I like smoking trout, but this is ridiculous.
I look at the stack of fish sitting in the sink. It’s a nice limit (bag) of early-spring Rainbow Trout fresh from a local (stocked) reservoir. As someone who only occasionally keeps a fish or two for the table – the scene is a bit confusing.
My eyes wander to the fillet knife and cutting board on the counter…and back to the fish…which are next to my wife’s Nespresso. I do this a few more times before letting out a loud sigh and getting to work. What the hell has become of me?
A few years ago, I would’ve been grilling up a burger and popping a beer to celebrate a good morning on the water. After approximately 2 burgers and 3 beers, I’d settle down for a glorious nap and that would be the conclusion of the weekly session.
Now, I’m about to destroy my kitchen for a delicacy that takes 72 hours to make properly. I’ll be lucky if I can nap in an hour or two once prep and cleanup are done. Hell, these fish (captured on a Thursday), won’t be ready to smoke until Sunday… but there are no shortcuts for taking a legitimate trip back in time via your tastebuds. The Farm is calling.
As I slide the first rainbow onto the cutting board, I don’t feel any remorse. The fire is gone from its perfect fisheye – its flank, firm and cold, has long since lost its ability to escape fate.
The knife finds the spine and with a singular, purposeful stroke towards the tail, separates body from flesh… there is no turning back now.
We are going to have to smoke the whole damn bag.
The Farm at Mt. Walden
Every serious foodie angler knows that every serious trout smoking story originates from Northern Virginia.
Hear me out.
My early, formative fishing years were spent in Middleburg, VA fishing farm ponds with my dad. We would buy worms at the local general store and sit on a shady bank during warm afternoons watching bobbers. The catch was usually a mixed bag of panfish and bass but sometimes a stray catfish or carp would enter the mix and complicate things. After the second carp almost pulled me into the pond, my dad quickly upgraded me from a cane pole to a proper Zebco and here I am 28 years later with a basement full of fur and feathers.
When my parents split, my mom, sister, and I moved to a smaller house a few towns over (Plains, VA pop: 400). Looking back – it was a weird, transitional phase in our lives but probably one of the most impactful for a variety of reasons…mostly to do with fishing and getting into trouble as a country kid. I’m not sure whether it was the small-town pace of life or fishing with fellow fish-obsessed kids…or it just being the mid-90s and everything was groovy…but I hope to one day to be able to provide that sense of freedom and ability to just be a kid, to my kids.
There wasn’t much in the town itself. There really isn’t to this day, but circa 1994-1996 the main strip consisted of a small, quaint restaurant and real-estate office. Across the street on the corner was the US Post Office. As you made your way out from the “town center”, there was a BP at the end of the drag that served as the local stop-n-shop. A few hundred yards up from there was the “The Farm at Mt. Walden” aka the smokehouse…and directly across the street from the “The Farm” was our house.
That was it.
It essentially was and still is a railroad stop between two other, small (but slightly bigger) towns and to this day – has exactly one stoplight…making this an all the more unlikely spot for a fish smoking origin story.
For a fish-obsessed kid, living across the street from “The Farm” was a dream come true. The small, converted gas station was an ancient white brick building with a handsome handmade sign over the door and a smoke shack out the back.
I desperately wish I could find a picture of this place, some sort of tangible reminder to smile at. But despite all of my digging on the Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, and even LA Times (the fish was that damn good) – I could find nothing but kinds words and flavorful descriptions of a unique operation that was simultaneously behind and ahead of the times…and while I have no physical proof of this place, I can certainly try to put you in my shoes for a minute.
When you walked in, a bell rang, and immediately you were punched in the face by the overwhelming aroma of applewood smoke and brine. With each step towards the counter, its weathered wood floors seemed to sag underneath your anticipation for the display case. The walls were stained with flavor. It was one of those classic places you encounter in life that seems out of place but is somehow timeless. I can vividly remember the display case, full of intoxicating colors and shapes that wouldn’t let go of a young mind.
Whole sides of smoked Atlantic Salmon glowing golden under dim display lights.
Whole smoked Brown and Rainbow Trout carefully wrapped in butcher paper and tied off with kitchen twine.
Smoked duck and goose breasts – cured and sliced thin revealing its rich flavor.
Mousse and pates from various critters, stacked high in white to-go containers…
I was truly lucky to experience this sort of place before they started becoming a thing of the past.
While the images and smells of “The Farm” have stuck with me after all of these years, it was the flavor of their smoked delicacies that have played a larger role in my life than I’d like to admit. To quote a 1992 Baltimore Sun Article referencing their smoked trout, “this trout was different. The apple wood gave the fish a distinct flavor. It was as smoky as the sex lives of some Democratic presidential candidates.” Again – special stuff.
We’d take advantage of our proximity and neighborly relationship with “The Farm” mostly on holidays, splurging on a side of smoked salmon and a handful of smoked trout as gifts and appetizers for parties. Going into the shop was the exciting part, stuffing your face with lox to the point of getting sick…and then making a gigantic mess spreading trout onto crackers was the fun part. But sadly, my dalliance with technical, smoked fish ended when I was 6 and we moved to DC full-time. The Farm moved on too…
“The Farm” unbeknownst to my 6-year old self was a big deal. A brick and mortar get-up for country-going DC elites on their way back to the city – the local artisan farm operation was ultimately a flash in the pan from 1990-1996. But during its short flight as culinary force, the operation grew domestic and international raves for their applewood smoked offerings with articles celebrating their product even showing up in food articles in the LA Times. Particularly, their whole smoked trout and salmon nova-lox were distributed regionally in high-end grocery stores like Whole Foods predecessor Fresh Fields as a trendy topping for salads, bagels, pizza, and the like. Sadly, the magic faded shortly after we moved to DC and the operation closed in 1997 due to in-fighting and operational overhead (quality 14-16” stocked trout are expensive when bought in small quantities). While unfortunate circumstances led to the demise of this childhood landmark – the flavor of that smoky, salt n sweet applewood fueled trout and salmon lox is something that has never left me…and is what I am attempting to recreate in my kitchen – some 2,000 miles away and 25 years after that first encounter.
The Farm at Claybourne Ave
Flash forward 25 years and spring is quickly approaching the Wasatch. It’s my third trip around the sun in Utah and the fish (rainbow trout) have been feeding hot and heavy since their exodus from the ice at my favorite local reservoir. The fish in this lake are perfect eaters. Fat and healthy with decadent orange meat more reminiscent of steelhead or salmon than your typical stocked fish. They average 14-18” and feature a nice layer of belly fat. When I clean them, they almost look like small steelhead fillets and I know the fish aren’t wild which makes the cull a little less guilt-stained. If successful, the plan for these fish is simple: recreate the applewood smoked trout of my childhood…and then make some cold smoked trout lox for bagels out of the rest.
That morning the bite is on from the get-go. The fish have been keyed in on balanced minnows for the past few weeks and today is no different with a few fish pushing 20” coming to the net in the first few hours. While these would be great eating fish, I’m after the next grade down. I prefer fish in the 14-16” range because I can only imagine there are so many 4lb+ trout in this body of water and I’d like for there to be a few more.
For this style of fishing, I like using a switch rod, floating line, and indicator. When they’re on the minnow bite, I like to fish two flies, one at 4’ and one at 7’. For tippet, I’m all about using 1-2x unless the fish aren’t having it. The fish this time of year are fired up and cruising the top of the water column so there is no need to go much deeper or lighter on tippet to be successful.
After a few action-filled hours, I finally have my desired limit of medium-grade rainbows for the smoker.
While bonking a trout is rarely an act of guilt-free bliss – I’ve found that they move on pretty quickly to the big pond in the sky. A quick pull of a gill to bleed the fish and then immediately putting it on ice, snow, or back in cold water removes a lot of the lactic acid build-up during the fight and ultimately lends itself to a superior final product that is not nearly as fishy as it would be otherwise.
When it’s time to roll, and you’re like me…and don’t carry a stringer…primitive stringers are easy to make. Simply find a good stick or an old piece of rope on the beach and slide it through the gill plate. It makes for a great nostalgic photo-opp and if you have a dog at home, they will be obsessed with the stick afterward. Don’t worry if you’ve got a short ride home (1hr or less), the fish will be fine. Just make sure you don’t stash your stringer near the air vents with the heat on (pro-tip). If you’ve got a longer drive, you might want to consider a bag of ice just to be safe.
Get Home, Chill
Once I get the fish home, I like to put them in the fridge or leave them outside (if it’s cold enough) to firm up the meat again. The firmer the fish, the easier it is to get perfect fillets or butterfly. Once cleaned, you’re ready to start the brine life.
Whole Smoked Trout
While I could just throw the cleaned fish on the smoker as is, the end result will ultimately be something that leaves a lot to be desired. Sure, it will technically be “smoked trout” but it’s not really smoked trout. To recreate the applewood smoked trout of my youth, I first need to create a brine solution that will penetrate deep into the entirety of the fish’s meat.
The easiest way to do this is via wet brine – essentially a liquid solution of equal parts sugar, salt, and whatever other flavors you want to mix in. Once your brine is ready to go, simply submerge the fish fully, cover, and let rest either in the fridge or outside (if it’s cold enough) overnight.
The next step is by far the most crucial in the entire process. The cure aka your one-way ticket to the Pellicle Palace aka a sticky layer of smoke adhering, flavor saving NEATure. In non-nonsense speak – the pellicle is what allows for smoke to stick to whatever it is you’re planning on smoking. It is what separates fish cooked on a smoker from smoked fish.
After letting the fish take a nice, long brine bath (overnight), remove them from the solution and pat dry. The solution that has soaked into skin and meat will ultimately be what forms the pellicle layer. Once dry, vent the cavity with toothpicks (#fishtent) and return the fish to the fridge to continue the curing process.
The toothpicks allow for more airflow into the cavity which will result in stronger pellicle formation. I like to put my fish on a wire baking rack on top of a pyrex dish (to scoop up any potential drippings) and let them rest overnight uncovered. The next morning, I’ll remove them from the fridge tofind a nice, sticky layer of pellicles has formed on both the inside and outside of the fish. Once the pellicle is confirmed, it’s time to fire up the smoker.
While there are numerous devices and smoking techniques that will do the trick, Ipersonally like smoking my fish on pellet smokers like the Traeger Pro 780 Grill. The ability of these grills to hold temps throughout the cook makes for an incredibly easy and consistent experience. That said, no matter your preferred smoking apparatus, the process is simple. DO NOT COOK OVER 225 DEGREES. That is literally the only rule. Cooking above the 225 mark is essentially BBQing (albeit super slowly) that fish you just brined and cured for 48hrs. I like to play it safe and set my grill to 165-180 degrees.
Depending on the size of the fish, your cook time will vary. For these 14-16” whole rainbows, 3-4 hours is all you need. For smaller fish (anything under 14”), I like to limit my cook time to 1.5-2 hours. Once sufficiently smoked, put the finished product back in the fridge to rest and firm up for an hour. You’re now ready to serve! Eat within a week or freeze (wrapped in paper towel, wrapped in saran wrap, in a zip lock #airtight) for up to 6 months.
WHOLE SMOKED TROUT (14-16”) RECIPE:
- Clean trout by removing internal organs, gills, and goo. (If fish has eggs, save those…)
- Rinse the entire fish and cavity thoroughly making sure to remove any leftover goo, pat dry with a paper towel, and rest in the fridge on a wire baking rack.
- While the fish are chilling, combine 1 cup of kosher salt and 1 cup of brown sugar in a large pot.
- Fill with cold water and bring to a boil
- Once boiling, making sure the sugar and salt have dissolved completely and remove from heat.
- Allow brine solution to come to room temperature prior to pouring over fish.
- Once the solution has reached room temp, place fish in a deep pyrex dish, bucket, or Yeti cooler and cover completely.
- Let rest, submerged for 24 hours.
- After 24 hours, remove fish from brine, wash and pat dry. Vent cavity with toothpicks.
- Let rest, in fridge uncovered for 24 hours.
- Remove from fridge, do not remove toothpicks and set grill to 180 degrees. Make sure you’re using applewood pellets.
- Place wiring baking rack and fish directly on grates and smoke for 2-3hrs.
- Once thoroughly smoked (meat opaque), remove from grill and place in fridge to chill for 2-3 hours prior to serving.
Making nova-lox is probably one of the easier and tastier things one can do with a fresh trout. While the shrink-wrapped, thin-sliced pre-packaged portions of lox at the grocery store can run anywhere from $15-50 depending on the quality of fish – homemade lox literally costs you 1 cup of salt and 1 cup of sugar…and some time… that’s about it.
TROUT LOX RECIPE:
- Filet fish – keep the skin on. *option to butterfly for a fancier finished product – same steps.
- Wash fillet and pat dry.
- In a mixing bowl, combine 1 cup kosher salt and 1 cup dark brown sugar (this ratio works for 4 full trout fillets or 1 full salmon/steelhead fillet). Mix until they are one (cooking is powerful shit).
- Move fillet to a deep marinating tray (or pyrex) and start seasoning. Rub the mixture into the fillets, making sure to coat the meat side of the fillets completely. It may look like overkill – but it’s not.
- Now is the time to add any additional flavor on top of the brine – wasabi powder, Nashville hot dill, or fresh herbs all are showstoppers.
- Once thoroughly seasoned, stack the two fillets, meat-side:meat-side so the skin is facing outward on both sides. Wrap tightly in saran or cling wrap. Once wrapped, make sure to cut a small hole in the bottom of the wrap so that the moisture (aka goo) from the fish has a place to go.
- Set fillets on a wire baking rack with the deep marinating tray (or pyrex) underneath to scoop up the fish goo.
- Place a cutting board on top of fillets and stack whatever you can on top of it. Milk cartons, 12 packs, or free weights work great. The more weight, the quicker the process.
- Keep in the fridge for 24 hrs. Remove fillets from wrap and wash/pat dry with cold water.
- Rest in the fridge overnight (ready to slice and serve next day)
COLD SMOKE STEP
If you want to add some smokey profile to your lox – follow these below steps
- Set grill to 165 degrees or lowest possible temperature setting.
- While the grill is warming up, fill a deep pyrex dish with ice or snow and place the wiring baking rack with fillets (meat-side up) on top of the cold stuff.
- Place on grill and smoke for 30 minutes-1 hour, replacing ice as needed. Make sure fish never gets warm to the touch.
- Remove from grill and let rest in the fridge for 2 hours prior to serving.
- Good for one week OR 6 months in the freezer.
- For freezing, vacuum seal OR wrap fish in paper towels, Saran Wrap, and put in a ziplock bag.
You may be reading this and asking yourself why the hell someone would go through that much effort for a couple of bites of salty, smoky fish? Why would anyone invest that much time in an old-school cooking process when they could simply just buy the same product at the store?
It’s a damn good question…
I’ve always contended that fishing and food are universal languages. They have the ability to connect two complete strangers with nothing previously in common on some level of basic human nature. AKA – as a species – we like to have fun (fishing is fun) and we need to eat to survive (everyone eats). Thus, everyone should be able to find some sort of commonality with their experiences pursuing fun and food.
But after writing this article, I’d argue that the two have a way of transporting us through time and space to familiar environs. Take for example how both food and fish have a way of curing homesickness. There is no coincidence that mom’s famous brownies and a chunky largemouth bass, trout, or favorite saltwater species thousands of miles from home elicits the same warm and fuzzies founded on familiarity. A redfish is a redfish from Texas to Virginia. A striped bass is a striper from NC to Maine. No matter where you go, you can count on them being there – the (relatively) same fish and experience, albeit while personally existing far from home.
To be completely honest, that sense of familiarity is probably why I fish. Being on the water takes me back to simpler times and familiar places and faces. The same feeling of fulfillment I get when a bobber goes under is the exact same excitement I enjoyed as a kid with my dad under that tree-lined bank. The flavor and smell of applewood smoked trout takes me back to a similar place, with a sagging wooden floor and dim-lit display case, my mom by my side playfully asking the opinion of a 6-year-old of which fish looks best (they all looked the same).
As the knife makes its way through the final fillet, I wash my hands clean of the whole thing.
There is salt and fish slime everywhere. My dogs, impatiently whine despite having already dispatched the trout livers and hearts. They know it will be a few days until they get their true prize – patiently waiting their turn for smoked skins (aka fish chips) and scraps. Tomorrow I will free the fish from their respective dry and wet brines and inch one step closer to my flavor-fueled time machine.
So while I could simply go to my local grocery store and buy a small pack of lox for $30 (that barely covers 1.5 proper bagels) or a few gray stockers from the display case that don’t look or taste like trout – I just can’t do it. There are no shortcuts back in time.
If only “The Farm” were still around….