Whole smoked mackerel

How to smoke mackerel

Gavin Wren Fish & Shellfish, Food Techniques, Recipes, Writing

I’ve reached peak mackerel. I don’t know what happened, whether something changed in the tides of the moon, but I suddenly felt an overwhelming urge to consume lots of this lovely, oily fish. There was a sign that this was coming, my smoked mackerel omelette indicated that I was heading into a mackerel period, because I’ve eaten that omelette a LOT since posting it. I feel nervous about estranging some of the more vegetable based readers, however please stick with me, as I can assure you that some non-fish recipes will also make a strong comeback soon, in fact I’ve got a seasonal corker coming up next week using chestnuts.

Salted mackerel before smoking

This mackerel addiction has led me into dark and difficult situations. As my cravings for mackerel became stronger, I had an unrestrainable urge to hoard the fish, to make sure I had a copious supply at my fingertips. This led to the first dark situation, which was setting my alarm for 3.45am, a time when it is still very, very dark, so I could drive East out of London in the middle of the night, to Billingsgate fish market, a fish eater’s utopia.

This was a difficult situation, a battle of wills, being surrounded by tons of the finest fish the UK’s shores and further afield have to offer. Whenever I visit, I’m like a kid in a sweet shop. I had promised myself that I would show some restraint and not buy too much, as most of the fish is whole, so you spend the rest of the day scaling, gutting, filleting and bagging, ready for freezing, which can be quite exhaustive. I had a good wander around and eyed up everything that was available, regularly checking that the hint of drool at the corner of my mouth wasn’t showing. I managed to keep to my promise and after finding a trader suitably furnished with a good stock of mackerel, some sheckles were exchanged and I scurried off with a few kilos of slippery fish.

Whole mackerel on the BBQ ready to smoke

Only one thing stopped me from rushing home and diving into my stash, and that was the little cafe by the entrance to the market, Piggys. It’s quite well known for their unique take on the breakfast roll, which is a bread roll containing two nicely cooked rashers of bacon (not too crispy, thank you) topped with two market fresh, impressively plump and expertly cooked scallops. I’m normally one to slather ketchup across the top of any bacon inclusive breakfast comestible, however I dared not sully this divine creation so opted to eat it straight and it was exactly what I needed at 4.30am, much better than lucid, penetrating, rejuvinating deep sleep.

Whole smoked mackerel on the BBQ

Upon my arrival home at 5am our mischievous pooch looked perplexed in equal measure by both my presence at that time of the morning and the no doubt highly intriguing aroma emanating from my luggage. He looked even more confused when I saddled him up and rode him across the moonlight drenched moor. Oops, wrong story. I mean when I put his lead on and took him for a long walk across the heath before sunrise.

Whole smoked mackerel

Back to the mackerel, these were going three ways. The largest batch was to be gutted, filleted and frozen, so I have a large stock of fish on hand at all times, which is very important. Some was to be cooked and eaten with haste, as must be done after any visit to Billingsgate market, which also resulted in a recipe that will follow later this week. Last batch were to be hot smoked, to create my own little stash of hot smoked mackerel to go on my omelettes.

Whole smoked mackerel

Hot smoking is a fun, albeit time consuming pass time. Being a London dweller and not yet rolling in financial abundance my garden isn’t the rolling orchard I hope for one day, and there are other properties nearby. So once the weather is cooler, I feel happier about smoking food on the BBQ as there are less neighbouring windows open to inhale the smoke into other peoeple’s properties. There are guides online about how to hot smoke indoors using a smoking tin, however unless you have a hermetically isolated kitchen or extremely understanding co-habitees who don’t mind the entire property smelling like a bonfire, then I’d advise sticking to the outdoor BBQ method.

I ran through the basics of hot smoking in my smoked tofu post, including some handy visuals that show the difference between hot smoking and cold smoking. However it’s incredibly simple really, so I’ll go through it all again here. So, get those windows closed and the BBQ fired up, it’s time to get smoking.

Whole smoked mackerel on the BBQ

How to smoke mackerel


Serves as many as you want

Uses a BBQ with a lid

PDF recipe card to download or print


Mackerel, whole
Sea salt
Smoking wood chips


First, make sure your fish have been gutted and cleaned under cold water, then dried. Your fishmonger will do this for you.

Place your wood chips in a bowl of water to soak for 60 minutes. You can use any wood chips designed for smoking food, there are lots of wood types available which impart different flavours. I would recommend buying a few bags of different ones and experimenting.

Coat your cleaned fish inside and out with rough sea salt and leave in a dish for about 45 minutes. This helps to dry the fish out slightly so it’s not too mushy when cooked. After 45 minutes, wash the salt off with cold water and dry the fish again.

Place a foil tray on your BBQ charcoal rack, underneath where the fish will go and fill it with water. I show how to make a simple tray out of foil on my post about how to smoke tofu. For this fish, my tray took up about two-thirds of the available grill area.

Fill the remaining space with charcoal, open the vents underneath this area, then light the charcoal. Keep vents under the foil tray closed. Leave the BBQ to heat up until a gentle heat has spread across the coals.

When ready, place the fish on the grill above the water tray and place a small handful of the soaked chips on the hot coals. Remember that you can always add more chips, so don’t go crazy with them at first. Put the lid on the BBQ and close the vent above the coals, but keep one above the fish open.

Leave this to cook for about 45 minutes. There should always be a gentle trickle of white smoke coming out of the top vent, you don’t want a heavy torrent, nor do you want to see nothing coming out. If it stops smoking, you might need to add a few more chunks of smoking wood to get it going again, or if the charcoal looks like it’s burning out, add a few more pieces.

When finished, the meat should be white throughout, fall off the bone and taste amazing.

So, to recap, here’s what you need to do in the right order:

  • Prepare and clean fish
  • Put wood chips in to soak
  • Salt the fish
  • Position and fill foil tray with water
  • Light BBQ, vent under charcoal open
  • Wash salt off fish and dry
  • Fish on grill
  • Small handful of smoking chips on coals
  • Lid on, vent over fish open
  • Watch for smoke
  • Add more chips/charcoal if necessary
  • Fish ready after approx 45 mins

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