incision from the back towards the belly over the backbone. Don’t cut through the belly.

Make the incision from the back towards the belly over the backbone. Don’t cut through the belly.

The back is split but the belly remains intact.

The back is split but the belly remains intact.

Continue cutting through the rib cage towards the vent. The belly is not cut. Come out with the knife through the vent, cutting towards the tail and cutting above the backbone.

Continue cutting through the rib cage towards the vent. The belly is not cut. Come out with the knife through the vent, cutting towards the tail and cutting above the backbone.

Continue cutting to the tail.

Continue cutting to the tail.

Split mullet “butterfly” style. The belly is intact.

Split mullet “butterfly” style. The belly is intact.

The stomach lining is covered with black film which is easily brushed and hosed away.

The stomach lining is covered with black film which is easily brushed and hosed away.

The kidney line runs along the backbone and it must be removed. It is bitter and will promote the growth of bacteria. It can be scraped with a brush or even your finger, then rinsed away.

The kidney line runs along the backbone and it must be removed. It is bitter and will promote the growth of bacteria. It can be scraped with a brush or even your finger, then rinsed away.

Clean split mullet.

Clean split mullet.

Dressing Whole Mullet

Head is cut off and the entrails are removed.

Head is cut off and the entrails are removed.

The knife is inserted into the vent.

The knife is inserted into the vent.

The belly is cut towards the front.

The belly is cut towards the front.

Stomach liner.

Stomach liner.

Stomach liner and the kidney line are brushed away.

Stomach liner and the kidney line are brushed away.

The fish is rinsed.

The fish is rinsed.



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Gibbing and Bleeding Fish

The entrails can be removed without cutting fish. This procedure is often used for baking stuffed fish and is known as gibbing. By inserting a knife in the gill region the gills and guts can be removed with fingers.

The entrails will be removed through the gill opening.

The entrails will be removed through the gill opening.

Gills can be removed with fingers. Knife or scissors may be needed on a larger fish.

Gills can be removed with fingers. Knife or scissors may be needed on a larger fish.

Then all the guts can be pulled out.

Then all the guts can be pulled out.

A long and stiff toothbrush will scrape off the stomach lining and the red kidney line.

A long and stiff toothbrush will scrape off the stomach lining and the red kidney line.

Fully dressed mullet which was not cut at all. Such a fish can be stuffed, baked and served elegantly on a plate.

Fully dressed mullet which was not cut at all. Such a fish can be stuffed, baked and served elegantly on a plate.

Cutting the Chin Membrane

The fastest way to gut most fish is by cutting off the head and splitting the belly. However, for visual effects, we may want the head to be attached to the body. The gills and the entrails can be removed by cutting into the area under the chin that joins the bottom of the two gill openings. Then cut the belly cavity without cutting the intestinal tract. Now, the gills and entrails can be pulled out. Trout which is sold in supermarkets is prepared that way. This can be further simplified by splitting the belly from the vent forward. Many fish can be prepared this way, although some rock fish have such hard jaws that the method becomes impractical.

This trout has been gutted by cutting the chin and removing gills and entrails through its mouth.

This trout has been gutted by cutting the chin and removing gills and entrails through its mouth.

This is the same fish presented in the figure above.

This is the same fish presented in the figure above.

The uncut fish.

The uncut fish.

This is the same fish presented in the figure above.

This is the same fish presented in the figure above.

Cutting the membrane.

Cutting the membrane.

After the chin membrane has been cut, the gills with attached entrails are removed.

After the chin membrane has been cut, the gills with attached entrails are removed.

The body cavity is washed and all traces of blood are removed.

The body cavity is washed and all traces of blood are removed.

Bleeding Fish

Bled mullet

Bled mullet.

Bleeding fish is a phrase used to describe the removal of blood from fish. It should be performed as soon as possible when the fish are caught. Bleeding fish is performed to preserve the quality and appearance of the meat. Mullet are bled by snapping the head of the body then sticking the index finger and middle fingers in their gills and ripping them out. The blood immediately starts to squirt out for about 10 seconds. There are a few main advantages to bleeding mullet: it results in whiter meat when filleted, there is a less fishy flavor present, and the bacteria spoilage is slowed down.

Some fish have little scales, in others the number will vary, for example European King Carp have a few scales on top, but wild carp is fully covered with them. Scales can be removed with a scale removing scraper or back of the knife going from the tail toward the head. The scales will fly everywhere so the operation is best performed outside or by placing the fish in a large plastic bag.




Filleting Fish

The main part of the flesh of a fish constitute the body muscles, two dorsal and two ventral muscles on each side separated from one another by strong connective tissue along the lateral line.

The main muscle of the fish.

The main muscle of the fish.

Remember that the ventral muscle is covering the rib cage in the front of the fish and is much thinner there. It becomes thicker again as it passes the vent towards the tail. Some sources recommend removing scales, others ask to leave them on. Scales act as a tough barrier and removing scales provides the following benefits:

  • Faster salt penetration during brining.
  • Faster smoke penetration.
  • The product develops better gloss and looks more appealing.

Use only meaty fish for filleting. Supermarkets sell frozen fish fillets but they are often packaged in a way that prevents seeing the contents. The bag that weighs one pound may contain many thin fillets. Keep in mind that a fillet will loose a lot of moisture during smoking and cooking. A thin fillet will become so thin after smoking that it may be difficult to handle.

The flounder fillet is much thinner than that of the tuna or salmon.

The flounder fillet is much thinner than that of the tuna or salmon.

You can leave the skin on fat fish like mullet, salmon, mackerel, trout, eel or bluefish. Fat fish have substantial amount of fat under their skins and this skin can be easily peeled of after smoking. The skin of lean fish such as cod, whiting, flounder, tilapia will adhere to the flesh very tightly after smoking and will be hard to remove. Make sure that the screen is oiled to prevent fillets from sticking. A lighter-flavored fillet can be produced by deep skinning the fish and discarding the underside layer of the skin. The disadvantage is that even a skilled operator must throw away a lot of usable meat that is located around the backbone.

Sheepshead also known as the “convict” fish is often caught along with mullet. The filleting procedure for both fish is the same, however, sheepshead fillets are thicker.

Sheepshead

Sheepshead

A cut is made around the gill cover. There is no need to cut off the head or gut the fish when filleting.

A cut is made around the gill cover. There is no need to cut off the head or gut the fish when filleting.

A cut is made on the top side of the fish as close to the backbone as possible. Make sure that the knife is sharp and take your time.

A cut is made on the top side of the fish as close to the backbone as possible. Make sure that the knife is sharp and take your time.

The knife separates flesh from the skin using a sawing motion. On the underside of the skin you can find a red and oily layer of flesh. This is where most of the fish flavor is present.

The knife separates flesh from the skin using a sawing motion. On the underside of the skin you can find a red and oily layer of flesh. This is where most of the fish flavor is present.

The hardest part is to cut over the rib cage. It is difficult to feel the rib cage when a fish is small.

The hardest part is to cut over the rib cage. It is difficult to feel the rib cage when a fish is small.

Sheepshead fillet.

Sheepshead fillet.

Filleted sheepshead.

Filleted 

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Curing Fish

Origins of Fish Curing

Fish salting was practiced for thousands of years. England and Norway derived a large portion of income by selling cured herring, cod and salmon to Southern European countries. Fish was traded for olive oil, wine and dry fruit; products which would not grow in cold climate. Discovery of America in 1492 by Christopher Columbus has given a way to trade. Spain was busy conquering islands and countries in South America, but England followed the shortest route and started to establish new settlements on Northern Atlantic coast, first in Newfoundland, then in New England.

The early colonists would not have been able to survive without protein rich food like salted cod or smoked herring as the climate was harsh and the soil was poor. But the fish was plentiful and cured fish became their main source of income. Salt cod and salmon, smoked herring and halibut, and pickled sturgeon were soon exported to Europe. The cold climate was perfect for transporting salt fish to Europe, according to records, in 1580 more than 300 ships from Europe were engaged in salting cod in this area. This trade in salt fish stimulated further trade and growth in other industries. There was plenty of timber and local manufacturing starting to flourish. This led to more trade and more shipping lines.

Curing fish was the main preservation method until Nicholas Appert invented the canning process in 1810. This was followed by discovery of electricity and from 1900 and on, canning and refrigeration became popular preservation methods. These methods were more economical and produced food of higher quality and less spoilage. Changing food habits have also contributed to decline in curing methods. European immigrants brought meat curing and smoking technology to America, but their children developed different food habits. Most foods today are prepared by either canning, drying or are kept under refrigeration. Keep in mind that every quality ham, sausage or smoked fish is always mild cured, regardless of whether it is produced in a factory or at home. Commercial producers may use specialized machines to make process faster, but a hobbyist can produce even better product at home. The curing process, however, remains the same as it has been practiced for centuries.

England was always known and respected for the quality of their smoked fish. Torry Research Station, a division of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, designed the Torry Kiln (a mechanical fish smoking kiln) in 1939, which has been widely adopted by the fish smoking industry. They have also printed “Fish Smoking”-A Torry Kiln Operator’s Handbook, an excellent manual about smoking fish. Detailed instructions were given for the preparation of the typical smoke-cured products. In all the examples 80 degree brine was used and this brine strength has become very popular.

Curing Fish

Prior to smoking, fish are either dry salted or brined. They may be lightly or heavily brined depending upon the type of product to be prepared. Lightly salted fish should be smoked immediately since the brining merely imparts a desirable flavor and firms the flesh. The salt content of the flesh of hot smoked fish should be about 1.8-2%, which corresponds to salt content in most smoked sausages. Heavy brining is used in the mild curing of salmon and for preserving fish until smoking can be applied. Such a fish must be soaked prior to smoking to remove most of the salt.

Curing by Salting Alone

Man was able to catch large number of fish, regardless of their size, the problem was how to preserve the catch. Salting fish was one of the first preservation methods, however, the fish had to be desalted for a few days before cooking started. Salting and drying fish is practiced today only in remote areas without access to electricity. Light salting and brines are used for fish that would be immediately smoked. After brining, the fish is briefly rinsed and submitted to drying. The salt concentration is usually below 2%. Majority of hot smoked fish falls in this category. Heavy salting and brines are used to prepare fish for cold smoking or to preserve the fish until the smoking process can be applied. The salt concentration reaches 8-10%. Preserved fish is kept in closed barrels until processing time. Such heavily cured fish is soaked in cold water to bring the salt content down. Cold running water will be most effective, standing water will need a few changes. Then the fish can be cooked or cold smoked.

Brining (Wet Curing)

All fish for hot smoking are brined to give them flavour. The recommended brine strength for most products is 80°; a stronger brine reduces the brining time but has the disadvantage that, after the fish are dried, salt crystallizes on the surface of the skin in unattractive white patches. Salt is absorbed more uniformly by fish in brine weaker than 80°, but residence time is longer; an 80° brine is a practical compromise. After brining, whole fish are hung, for example on tenters or speats depending on the product, and arranged in a kiln so that either the backs or the bellies, not the sides, of the fish face the smoke flow. Fillets and small products like shellfish meats are laid on wire mesh trays.

Brining provides the following advantages:

  • Improves the flavor and looks of the fish.
  • Improves texture by making flesh much stronger which is important if the fish is hung.
  • Prevents growth of bacteria.
  • Develops skin gloss (best with 70-80º brine).
Gutted Atlantic mackerel

Gutted Atlantic mackerel

Brining Atlantic mackerel

Brining Atlantic mackerel

Brine Strength

There is no one universal brine that may be applied to all fish. The composition of the brine depends on the fish type, thickness of the fillet or the size of the fish and the fattiness of the fish. If the flesh is not very thick most of the salt enters within the first 3 or 4 minutes. Salt is absorbed more uniformly by weaker brines, but the brining time is longer. The advantage of a stronger brine is that it is more effective at inhibiting bacteria growth.

Typical brines:

ProductBrine strength in º Salinometer
Poultry21
Pork Loin30
Pork butts, hams40-50
Hot Smoked Fish70-80
Cold Smoked Fish80-90
The strength of seawater is 14º.

Making one gallon brine using cups of salt:

Salt (cups)Water (1 gallon)Brine strength in º Salinometer
1127
2145
3172
3.5180
4190

The recommended brine for most fish is 70-80 degrees, a brine stronger than 90° may leave salt crystal deposits on the skin of the fish, what will leave unattractive permanent white patches. Heavy brine can be used to preserve the fish until the smoking process can be applied. After a successful catch you may not have sufficient time to smoke all fish the same day. Clean and gut the fish, place them in a heavy brine - this will buy you time. Then a few days later, when you have time on the weekend, the fish can be desalted (soaked) and smoked. Fish can be heavily or lightly brined depending on the required product. A large fish and fat fish absorb salt slowly. Stronger brines require a shorter time of brining. Lightly salted fish can be smoked immediately since the brining was used merely to firm the flesh. Brine becomes weaker with use, however, this is of lesser importance in home production. Water on the surface of the fish dilutes the brine and the fish absorbs some salt. Commercial plant maintains the strength of the brine by adding more salt. As miniscule pieces of fish, gut, scales, blood start to contaminate the brine, the brine should be changed daily. Let’s make something absolutely clear - smoked fish needs salt. This can be accomplished by sprinkling fish with salt or immersing fish in salty brine. All other ingredients may influence the flavor of smoked fish, but only a little. Those ingredients may as well be added to the fish during a meal. In addition you can serve fish with one of many classic sauces, which will influence the flavor of the fish much more than adding pepper, sugar or lime to brine. Those ingredients will release their flavor better when brining times are longer, but you have to decrease the strength of the brine, or the fish will end up too salty.

One gallon of brine is sufficient for 4-5 pounds of fish. Other ingredients like sugar and spices should be added to the solution after the correct brine strength has been established. Fish pieces should be completely immersed in brine and covered with a weight plate. The temperature of the strong brine brine should not exceed 60° F (15.5° C). If the brining time exceeds 4 hours, the solution must be placed in a refrigerator (38° F) or ice should be added to the brine. Adding ice will change the strength of the brine so a better solution is to add re-usable ice packs. Keep in mind that brine loses its strength in time as salt penetrates the meat leaving behind a weaker solution. When brining times are long the solution’s strength should be periodically checked with a brine tester and readjusted accordingly.

Most professional literature and practices of commercial plants, Torry Kiln research papers included, choose 80º brine as the over all choice. A 70-80° brine can be employed for all the common types of fish. By placing fish in a strong brine we are perfoming an all out attack on the bacteria preventing them from growing. Salt penetrates the flesh of fish very rapidly and the brining times are relatively short. Fish brined in 90-100° brine will lose around 3% of its weight. We will obtain more uniform salt penetration if the brining times are longer, but that will require a 30-40 degree solution. In such a brine fish may be left overnight, but will pick up about 2-3% of water which needs to be evaporated during smoking making the process longer.

Making Brine

Brine tester

Brine tester.

There isn’t a universal brine and every book and recipe provides customized instructions. Many recipes call for mixing salt with water until the egg or potato start to float. We have tried that and the results were misleading. Does anybody think that a fish processing plant will test the brine with an egg or potato? First, it makes no sense at all to talk about curing time if we don’t specify the strength of a brine. We can mix ½ cup salt with one quart of water or we can add 5 cups salt into one gallon of water and it is obvious that curing times will be different though both brines will do the job. To prepare your own brine in a professional way you need two things:

1. Buy a brine tester. They are so cheap that there is no excuse for not having one. The salinometer consists of a float with a stem attached, marked in degrees. The instrument will float at its highest level in a saturated brine, and will read 100 degrees (26.4 % salt solution). This is known as a fully saturated brine at 60° F (15.8° C). Beyond this point no more salt can be dissolved in water, the salt will settle down on the bottom of the container. In weaker brines the stem will float at lower levels and the reading will be lower. With no salt present the reading will be 0. To make brine put some water one into a suitable container, add some salt, insert a brine tester and read the scale. Want a stronger solution: add more salt. Need a weaker brine: add more water, it is that simple.

Note Keep in mind that a salinometer’s scale measures the density of a solution containing salt and water. Once you add other ingredients they will alter the density of a solution effecting the salinometer reading, while the salinity of the brine will actually be the same.

Salt is added to water until the correct brine strength is obtained.

Salt is added to water until the correct brine strength is obtained.

Brine tester floating in brine.

Brine tester floating in brine.

Four gallons of brine that was prepared a day earlier. It is still partially frozen.

Four gallons of brine that was prepared a day earlier. It is still partially frozen.

When mixing ice with water, it is advisable to re-check brine strength with a tester.

When mixing ice with water, it is advisable to re-check brine strength with a tester.

The brine tables are tested at 60° F (15.8° C). For other brine temperatures, the observed salinometer readings must be converted before using them. Add one salinometer degree for each 10 degrees above 60° F and subtract one degree for each 10 degrees below 60° F.

2. Making Brine Using Tables - the fastest way for making brine.

1. Choose the strength of the brine.
2. Prepare one gallon of water.
3. Weigh the amount of needed salt as listed in the table.
4. Add salt to water, mix and wait to clarify.
Weighing salt and measuring one gallon of water.

Weighing salt and measuring one gallon of water.

Mixing salt with one gallon of water.

Mixing salt with one gallon of water.

Brine at 60° F (15.8° C)Salt (in pounds) to 1 US gal of water% salt by weight
100.222.64
200.465.28
300.717.91
400.9810.55
501.2613.19
601.5615.83
701.8818.47
802.2321.11
902.5923.75
1002.9826.39

Complete Brine Tables

To make 80° brine we need to add 2.23 pounds of salt to 1 gallon of water. If you need a smaller quantity of 80° brine, add 1.1 lb salt to half-gallon of water. The procedure is simple, fast and accurate. The tables cover brine from 0 - 100° in one degree intervals. There are separate tables for UK gallons (4.54 liter) which can be obtained on the internet.

It does not matter whether US or UK tables are used, as the salt to water ratios remain the same, for example:

 US gallon (3.8 liter)UK Imperial gallon (4.54 liter)
Salt per gallon2.22 lb2.67 lb
% salt by weight21%21%
Brine Strength80°80°

Because UK gallon is bigger, more salt is added, but the percent of salt by weight is the same in UK or US brine of equivalent strength.

Making Small Amounts of Brine

Brine StrengthSalt (in grams) added to 1 quart of waterSalt (in grams) added to 1 liter of water% salt by weight
10111.0
10°24262.6
20°50555.2
30°79 (1/4 cup)868.0
40°10511810.5
50°145 (1/2 cup)15113.2
60°17818815.8
70°214 (3/4 cup)22618.4
80°24826721.0
90°294 (1 cup)31123.7
100°33935826.3
1 liter of water = 1000 g, 1 qt of water = 946 g, 1 cup salt = 292 g
1 Tablespoon salt = 18 g, 1 teaspoon salt = 6 g, 1 oz = 28.35 g 
1 Tbsp = 3 tsp. 1 US gallon = 3.8 liters = 3.8 kilograms = 8.33 lbs.
Seawater contains approximately 3.695 % salt which corresponds to 14 degrees salometer (°SAL).

Keep in mind that the volume of the brine that was made by combining one gallon of water with 2.2 lbs salt (80º brine) will be larger than one gallon, so use the appropriate container. The main advantage of making your own brine is that you have the total control and there is no guessing involved.

Baumé Scale

You may come across a popular European Baumé degrees brine scale that is based on the specific gravity of the brine measured with a hydrometer. One can measure?the gravity of the brine with a specially designed float (like a brine tester) and one can refer to the table and look up the % NaCl (salt) by weight. One Baumé degree corresponds to 10 g of salt in 1 liter of water. The table below compares SAL brine strength degrees with Baumé scale.

Specific Gravity% Salt by WeightBaumé DegreesUS Salometer Degrees (º SAL)
1.00711.04
1.01422.08
1.02233.112
1.02944.115
1.03755.219
1.04466.125
1.05177.027
1.05887.930
1.06698.934
1.073109.837
1.0811110.941
1.0891211.946
1.0961312.750
1.1041413.754
1.1121514.657
1.1191615.461
1.1271716.365
1.1351817.269
1.1431918.172
1.1512019.076
1.1592119.980
1.1682220.984
1.1762321.788
1.1842422.592
1.1922523.495
1.2012624.399
Eighty degrees brine.

Eighty degrees brine.

  • Left - Baume hygrometer (20º Be)
  • Right - Salinometer (80º SAL).
  • The readings confirm data in the table.

Speed of Curing

The speed of curing depends whether we process whole fish, whole gutted fish, fish steaks or fillets. Fillets with the skin on will cure slower because the skin acts as a barrier that inhibits any flow of solution, moisture or even smoke. The skin with scales will cure even slower. At higher temperatures the curing develops faster. Fish will cure faster when it receives more salt, whether by dry salting or by being immersed in a heavy brine. Fat fish cures slower than the lean ones, reason being that fat inhibits diffusion of salt. Salt dissolves easily in water but not in fat. Lean flesh contains around 80% of water, but fat contains only 10-15% of water. Generally speaking, the brining time depends on the size of the fish and the salt concentration of the brine.

Salt penetrates fish easier in places that are open or cut than through the skin. It is hard to derive time for fish fillets, fish with the skin on, and little fish or pieces of fish. The fish fillet will be oversalted if immersed for the same time in the same brine as a large fish. When brining fish of different sizes it is advisable to use separate containers and classify fish according to its species and size. When using a single container, place small pieces on top so they can be removed earlier. Salt penetrates the flesh of the fish within minutes and brining times are much shorter than those for red meats.

"Rule of thumb" brining times for whole fish
Brine strengthBrining time
30º10-12 hours
50º3-4 hours
80º1-2 hours
Brining times (80º brine) for cold smoking:
½” fillets - ½ hr
1” fillets - 1 hr
1½” fillets - 2 hrs
Brining times (80º brine) for hot smoking:
½” fillets - 15 min
1” fillets - 30 min
1½” fillets - 1 hr
Small whole fish - 1-3 hours

A medium size herring (fat fish) should remain in 80 degrees brine for about 4 hours. Herring fillets need to be submerged in the same brine for only 20-30 minutes. For short times the heavy brine can be kept below 60 F (15.8 C). For longer times, the brine should be kept in a cooler. Fat fish such as salmon, mackerel or herring, should not be exposed to the air when cured, otherwise they may develop brownish spots on the exposed areas and rancidity develops. This is known as “rusting.” Keep the fish fully covered with salt or submerged in brine. Commercial producers test brine for microbiological spoilage and can reuse it again, however, in home applications the brine should be changed daily. Brining and smoking fish is a lot of trial and error and record keeping. Notes should be made for future reference.

A typical 80 degrees brine:

1 gallon water
2.25 lbs salt (4 cups)
1 lb brown sugar
2 Tbs Cure #1
1/3 cup lemon juice
1 Tbs garlic powder
1 Tbs onion powder
1 Tbs allspice powder
1 Tbs white pepper
Add ice to brine when weather gets hot.

Add ice to brine when weather gets hot.

Perch, small farm raised trout and 3/8” bluefish fillets were brined for 5 minutes only and turned out perfect after smoking.

Perch, small farm raised trout and 3/8” bluefish fillets were brined for 5 minutes only and turned out perfect after smoking.

What’s Better Dry Salt or Brine?

It is harder to get consistent results with dry salting as the fish come in different size, weight and shape. The brine, however, will find a way to enter every little opening. Brined fish will acquire salt and flavorings in all areas. If you catch one or two fish, sprinkling with salt may be more practical. It is faster to sprinkle fish with a dry mix and start smoking. It is a question of economics as less space and equipment is required. The processing time is shorter as fish does not need to be dried before the smoke is applied. In addition much salt will be wasted when brine is discarded. There is less salt wasted when sprinkling fish with dry mix. However, if you process 50 fish, then it becomes a little commercial venture and brining is a better solution. A correct strength brine can be made a day earlier and may be kept in the refrigerator until needed. The advantage of using brine is that once the strength of the brine has been chosen, the product will always be consistent as long as the process time takes into account the size of the fish. Fat fish should be fully submerged as air contributes to the rancidity.

Smaller establishments such as a fish restaurants or take out stores are very busy and don’t have enough storage space to keep fish in tanks. An additional employee might be needed to cope with those additional chores. Brining requires time, the brined fish is wet; it needs to drain and dry out before the smoke can be applied. To save space and time they cure fish with dry mix.

Dry Mixes

Fat fish is often cured with a mixture of salt, sugar and spices. First, the salt is mixed with herbs, spices and flavorings of choice, then the mixture is rubbed gently into the fish. Into the belly, and more on the skin which should be devoid of scales.

General formula for creating your own mix:

Salt, 10-14 g
Sugar, 3-6 g
1.5 g spice mix (pepper, hot pepper, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, mace, bay leaf, mint, hops, etc).
The spices should be finely ground. Crush hops and bay leaves.

Some dry mix combinations:

Ingredients in grams
Dry MixMix 1Mix 2Mix 3
Salt705075
Sugar151020
Allspice2.552.5
Black pepper1.052.5
Red pepper1.50.80.5
Cloves0.80.81.5
Ginger0.8-1.0
Coriander0.5--
Nutmeg0.50.8-
Mace0.2--
Cinnamon--0.5
Hops, crushed--1.0
Bay leaf, crushed--1.0

The fish is laid down in a container:

  • Small fish, less than a pound - 4 hours
  • Large fish - 8 hours or overnight

There are many ready to apply dry mixes that can be used for general cooking or smoking fish. Creole Seasoning is an excellent dry mix for smoking mullet made by Zatarain’s, New Orleans, LA.

Applying Dry Mix

Mix salt with spices of your choice. Rub the mixture all around, inside of the belly included; apply more force and mixture into the skin as the skin slows down salt penetration. The rate of salt penetration is 20% faster in dry-salted fish than in brine. The skin creates obstacles to salt penetration, so this is why the fish skin (not the flesh) is often scorched with a knife. Fillets are very delicate so just sprinkle dry mix on top. Lay the fish flat in a container and place in refrigerator. Rinse the fish briefly with tap water and proceed to smoking.

Note: dry salting fillets will result in drawing out the mixture of water, blood and proteins to the surface. If the split fish or a fillets are lying flat on screens, little liquid paddles will form which will become white curd during smoking and cooking. This is a smaller problem in fish that are secured by hanging as this protein solution will drip down.

Small fish
3/4-1 lb, 3 hours salting time
Fillets
1/2" fillets - 10 min
1" fillets - 25 min
1-1/2" fillets - 45 min

More About Salt

For brining purposes both table salt and kosher salt will work equally well in terms of providing the desired effects, though kosher salt, particularly Diamond® Crystal kosher salt dissolves more readily. What is important to remember is that kosher salts are less dense than ordinary table salts and measure quite differently from a volume standpoint. Kosher salt has larger crystals and is bulkier. For example a given weight of Diamond® Crystal takes up nearly twice the volume as the same weight of table salt. Non-iodized salt should be used, canning rock salt is a good choice.

Table Salt1 cup292 g (10.3 oz)
Morton® Kosher Salt1-1/3 to 1-1/2 cup218 g (7.7 oz)
Diamond® Crystal Kosher Salt2 cups142 g (5 oz)

As you can see it is always advisable to weigh out your salt.

Adding Spices to Brine

For an extra flavor, spices can be added, however add them to weak brines only. Strong brines, 70-90º, do not leave enough time for the spices to bring any significant effect. About 1 tablespoon of herbs (spices) spices can be added to one gallon of brine. Use ingredients that you like most, after all you will eat the fish. Some of the popular seasonings: pepper, parsley, dill, capers, mustard seeds, rosemary, juniper, onion, cilantro, bay leaf, celery leaves, sugar, vinegar, lemon juice. You can try commercially produced seasonings which are sold in stores. After brining, briefly wash fish to eliminate excess salt and any traces of blood. Drain the fish, place them on screens or hang them and let dry. Then proceed to smoking.

Brine Marinades

Sugar, herbs and spices may be added to brine to produce original flavor. To saturate fish with customized flavors, the fish has to remain in brine for longer period of time, preferably overnight. Heavy brine such as 80º is not suitable as the fish will be over salted. A very lightly salted brine is needed which may as well be called the brine marinade. Keep in mind that such a weak solution cannot be used in fish that will be cold smoked.

Four degrees brine is a good all around salt solution that needs only herbs and flavorings to become the marinade.
4° brine- add 10 g (1-1/2 tsp) salt to 1 quart of water.
About one tablespoon of flavor inducing ingredients are added to two gallons of 4º brine.
Popular ingredients are: dill, parsley, sage, thyme, capers, basil, rosemary, juniper berries, mustard seeds, garlic, ginger, onion, peppers, sugar, lemon juice, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce and vinegar.

The marinade should have the dominant flavor; this would be the herb or spice that you like most. Such an herb can be inserted into the fish the moment the fish has been gutted and washed in order to imparts its flavor to the fish. Then, the fish should be fully immersed in marinade overnight. The fish will not be over salted since below 50° F (10° C) the rate of salt uptake is reduced.

Brining/Marinating Fish

If you decide to use a strong brine, the whole process of smoking fish can be accomplished in 3-4 hours. You can, however, place fish in a weak brine, leave them overnight (10-12 hours) in refrigerator and start smoking the next day. Chicken is marinated the same way although fish brine is weaker. It is recommended to start with with a weak brine and keep notes for reference. There is not much we can do to over salted fish.

Curing/marinating times for small fish and fillets

FishBrineTime
Small fish10-12 hrs
Small fish10º2 hours
Fillets, 1/2 - 1"10º30-45 min

Brine temperature should be kept about 10° C; below this temperature the rate of salt uptake is reduced. You can speed up the process even further by using 80-90º commercial strength brine.



Conditioning Fish

Draining fish.

Draining fish.

The characteristic flavor of the fish is mainly due to salt and smoke, but the texture and color of its flesh is greatly influenced by drying. Weaker brines or not salting fish at all leaves smoked fish with a rather dull appearance. After brining the fish are carefully rinsed under cold running water to remove salt crystals and any traces of spices from the surface. Letting them to drain for 10-15 minutes will shorten drying.

Before smoke is applied the surface of the fish must be dry or feel at least “tacky” to touch for the proper development of color. Wet surface may attract smoke, but it will also attract undesirable elements of smoke such as soot and other not fully burnt particles. This will darken the surface and create less attractive color.

There are two types of drying:

Low temperature drying. The purpose is to remove moisture from the surface of the fish. The cleaned fish are placed in a draughty area (fan works well) until they feel dry to touch. The fish can be dried in a smokehouse at 85-100º F (30-38º C). The purpose of this type of drying is to prepare fish for hot smoking and to develop skin gloss. Little fish and fillets will be processed this way. The smoke can be applied when the fish feel dry or tacky to touch.

High temperature drying. The purpose is to firm up the fish and harden the skin, so its head will not break away from the body during smoking. This is important when large whole fish are hung during smoking. The fish may start drying at 100º F (38º C), but the temperature increases gradually to 158º F (70º C). The smoke may be applied at this stage.

Fish may be patted dry with a paper towel, then left briefly to dry.

Fish may be patted dry with a paper towel, then left briefly to dry. If insects are present, the fish should be dried out in a pre-heated snokehouse.

Wet fish are drying until they feel dry or at least tacky to touch. No smoke is applied yet.

Wet fish are drying until they feel dry or at least tacky to touch. No smoke is applied yet.

Ideally, drying should be performed without smoke. This is easy to accomplish when the smokehouse runs on electricity or gas. When wood is the heating medium, the logs should be pre-burned first and then added to the fire pit. A thin smoke is acceptable.

Drying can be performed at 100º F (43º C) or higher. The smokehouse should be preheated first. Russian and Polish commercial producers dry fish at 140-158º F (60-70º C). Drying at these temperatures starts destroying bacteria. Make note that drying at those temperatures will cook surface proteins and cannot be applied to cold smoking method. Drying toughens the fish so there is less possibility it will break at the head. The fish will continue to dry when hot smoke is applied. Keep in mind, the drying of the fish will be impaired if performed at 75% humidity or higher. All dampers should be open to to create the maximum draft (flow of air) and to facilitate removal of moisture.

Pellicle

Most smoked products are not eaten immediately after cooking, but later. They must look presentable and appealing to a customer. Smoked fish should have a glossy appearance, it should shine. This shine known as “pellicle” is due to the reaction between salt and fish proteins. Salt “swells” the proteins and they unwind and release some of their contents. Some of those proteins dissolve in salt and become a sticky substance (exudate) that travels to the surface of the fish. After drying this sticky substance becomes a shiny protein coat known as “pellicle” that may be compared to shoe polish. After smoking this clear pellicle becomes a shiny lacquer on the surface of the fish. The longer the brined fish are allowed to hang, within reason, the better the gloss that develops. The best gloss develops with 70-80 degree brine. To develop pellicle one hour is probably the minimum, but for a large fish 12 hours or more is not uncommon. Previously frozen fish produces very little pellicle. If dry salt is applied with pepper and other spices, this gloss will be less noticeable as the spices will remain on the surface.

Atlantic mackerel waiting for the smokehouse.

Atlantic mackerel waiting for the smokehouse.

The fish in lower right corner was sprinkled with dry mix. It has none of the shine of the fish that was salted or brined with salt alone.

The fish in lower right corner was sprinkled with dry mix. It has none of the shine of the fish that was salted or brined with salt alone.

Well developed pellicle in Spanish mackerel fillet.

Well developed pellicle in Spanish mackerel fillet.

Pellicle in smoked fish. The unsmoked fish will have a greyish shine and the smoked fish will exhibit a golden gloss.

Pellicle in smoked fish. The unsmoked fish will have a greyish shine and the smoked fish will exhibit a golden gloss.

Drying Atlantic mackerel before smoking.

Drying Atlantic mackerel before smoking.

Smoked Atlantic mackerel.

Smoked Atlantic mackerel.

The flesh of fish is delicate by nature and they have to be handled gently when hanging them. When hanging fillets it is advisable to leave the skin on otherwise the fillets may break apart.

Hanging fillets.

Hanging fillets.

Reinforcing fish with butcher twine.

Reinforcing fish with butcher twine.

Hanging small fish.

Hanging small fish.

Hanging large fish.

Hanging large fish.

Smoking over camp fire.

Smoking over camp fire.

The main difficulty has been that when the split fish such as kippers (split herring) or butterflied mullet are left to drip on trays, a small pool of brine remains in the belly cavity of the fish; this leaves either a wet patch on the fish after smoking or, if the pool dries up, a white curd substance which spoils the appearance of the product. It is possible, however, to overcome this problem by draining the split fish at the angle or by placing them flesh side down.

Specialty Hooks

The beheaded or split belly open fish may be hung with a twine loop or by using a specialty hook. Such a hook may be made from stainless steel wire or wire hanger. This arrangement will prevent fat from dripping down.

A fish hanging hook.

A fish hanging hook.

The hook can be used on a headed or beheaded fish.

The hook can be used on a headed or beheaded fish.

The hook goes behind the spine.

The hook goes behind the spine.

Secured fish.

Secured fish.

A stick and twine.

A stick and twine.

Stainless steel clip.

Stainless steel clip.

Hardening the Fish

A piece of wooden skewer or even toothpick will keep the belly from closing during smoking.

A piece of wooden skewer
or even toothpick will keep
the belly from closing during
smoking.

Whole heavy fish breaks free sometimes at the head when being smoked. This is often attributed to the high temperature of smoking, however, the high humidity is the factor that compounds the problem. When the fish is inserted on a smokestick through the eyes, a support is created in which the head holds the body. However, there are very few muscles inside the head, just a small amount of connective tissue. The skin contains plenty of connective tissue which like head contains collagen. This tissue will harden in time and become stronger, but the drying significantly slows down at high humidity. As a result, the heat builds up inside the head and the connective tissue softens and melts into gel. The head collapses. This usually occurs only when the humidity is very high and at the beginning of drying or smoking. The solution is to dry the fish at low temperatures (35-40º C) when the humidity is 80-100%. When humidity is at 50-60%, the drying can proceed at 60-70º C. Generally speaking, to increase the the mechanical strength of fish, the temperatures during drying and smoking should be increased gradually. The fish will hold its shape better, the flesh will have a firmer texture and the skin will not separate from the flesh.

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Smoking Fish

Smoking fish.

Salting and smoking fish was practiced for centuries. Man discovered that smoking was a very effective tool in preserving fish. Heavy salting and long periods of cold smoking preserved fish well enough so they could be kept for months without spoiling. Since Middle Ages until 1900’s fish were heavily cured with salt and cold smoked for 3 weeks or more. With the development of railways (1840), it became possible to distribute fresh fish to wider areas and the fishing industry started to grow rapidly. Due to the availability of fresh fish, the taste for heavily salted, smoked and dried fish has declined, and people came to prefer less salty foods. Fish are hot smoked today for a pleasant taste what is achieved with less salt and shorter smoking times. Refrigeration takes care of preserving foods.

Beside enhancing the taste and look, smoking increases the product’s shelf life. It helps preserve the meat by slowing down the spoilage of fat and growth of bacteria. The advantages of smoking fish are numerous:

  • Slows down the growth of bacteria.
  • Prevents fats from developing a rancid taste.
  • Extends the shelf life of the product.
  • Develops a new taste and flavor.
  • Changes the color, smoked products shine and look better.

The main reason to smoke fish at home today is to produce a product that cannot be obtained in a typical store. One can order traditionally made products on the Internet but they will be very expensive.

What is Smoking ?

Smoking meat is exactly what the name implies: flavoring meat with smoke. Using any kind of improvised device will do the job as long as smoke contacts the meat surface. The strength of the flavor depends mainly on the time and density of the smoke. Smoke is a mixture of air and gases created during wood combustion. What we see is a stream of gases such as nitrogen, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, water vapor, and sulphur dioxide that carry unburned particles such as tar, resins, soot and air borne ash. The actual composition of the smoke depends on the type of wood, its moisture content, combustion temperature, and the amount of available air. It is estimated that smoke consists of about 10,000 individual components and a few hundred of these are responsible for the development of a smoky flavor.

The air draft, which might be considered the smokehouse sucking power, sucks in the outside air and combustion gases that in turn attract solid unburned particles such as soot, ash and others. This stream rushes inside of the smoking chamber where it collides with hanging meats and with the walls of the chamber. A stronger air draft and higher temperature increase the energy of the smoke which results in more intense smoking. The amount of moisture on the surface of a product plays a role in color formation and the color develops faster when the surface is wetter. This also results in a much darker color as particles such as tar and soot easily stick to the surface.

Smoking meat consists of the following steps:

  • Curing with salt.
  • Applying smoke.
  • Cooking.

Meat can be smoked yet still be raw inside. It must be cooked to proper temperature before it is ready to consume. This cooking process may be accomplished in a smokehouse or in an oven. Some products are smoked at low temperatures and never cooked. The safety of these products is obtained by heavy salting and removal of moisture. Such products are cold smoked.

There are two methods of smoking:

1. Cold smoking, at temperatures below 85° F (30° C).
2. Hot smoking, at temperatures from 140-284° F (60-140° C).

Many people assume that each method uses rigidly implemented range of temperatures and processing times, but this is not true, especially for the hot smoking method.

Smoking Methods:ColdHot
Time requireddays, weekshours
Temperaturebelow 85° F (30° C)120-220° F (50-104° C)
Saltyes, a large amountlittle, just for flavor
Method of preserving (killing bacteria)salt plus drying to remove moisturehigh temperature to kill bacteria
Product shelf lifelongshort
Texturefirmsoft
Tastegoodvery good
Curingprolonged heavy saltingof little significance
Cookingnoneyes
Smoke penetrationin all areas of meatsurface areas only

After smoking the fish will weigh less due to the loss of moisture. The yield of the hot smoked fish is about 70-75% in relation to the weight of the fish before drying. The yield of the cold smoked fish is about 55-60% in relation to the weight of the fish before drying. The majority of fish is hot smoked today as preserving them is accomplished in a refrigerator. Canning takes care of fish products that need to be stored for a long time without refrigeration.

Cold Smoking Fish

Cold smoking is an old technique that was practiced not because it produced great flavor, but because it helped to preserve meats. There was no refrigeration, but meats had to be preserved. Cold smoking is drying meat with smoke. Its purpose is elimination of moisture so that bacteria would not grow. This technique developed in North European countries where the climate was harsh and winters severe. When meats were cold smoked for 2-3 weeks, yes, the meat became preserved due to the loss of moisture, but it was drying that made the meat safe. If the same meat was dried at 54° F (12° C) without smoke, it would be preserved all the same. Fish is smoked below 80° F (26° C) from 1-5 days. Temperatures above 80° F (26° C) will cook the fish. Cold smoked fish is considered raw meat as it is never exposed to high temperatures. That is why it has to be heavily salted or brined at 16% salt (65 degrees brine or higher) to provide safety to the consumer. The best range of humidity for cold smoking at 80-85° F is 60-70%.

There is no cooking. The longer the smoking period the more moisture is removed, the drier the product becomes, and of course it develops a longer shelf life. This method of smoking can last up to a few weeks and the fish will have excellent keeping qualities. After prolonged cold smoking the fish has lost enough moisture to be considered safe without cooking. Fish that were cold smoked hold well together and can be very finely sliced which cannot be done if the fish were hot smoked. Traditionally made cold smoked products contained up to 15% salt and were smoked and dried for a long time.

Cold smoking is not a continuous process, it is stopped (no smoke) a few times to allow fresh air into the smoker. Because of the time and costs involved the cold smoking is rarely used today. In addition, cold smoked products are heavily salted which makes them less appealing to a health conscious consumer of today. The majority of hobbyists think of cold smoking as some mysterious preservation technique that will produce a unique and superb quality product. Cold smoking is not a preservation method, it will not preserve meat unless proper conditions are established for the meat to dry.

Cold smoking at its best. Waldemar Kozik is making meat products of the highest quality at the Catskill Mountains of New York.

The pigs were traditionally slaughtered for Christmas and the meat had to last until the summer. Noble cuts were cooked or salted, the trimmings were used for sausages. They needed to be dried to last through the winter. That was not easy with freezing temperatures outside. The only way to heat up storage facilities was to burn the wood that produced the smoke. There were two choices for protecting meats from the heat:

  • Hanging meats 5 feet above a small smoldering fire OR
  • Burning wood in a firebox that was located outside.

The firebox was connected with the smokehouse by an underground channel that would supply heat and smoke at the same time. A large smokehouse was also a storage facility; after meat was smoked, it was hung in a different area where it continued to receive some smoke, although on a much smaller scale. This prevented molds from growing, as molds need oxygen to live.

American style colonial smokehouse.

American style colonial smokehouse.

Lithuanian smokehouse with an outside smoke generator.

Lithuanian smokehouse with an outside smoke generator.

It had been established that meats dried best when the temperatures were somewhere between 50-60° F (10-15° C) and although the temperature of the smoke leaving the firebox was higher, it would be just right by the time it made contact with meat. Whole logs of wood were burnt, wood shavings and sawdust were used to control the fire. The fire was allowed to die out as people went to sleep. The meats hung through the night and the fire was re-started again. So, when you see an old recipe saying that ham or sausage was smoked for 2 weeks, well, it really was not, as it probably received continuous smoke for about 1/2 of the time. Those meats were not cooked, they were dried and could be considered fermented products. There is little difference about Italian salami, Hungarian salami or Polish Cold Smoked Sausage.

Italian salami was dried without smoke and Hungarian salami or Polish sausage were dried with cold smoke. Italians and Spaniards were blessed with a climate that provided cool prevailing winds at right temperatures. There was no need to burn wood to warm up the drying chambers. As a result products did not acquire smoky flavor. For this reason people in Mediterranean basin are not particularly fond of smoked products, and people in Germany, Poland, Russia, Lithuania love them, but don’t generally like uncooked air dried products. The majority of all processed meat products in Northern Europe are of smoked variety.

All Polish, German, Russian or Lithuanian technology books about smoking agree that cold smoke should be applied below 72° F (22° C). Occasionally a book calls for 77° F (25° C). Old German books specify temperature of cold smoke as 64° F (18° C) or lower. Any recipe that calls for cold smoke higher than 85° F (30° C) makes little sense, as at this temperature proteins coagulate and the texture of the meat changes. The meat gets cooked. The surface area will harden preventing moisture removal and the product will rot inside. This hardened ring will also slow down smoke penetration.

To summarize, the purpose of cold smoking was to dry meats. The product was drying out and the smoke happened to be there. Preservation was on people’s mind and not creating cold smoked flavor.

Smokehouse for Cold Smoking

There is less expectation from a smoker which is dedicated for cold smoking only. A cold smoking unit has no need for high temperatures and that is why its design is so simple. The outside conditions are a deciding factor whether cold smoke can be produced. In many areas you cannot produce cold smoke in the summer, unless the steps are taken to cool it. You can produce cold smoke in tropical regions in winter months at night time, but keep in mind that the humidity will be high. Humidity meters are inexpensive so get one. Any enclosure such as carton box, drum barrel, wooden box is suitable as long as the flames will not make direct contact with fish. The traditional solution is to have a free standing fire pit which is connected to the smoking box by a pipe or underground channel.

Smokers that are capable of cold smoking are usually large units as the smoke generating section (firebox) must be located in a safe distance from the fish. It could be located at the bottom of the smoking chamber as long as one or more safety baffles are installed in between. If not, the dripping fat will start the fire. The best solution is to have a free standing firebox, but that makes the unit even bigger.

Early Commercial Fish Smokehouses

Meats and sausages were smoked by butchers in small smokehouses. Small smokehouses could hardly cope with the demand of the fishing industry. First industrial type smokehouses appeared in England and were specifically dedicated to smoking fish. As the electricity was not invented yet, the units were designed for cold smoking. Often entire buildings were converted into smokehouses, where the basement served as the smoke generator and the fish were placed on the first, 2nd or 3rd level.

As technology evolved, the brick and cinder block smokehouses were replaced with insulated stainless steel units. Electrical blowers and metal ducts were supplying smoke and the rotating dampers distributed heat precisely to all areas of the smokehouse. This second generation of smokehouses was called the batch oven type. In batch smokehouses, the meat is hung on smoke sticks or placed on stationary racks for the entire smoking process. Then came smokehouses where meat traveled through the various zones (smoking, heating, chilling) within the smokehouse. The product was packaged and stored or shipped.

Hot smoked products traditional in the UK probably originated in Germany and Holland, where mainly fatty fish were processed in small brick kilns capable of reaching a high temperature and retaining the heat; hardwood logs damped with wet sawdust gave a lot of heat and intense smoke. The heat and humidity gave a cooked product that had a golden brown color and a silky sheen on the skin.

Torry Kiln Smokehouse

Torry Kiln smokehouse.

Until 1939 most smokehouses were always built the same. They depended on a natural draft movement (air going up) to control the flow of heat and smoke without any means of humidity control. The majority of these smokehouses smoked meats for preservation purposes and the temperature was of little concern as long as the smoke was cold. Torry Kiln was the first design that employed an independent means of draft and temperature control. It was a mechanical kiln that used blowers to push smoke and electrical or steam heaters to generate heat. The Torry Kiln design allowed for precise control of smoking parameters such as air temperature, its speed, and humidity. As a result the finished product was always of a consistent high quality. The Torry Kiln design incorporated a motor-driven fan, electric heaters, temperature sensors, air-diffusers, and even a photo-electric eye for smoke density control.

More drawings and detailed description of Torry Kiln at: http://www.meatsandsausages.com/smokehouse-plans/smokehouse-torry-kiln

Torry Kiln Fish Smoking Times

Torry Kiln is a very efficient smokehouse where smoke parameters, humidity and air velocity are precisely controlled. For a simple home made smokehouse, smoking times should be increased.

Fish TypeSmoking time in hours, below 85º F (30º C)Soaking time 
in 80º brine
*Finnan haddocks <1 lb37 min
*Finnan haddocks
1-1-1/4 lb
410 min
*Finnan haddocks >
1-1-1/4 lb
615 min
*Glasgow pales2-2.54-5 min
Cod and haddock fillets2-54-10 min
*Golden cutlets2-34 min
**Kippers415 min
**Kipper fillets2.5-33-4 min
**Bloaters4dry salt, 8 hrs
Salmon fillet 1.5-2 lb12dry salt, 12 hrs
Salmon fillet 3-4 lb12dry salt, 16-20 hrs
Salmon fillet 5 lb12dry salt, 24 hrs
Cod roe6-8 hrs, 90-100º Fdry salt, 6-8 hrs
**Buckling1st hr, 80-90º F, 2nd hr, 110-120º F, 3rd hr, 160-170º F60 min
Smokies 0.5-0.75 lb1st hr, 80-90º F, 2nd hr, 110-120º F, 3rd hr, 160-170º F30-45 min
Trout2.5 hrs, 90-180º F60 min
Sprats115 min
*Seelachs fillets, thin30 mindry salt, 12 hrs
*Seelachs fillets, medium30 mindry salt, 16-20 hrs
*Seelachs fillets, thick45 mindry salt, 24 hrs
Smoked oysters30 min at 180º F5 min in 50º brine

* cod family, Seelachs include Saithe and Coaley.
** herring family

Hot Smoking Fish

During hot smoking the product is smoked and cooked at the same time making it ready to eat. For hot smoking the smokehouse temperature may vary from 120-284° F (50-140° C) or even higher. Those upper temperatures are nothing else than barbecuing fish. Hot smoking contributes to the safety of the product, however, this beneficial effect is confined to the surface of the fish. The safety is achieve by killing bacteria with heat. The 2-3% salt in present day smoked products is too low to prevent spoilage and they have to be kept in refrigerator. Hot smoking involves the following steps:

  • Curing with salt
  • Drying
  • Smoking/Cooking

Hot smoking is basically performed in three stages:

1. A preliminary drying period at 86° F (30° C) during which the skin is hardened to prevent breakage. The air dampers are fully open for maximum air flow and moisture removal. This period lasts from 30-60 minutes.

2. A heavy smoke is applied for about 30-45 minutes with the exit smoke damper left at ¼ open position. The temperature is gradually raised to 122° F (50° C).

3. The temperature is raised to 176-180° F (80-82° C) and the fish is cooked to 145° F (63° C) internal temperature for a minimum of 30 minutes. Depending on the size of the fish this stage may last from 30–60 minutes. A light smoke may be maintained. When the temperature is raised to 176-180° F (80-82°C) the fish is cooked. Fish is considered done when cooked to 145° F internal temperature.

Typical fish fillets are smoked from 1 to 5 hours depending on the size. When smoking is finished, the fish should be first air cooled to the ambient temperature and then kept under refrigeration to prevent the growth of microorganisms. This cooling process should be accomplished within 12 hours. The moisture content of most smoked fish averages 60-75% which is still much too high to inhibit growth of bacteria so the fish have to be kept under refrigeration. Fish is cooked when its meat flakes out easily when pressed with a knife or a fork. Different sources quote different temperatures and processing times so use your own judgement.

A typical hot smoking of the fish.

The parameter that overrides all others is the safety of the product; the internal meat temperature as recommended by our government - the fish should be cooked to 145° F (63° C) and held at this temperature for 30 minutes. Once, this temperature is reached the product is safe to consume. It makes little difference whether the fish was processed at 70, 80° C or 100° C, as long as the 145° F requirement was met. It will turn out to be fine at all three settings, of course, the length of processing time will be different at each temperature setting.

The control of brining, drying and smoking factors is left to the discretion of the person conducting those operations. In time you will be able to use your own judgement and the cause of action taken will be based on factors such as the type and the fattiness of the fish, its size and how it was prepared (whole fish, split fish or fillets). Those factors will influence processing parameters, however, the safe cooking temperature is constant, the fish is either cooked on not.

Cold smoked products are exception as their safety does not depend on heat, but on the amount of lost moisture. In most home made smokers the internal meat temperature lags the smokehouse temperature by about 25-30 degrees. For example, to reach 180° F (82° C) internal fish temperature the smokehouse must be capable to maintain from 200° F (104° C) to 225° F (108° C). In winter, it may be difficult task for a metal barrel smoker to accomplish, unless it is heavily insulated. If the smoker can not reach required temperature, the fish can be smoked long enough to acquire the color and the flavor, but the cooking step can be completed in an oven.

Hot Smoking Fish In Russia and Poland

Both countries are known for producing excellent smoked hams and sausages. During communist era Poland has been building not only fish trawlers but the mother factory ships that were receiving fish catches from fishing trawlers. The factory ship would collect fish from fishing trawlers and process and can fish at sea. Russia produces a large assortment of seafood products and accounts for 95% production of caviar. To make it short both countries were established players in the fish processing field. During writing this book we have consulted many Polish and Russian technology books on the subject of fish processing. What we have found is that both countries, as well as Germany, smoke fish at high temperatures.

CountryFish Smoking MethodTemperature
EnglandCold60-86° F (15-30° C)
Hotup to 212° F (100° C)
GermanyHot212-284° F (100-140° C)
PolandCold68-82° F (20-28° C)
Hot158-284° F (70-140° C)
RussiaCold68-90° F (20-32° C)
Hot176-248° F (80-120°)
Data from 1960

The smoking process consists of three steps:

  • Drying
  • Cooking
  • Smoking

Drying. The main purpose of drying is to remove moisture and harden the skin and head. As a result the skin does not crack during the second smoking stage which takes place at higher temperature. The head also hardens and will not break away later. Keep in mind that a large fish is heavy but the flesh is quite delicate. The smokehouse is preheated with wood chunks, then the fish is placed inside. All dampers are open to facilitate removal of moisture. The drying takes place at 140-176° F (60-80° C) and continues for 30-60 minutes.

Cooking. More wood chips are added and the temperature is gradually raised. The fish is baked at 230-284° (110-140 C). Wood chips are burning with small flame. The exit damper is gradually decreased, sawdust is added on hot coals, and thicker smoke is produced.

Note: fat fish should be cooked at temperatures not exceeding 212° F (100° C), otherwise the fat will start dripping down.

Smoking. The smoking continues, but the temperature is allowed to slowly drop down below 230° F (110° C).

Russian method of hot smoking fish.

Hot Smoking Fish at Home

Uniformity of smoking and drying is difficult to achieve in traditional wood fired smokers when products are placed on different levels. Fish on the bottom sticks will be dried while the fish higher up the smoker, surrounded by wet, steamy smoke that has already passed the fish below, will become wetter. Wet fish will attract more soot and unburned particles and its color is poorer. More heat is present in the back of the smoker than in the front. To compensate for these irregularities, the smoked products were rotated. The back of the fish or the skin of the fillet should face the back of the smoker. That allows for the better judgment of the fish color and protects the flesh from higher temperatures that are normally found in the back of the smoker.

When using a few levels of smokesticks insert the upper row first, then after 5-10 minutes the lower one, then the lowest one. If all three levels were placed in a smokehouse at the same time, the upper most row will get the least of the available heat during drying. On the other hand it will get the most moisture which it will gather from the smokesticks below. Large heavy fish must be heat dried in a smokehouse before the smoke is applied. This hardens the fish and prevents them from falling down into the fire. A security screen should be positioned above the fire to catch any fish that might break free. Keep in mind that fat fish when hot smoked will drip some oil. If this oil drips into hot embers, the flames will shoot up and might even reach the fish above. Place an oil collecting aluminum foil pan between the fish and smoking wood. It may be placed on security screen.

A big advantage that a hobbyist has over a commercial producer is that he can experiment at will. He can introduce into the sawdust fresh herbs such as sage, rosemary, dill, crushed juniper berries, bay leaf or celery leaves. A typical process for hot smoking bigger fish (carp, eel, red fish):

  • 1st hour- gradually increase the temperature to 158° F (70° C) to dry the fish.
  • 2nd hour - smoke fish at 158-176° F (70-80° C).
  • 3rd hour - cook/smoke fish at 212-230° F (100-110° C) for about 30 minutes. Switch off the heat add a few herbs to wood chips and smoke for another 15 minutes.
Wood chips smoking box.

Wood chips smoking box.

Smoking fish at higher temperatures drastically shortens the process. The fish can be smoked/baked in 30 minutes at 300-350° F (150-180° C), which can be considered barbecuing. Such a short time, however, will produce a little smoky flavor. The best course of action is to apply smoke for 60 minutes at 100-140° F (38-60° C) and then cook the fish at high temperatures. This can be easily accomplished even in a regular barbecue grill by filling with wood chips/sawdust a holed metal box, then placing it on hot charcoal briquettes. Once the chips ignite, they will keep on producing smoke. The simplest arrangement is to wrap up wooden chips with aluminium foil and make some holes in it with a nail. Ready to use cast iron or stainless steel cigar box sized containers are sold in the barbecue section of a large store. Do not wet your chips as this will create delay in producing smoke as moisture will have to evaporate first.

Smokehouse for Hot Smoking

The most difficult part of hot smoking is maintaining temperature while burning wood chips. Burning whole logs is not easy and requires continuous attention. Using thermostat controlled electric heating elements simplifies the process but only for small units. A larger unit, like 20 cubic feet smoker below, needs powerful heating elements for hot smoking. Look at the modified warming oven that was converted into industrial quality smokehouse by Gary Zarebski of Winscosin.

The snow is on the ground, but this insulated smokehouse can maintain high temperatures in any conditions.

The snow is on the ground, but this insulated smokehouse can maintain high temperatures in any conditions.

Hot plate for generating smoke and six powerful heating elements.

Hot plate for generating smoke and six powerful heating elements. A supply of 240 volt electricity is needed.

Control panel is mounted on the side.

Control panel is mounted on the side. The heat is, of course, automatically controlled by a thermostat.

Propane Heated Smokehouse

If you live in cold climate and need a smokehouse that will work well, consider using propane gas. The design is very simple, a hole is drilled through the side of a smoking chamber and a gas delivery pipe is inserted. The inside of the pipe holds the burner, and the outside section is connected to a regulator and the tank.

This 20 cubic feet smoker runs on propane. Note two thermometers.

This 20 cubic feet smoker runs on propane. Note two thermometers.

The outside connections.

The outside connections.

Tejas Smokers 40,000 BTU burner.

Tejas Smokers 40,000 BTU burner.

Using propane gas offers the instant supply of huge amount of heat, fine control, inexpensive, portable - can be used in remote areas.

Smoke Generator

Smoke can be generated by burning wood in a fire pit or by heating a metal pan filled with small wood chips or sawdust. Once they get hot enough they will produce smoke for 20-30 minutes. An interesting approach is to connect a little smoke generator that works with an aquarium tank air pump. Such a smoke generator can be attached to any enclosure, including corrugated paper box.

Air pump smoke generator.

The pump delivers pressurized air into the smoking chamber. A vacuum forms in a little gap between the nozzle and the smokehouse connecting pipe. This vacuum pulls in smoke from burning wood chips and the rushing air delivers this smoke into the smokehouse. The smoke output is determined by turning the dial on the air pump that adjusts the speed of the air pump.

Smoke Daddy smoke generator.

Smoke Daddy smoke generator. www.smokedaddyinc.com

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The inside of the smokehouse, the burner and the smoke generator.

Be aware that propane gas burners provide a lot of heat. The 40,000 BTU burner pictured above is considered a small burner, but it is still the overkill for any smoker smaller than 20 cubic feet inside capacity. In warm weather it may be difficult to maintain temperatures of 140° F (60° C) or lower. For smaller smokers an electric heating element might be a better choice.

Thermometers

To be always on a safe side, use a common digital thermometer with a remote probe. Set the alarm to 145° F (63° C), insert the probe in a thickest part of the fish or fillet and start smoking. Once you hear the alarm, maintain this temperature for 30 minutes and you know the product is safely cooked. You may, however, continue smoking longer in order to obtain stronger smoky flavor. The control of the temperature is less important now, you may go higher, but try to stay at or above 145° F (63° C) internal meat temperature. At this temperature the food can be kept for a number of hours without the danger of bacteria growing again. At this temperature hot food is kept in restaurants.

Digital thermometer with remote sensor.

Digital thermometer with remote sensor.

The remote sensor.

The remote sensor.

Factory Made Smokers

The big advantage of electric thermostatically controlled smokers is the ease with which the high temperatures can be maintained. Unfortunately, those units have very little usable space inside, so you will not be able to hang a large fish.

Why Smoke Fish

You save money. Smoked fish is an expensive item as it requires time and extra processing steps. Compare the price of fresh and smoked salmon. It is still the same fish, but the price has doubled. You can smoke any fish you like. Manufacturers smoke and can fish that have proven to be profitable and accepted by majority of consumers. They will not take the risk of smoking red snapper, perch or scallops.

How Long to Smoke?

How long to smoke is an open question. Well, there isn’t one universal time, use your own judgement and keep records. The size of the fish will be a deciding factor, but you can estimate smoking time by checking the color of the smoked fish as well. For example for a small fish like mullet 2-3 hours of hot smoking is plenty. It is safer to smoke for two hours and check the results. Over smoked fish will acquire a bitter smoked flavor that will not go away, so it is better to be on the safe side. A fish can be smoked and cooked within 20 minutes at 662° F (350° C), but its smoky flavor will be weak. Smoking needs time, about 2 hours will be sufficient for a typical size hot smoked fish. This implies that if you want to smoke 1” fillet for 2 hours, you have to choose cooking temperatures that will not overcook the fish.

When is the Fish Done?

The hot smoking process should finish at the high enough temperature to fully cook the meat and destroy the maximum number of bacteria. At 122° F (50° C) about 70-80% of fish proteins are cooked, but at 140° F (60° C) 95 % of proteins are fully cooked. Cooking to 160° F (72° C) inside temperature produces the best tasting fish. Coincidentally, this is the recommended safe temperature for cooking red meats. The Food Safety and Inspection Service of the United States Department of Agriculture recommends cooking fish to 145° F (63° C) or higher for 30 minutes or longer.

Note Different size fish can be smoked at the same time, however, thicker fish will require longer processing time.

A reliable test is to insert a fork or knife into the thickest part of the fish and twist. The flesh should flake. In addition:

the belly fin can be easily removed with fingers.
the flesh of the belly must be white and not glassy.
It is difficult to hot smoke a large fish like carp or red fish in one piece. The solution is to split the fish lengthwise or cut across into steaks. Then, the fish can be smoked/cooked at 266° F (150° C) for about one hour. Basically, such method can be described as barbecuing fish with smoke.

Cooling

Cooling smoked mullet.

Smoked meats and sausages are usually showered with cold water to let them pass through the danger zone 140-60° F, (60-16° C) as fast as possible. Afterwards they can be refrigerated. The fish smoking process ends right inside the danger zone, so in order to preserve its useful life, the fish must be cooled quickly too.

Showering fish with water is not practical as much water will be trapped by the body of the fish. A better idea is to place fish in a drafty area or to use a ventilating fan to speed up cooling. Then the fish should be bagged and refrigerated or frozen. Hot smoked fish must be allowed to cool to at least room temperature, and preferably to about 0°C in a cooler, before packing them. By room temperature we mean the temperature of around 68-77° F (20-25° C). Fish that is vacuum packed or packed into ziplock bags warm will turn flabby and sour, and may turn moldy.

Type of Smoke

We can control to a certain degree the quality of the smoke. The smoke can be wet or dry. Wet smoke is produced when the rate of combustion is low. This happens when a small amount of air is allowed to enter smoke generation unit. Using small chips, especially sawdust will result in a low combustion and heavy smoke. Adding wet sawdust will produce even more wet smoke. Wet smoke attracts more resinous and unburnt particles. As a result when smoking time is long, the product may acquire a bitter taste. Dry smoke is produced by a more complete combustion. The smoke is lighter and the smoked product develops a good flavor and color. Burning larger chips, chunks or even log wood will provide more access for the air to enter the burning pile and will result in hotter and cleaner smoke.

Humidity

Commercial smokehouses are equipped with temperature and humidity controls. In many smokehouses, the efficiency of the operation is still dependent on atmospheric conditions. The air can be moist or dry. When the air is moist the moisture can be removed from the air before it enters the smoking chamber. This could be accomplished by installing a cooling system ahead the incoming air. If the air is passed over crushed ice it will be cooled as well. The cold air cannot hold moisture anymore and we are left with cold dry air. If this air is preheated now, the very dry but hot smoke will enter the smoking chamber. When the air is too dry, for example smoking during the day in desert area, a pan filled with water may be inserted into smoking chamber. Presoaking wood chips will bring some moisture, but only for a while. Air speed should not be too great otherwise excessive drying of the product results. In home smokehouses the natural draft (air velocity) can be controlled with exit dampers. When smoking at home we can control humidity by choosing the time of the day. There is more humidity at night than during the day.

Color of Smoked Fish

The color of smoked fish depends on the color of the skin, the length of smoking process and the type of the wood used for smoke generation. Mullet, herring, mullet, blue fish, or mackerel, they all have different color of the skin and flesh, so they will have a distinctive color after smoking. Dark colored fish will be dark after smoking and silver colored fish will develop golden or light brown color. The type of wood will contribute to the final color, although up to a certain point.

ColorWood
yellow-lemonacacia
gold-yellowmaple, linden, beech
yellow-brownoak, alder, walnut
reddishhickory

The color, however, will become darker as the smoking goes on, for example, the light colored fish may be develop yellow color that will change to light brown and brown color as the process continues.

Wood for Smoking

Any hardwood is fine, but evergreen trees like fir, spruce, pine, or others cause problems. They contain too much resin and the finished product has a turpentine flavor to it. It also develops a black color due to the extra soot from the smoke, which in turn makes the smoker dirtier too. And of course you cannot use any wood that was previously pressure treated, painted, or commercially manufactured. The type of wood used is responsible for the final color of the smoked product and it can also influence its taste but only to a small degree. The type of hardwood used for smoking is not as important as people like to imagine. All fruit and citrus trees have a light to medium sweet flavor and are excellent for poultry and ham. Many say that cherry wood is the best.

It is a fact that alder was popular for smoking salmon in Pacific Northwest and it is a fact that it is popular in Poland by both, the hobbyist and commercial producers. However, alder wood owes its popularity not to any secret components in its composition, but to a simple fact that is plentiful in those areas. It grows well there and it produces satisfactory smoke. The popularity of a particular wood is directly related to the fact whether it grows in a particular area. It will be most illogical to order wood over Internet when a local hardwood is free for the picking. Beech is common in Germany in Poland, and is used by commercial plants, very often mixed half and half with alder. Alder, oak and poplar are popular in Russia. Oak was popular for cold smoking fish in England, and still is the best wood all around. Many wood chip manufacturers stay away from oak as it makes their cutting saws dull in no time at all. However, if you are willing to use an ax and cut some oak chips, it is a great wood for smoking. Oak will paint the product brown. Hickory is good, but unknown outside the USA. Hickory leaves a reddish tint.

Fruit and nut trees are good for smoking, however, not so abundant as grown in the wild alder or oak. This makes them expensive. Combining different woods will create customized tints of color, for example oak and hickory will produce a pretty reddish-brown color. Walnut, which has a heavy smoke flavor, can be mixed with apple wood to create a milder version. Alder imparts yellow color so it is especially good for fish. Keep in mind that the deepness of color is related to the length of smoking. Avoid using soft woods like pine, cedar, spruce and most ever green needle trees. Those trees will produce dark color. Resins from these trees will leave unpleasant flavor on the fish. Be smart, use hardwood which is available for free. The quality of smoked fish depends more on curing or drying than on a type of wood used for smoking. Always store sawdust very dry. Sawdust is very dense and easily develops moisture pockets which can hold large numbers of mold spores. These molds can adhere to the surface of the fish during smoking and can multiply during storage. The shelf life of the product will be greatly decreased.

Summary of Critical Issues

  • Smoke is inhibited by the skin and the scales.
  • Smoke is inhibited by the fat, lean fish smokes faster.
  • The more air available to wood for smoking, the higher the temperature. Burning sawdust results in the lowest temperature, and the densest, but the dirtiest smoke. A lot of soot is produced.
  • Hardwoods produce the cleanest smoke.
  • Evergreen coniferous and needle type trees produce are rich in resin and produce low quality, turpentine flavor smoke.
  • Dry wood should be used for cold smoking.
  • Soaked wood chips may be used for hot smoking.
  • Wet wood produces smoke that is rich in vapor, soot, and many unburned particles. The smoke is dark, heavy consisting of large particles.
  • Meats with wet surface acquire smoke faster, unfortunately the heavier particles and soot are easily attracted. The resulting color is dark and the flavor inferior.
  • The fish that was dried before smoking will develop the most attractive color.
  • The smoked fish develops the best color in about 2 hours, however, after the process is stopped, the development of color will still continue and will be the strongest after about 10 hours.
  • A darker color develops when the smoking time is increased and the thicker smoke is applied. Increasing the smoking time and applying the thinner smoke will produce the same results as decreasing the smoking time and applying the denser smoke.
  • The best quality fish is produced when hot smoke does not exceed 180° F (82° C).

SMOKING SHELLFISH

Shellfish such as mussels, clams, oysters and shrimp are very delicate and require short brining and smoking times. Overcooking makes them rubbery. Detailed instructions are included in the Smoked Shellfish section.



Storing Fish

Packing smoked mullet into sealable plastic bags.

Packing smoked mullet
into sealable plastic bags.

Fish can be eaten immediately after smoking though many people say that it tastes better when cold. Smoked fish should be wrapped up in wax paper or foil and stored in a refrigerator where it can remain for up to 10 days. To hold it longer we have to freeze it.

Hot smoked products made from white fish generally keep better than those made from fatty fish, although shelf life will vary considerably, depending on the amounts of salt and smoke present, the degree of drying, and the storage temperature. At a chill temperature of about 38 F (3° C) fatty products will keep in good condition for about 6 days and white fish products for about 8 days; at 50° F (10° C) the shelf life is reduced to 2-3 days for fatty fish and 4-5 days for white fish.

Hot smoked products can be frozen and kept in cold store at -22° F (-30° C) for at least 6 months, and for longer when vacuum packed. Products with a high fat content are inclined to have a soft texture after freezing and thawing. Salted fish should be stored in a cool, dark place, especially if it is fat. The rate of spoilage in salt fish doubles with each 18° F; salt fish kept at 95° F (35° C) will spoil twice as fast as the fish kept at 80° F (27° C). Keep salt fish at low temperatures where it can remain up to 2 years. The fish can be stored in strong brine at low temperatures, but it must be submerged.

Mark the date when the fish goes into the freezer. Try to freeze fish as fast as possible by making sure they have access to cold air and are not just lying on top of each other. In a day or two you can rearrange them the way you like. The fresh fish will have a firmer structure after smoking. The ice crystals which form during freezing inflict damage to fish tissues as well as proteins and enzymes start reacting with meats. There are differences between home and commercial refrigerators and freezers:

Home RefrigeratorButcher's Cooler
36-40° F (2-4° C)32° F (0° C)
Home FreezerButcher's Freezer
0° F (-18° C)-25° F (-32° C)

During thawing there is a loss of meat juices, dissolved proteins, vitamins and minerals, especially when the freezing was slow. The resulting red liquid that we see on the plate during thawing meat is not blood, there may be some blood in it but the main portion constitute meat juice.

ProductThe maximum recommended times for freezing fish in months
0° F (-18° C)-22° F (-30° C)
Fat Fish412
Lean Fish824
Shrimp and Crab615
Clams412

Frozen fish loses weight as water evaporates through sublimation. What this means is that ice which is present in the surface area evaporates without going through the liquid phase. This problem, however, is of more importance for commercial producers as it results in a financial loss. Meat products stored in freezer will start developing inferior taste due to the oxidation of fat. Those chemical changes known as "rancidity" occur spontaneously and are triggered by light or oxygen. Meats stored in a freezer will turn rancid more slowly than meats stored in a refrigerator. Rancid meat is noticeable more with frozen meat than chilled meat because bacteria can spoil meat in a refrigerator well before rancidity begins. To prevent fat oxidation and to prolong shelf-life of the product, antioxidants such as BHA, BHT, TBHQ and rosemary extracts are commonly used. In the early days of industrial refrigeration the fish were often frozen in brine, however it contributed to faster oxidation of fats. Common vitamin C (ascorbic acid) slows down rancidity of fats. Adding 0.1% of orange essential oil will provide the same effect.



Fish Safety Considerations

After the fish has died, the enzymes which are present in the gut, digest the walls of the intestinal tract and start spoiling the flesh. Most of the bacteria is present in the slime that covers the body of the fish, the gills and in its digestive tract. The skin produces this slime to protect the fish from the outside bacteria and to decrease the resistance of water when swimming. When the fish dies, its skin releases more slime which becomes an ideal substrate for bacteria to multiply. They start penetrating the skin and the spoiling process begins.

Fish can be the source of the following diseases: Salmonella, Shigella, Staphylococcus aureus (known as “stuff” infection), Clostridium perfringens andClostridium botulinum. The last one is hardest to eliminate, and is commonly known as “food poisoning.” Clostridium botulinum is not associated with fish only, but with all low acid foods such as meats, fish, poultry and vegetables. Canning industry safety procedures are based on elimination of Clostridium botulinum spores using reasoning that “if the procedure can kill Clostridium botulinum spores, it will kill all other microorganisms as well.”

Fish like any other meat is susceptible to food poisoning given the right conditions for the development of C. Botulinum spores into toxins. Those conditions (lack of oxygen, humidity, temperatures 40-140° F (4-60° C) always exist when smoking meats. Furthermore many times fish will be packed by the Reduced Oxygen Packaging Method that can create favorable conditions for C.botulinum to become toxin even after fish was hot smoked and cooked. To eliminate the possibility of such a danger Cure # 1 is added the same way it is used when smoking meats or sausages. The Food and Drug Administration currently allows nitrites to be used in salmon, sablefish, shad, chubs, and tuna.

Adapted from Torry Notes #22, Torry Research Station, UK:

Botulism in Fishery Products

What is botulism?

Botulism is an often fatal food poisoning disease caused by one of the most powerful toxins known to man. A toxin is a poison produced by certain bacteria when they grow on food; the kind of bacteria that forms the toxin causing botulism is called Clostridium botulinum. When food containing the toxin is eaten, the nervous system is affected and death can follow within hours.

Clostridium Botulinum in Fish

There are seven known types of Clostridium botulinum, referred to as types A-G; of these, A, B, E and F consistently produce botulism in humans, and B, E and F are frequently found in the sea. Clostridium botulinum grows only in the absence of oxygen, and type E, and some varieties of B and F, have two important properties. First, they are found in fish intestines and gills and in mud from the sea, whereas the other types are found mostly in soil. Secondly, they grow and form toxin at a much lower temperature than the other types; they can grow at 5°C in fish products. Fortunately the toxin is readily destroyed by cooking since it does not survive exposure to 158° F (70°C) for 2 minutes.

Over the years public taste has changed and with it the methods of curing. At one time the product was so heavily salted, smoked and dried thatClostridium botulinum, where present in fish, could not grow and produce toxin. Such a heavily cured product needed to be neither refrigerated nor vacuum packed during distribution. Nowadays hot-smoked fish are distributed with much less smoke and salt, and much more moisture, with the result that any Clostridium botulinum present can more readily form toxin when the fish are kept warm for some length of time.

Smoked Fsh and Botulism

Salmon flesh is either dry salted or brined before being cold smoked, the time of salting varying with the size of salmon being cured. The presence of salt in the product has a great effect on the growth of Clostridium botulinum, but the concentration of salt in smoked salmon is not usually high enough to prevent growth altogether; commercial smoked salmon usually contains 1 to 4 per cent salt. The concentration required to prevent growth at room temperature can vary from as low as 3 per cent to 5 per cent or more, so that the amount of salt present in smoked salmon is on its own no guarantee against the danger of botulism. Trout and mackerel are brined and then hot smoked, either as gutted whole fish or as fillets. The range of salt concentration is similar to that found in salmon.

How to Control Botulism

Before the toxin of Clostridium botulinum can develop in a fishery product a number of factors must coincide: the organism must be present in the fish, the time and temperature of storage must be favorable for toxin production, and the chemical composition of the product must be such that it supports the growth of the organism. Elimination of any one of these factors will make the product safe.

In practice it is not possible to rid a contaminated fish of botulinum organisms but removal of the guts and gills, followed by thorough washing of the belly cavity with tap water, can reduce contamination by as much as 90 per cent.

Summary

The bacteria can grow at a temperature as low as 38° F (3.3°C) but its toxin is destroyed by heating it at 158° F (70° C); any product that is properly cooked and eaten the same day is therefore safe; the main danger lies in products that either can be eaten raw, such as smoked salmon, or need not be cooked by the consumer, for example hot-smoked fish. Changes in traditional method of processing can introduce new hazards; for example, reduction in the amount of salt or smoke can allow the bacteria to flourish, or the use of vacuum packs can extend the shelf life of the product sufficiently to allow the product to become toxic during storage. The safety of any product is assured if the fish are stored at a chill temperature below 40° F (4°C) from the time they are caught until they are eaten.

Parasites

Wild fish are infected with a large variety of parasites which can infect a person that likes to eat raw or lightly preserved fish such as sashimi, sushi, ceviche, and gravlax (salted salmon). Parasites can attach themselves to fish body, penetrate its flesh or settle down in the gills or the liver. They are not a health concern in thoroughly cooked fish. Raw fish should be frozen to an internal temperature of -20°C (-4°F) for at least 7 days to kill parasites. It is important to be aware that most home freezers are not cold enough to kill parasites.

Cooking Fish

The fish is considered safe to consume when submitted to 145º F (63º C) inside temperature for 30 minutes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration “Good Manufacturing Practice” for “hot smoked fish” recommends that commercially prepared smoked fish be subjected to one of the following:

  • Center temperature must reach at least 180º F (82º C) for 30 minutes if water phase salt (WPS) content is a minimum of 3.5% OR
  • Center temperature must reach at least 105º F (41º C) for 30 minutes if water phase salt content is a minimum of 5%. Without chemical analysis it is hard to tell what is the WPS content of the fish, however, most 1 to 2 inch thick pieces of fish will reach these conditions if salted 1-2 hours in 60º SAL brine (15.8% salt by weight) and smoked for 4-5 hours at 180-200º F (82-94º C), followed by 4-8 hours of smoking without heat.

Guidance for Processing Seafood in Retail Operations states that:

  • Cold Smoked Seafood – seafood that has been produced by subjecting the product to mild heat and smoke to achieve a partial coagulation of proteins.
  • Oven/smoker temperature not to exceed 90º F (32.2º C), for a drying and smoking period that does not exceed 20 hours; OR
  • Oven/smoker temperature not to exceed 50º F, (10º C), for a drying and smoking period not to exceed 24 hours.
  • Hot Smoked Seafood – smoked seafood that has been produced by subjecting the product to heat during the smoking process to coagulate the proteins throughout the seafood.
  • Product internal temperature must be maintained at a continuous temperature of at least 145º F (62.8º C), for a minimum of 30 minutes.
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