How to smoke an eel

Blimey, 30 quid a kilo that’s how much silver eels are nowadays. Around 8 months ago they were 22 quid, and I thought then that they were dear. So this maybe the last time I get to prepare and cook them before they price themselves out of my reach. Or before they become extinct. Nick and I smoke a lot of things on this blog, from ice cream to brisket, there are a lot of food that’s enhanced by the magic of wood smoke. In particular oily fish are great for smoking. There’s something about the complex flavours of smoke that’s amplified by the oiliness of fish like salmon, mackerel, herring and of course the oiliest of them all, eel. If you’ve never eaten smoked eel then it’s hard to describe how rich and oily it really is, a little goes a long way. If, like me, you think the taste of smoked eel is astounding then you really need to try one hot out of the smoker. It has to be the greatest smoked food ever, EVER [*]!

So why am I not eating this amazing food every day? Well aside from the price, anyone who has ever handled live eels knows they are horrible to prepare. First thing that is obvious is their snakelike appearance, they wriggle and thrash a lot, produce a lot of sticky slime and due to their many vertebrae are really difficult to kill. A dead eel will still twitch and judder long after any sensible animal has, literally, given up the ghost. This enduring quality is seen as virile in many cultures and that’s why, coupled with their deliciousness, they’re prized as food – you are what you eat. But it is for those reasons that I really don’t like handling them, I’ll only pluck up the courage to do it a couple times a year. This time you have the pleasure of accompanying me in this step by step guide in how to smoke an eel.

Step 1 – Buy and kill

Get your fishmonger to choose the most lively eels, 1 kilo in size is just right. Any smaller and the yield is poor, much bigger and they’re difficult to handle in a normal kitchen. I get mine from Pearce’s in the Indoor Market, they won’t kill them for you but if your fishmonger does then get them to do it and clean them too, making sure they leave the head on. Some people just go for it, whack them over the head and gut them whilst they’re still thrashing but I like to handle them as little as possible. So in a suitably sized pot with a lid scatter three or four big handfuls of coarse salt all over the bottom and pour in a little water to make a grainy slush. Tip the eels into the pot and clamp the lid down tight. Leave for an hour, the eels will thrash around for a while but the salt will eventually kill them and help to deslime. You can tell they’re dead when the eyes go blank, they usually go belly up too.

Step 2 – Clean and Gut

Remove the eels and rinse them under plenty of cold running water. A lot of the slime will be left in the pot but there will still be some on the eel. You have a choice here, you can rub this off with some more coarse salt or scrape it off with a sharp sturdy knife. It’s a messy job either way. When the eel has been fully deslimed, gut it from it’s anal vent to it’s jaw and remove all it’s innards making sure to clean the bloodline. Most other fish are quite easy to gut but eel guts are particularly tenacious, you may need sturdy fish tweezers or pliers to make a really clean job of it. Most importantly when gutting eels you need slice a couple of inches towards the tail to get the kidney out. The tip of my knife in the last photo is where the anal vent was located, you can see how far to cut in that direction.

Step 3 – Salt and Dry

For every kilo of eel rub 50g of salt into the cavity and all over the outside. Place covered in the fridge overnight, preferably 24 hours, redistributing the salty brine at least once in that time. The next day rinse the eels off and dry them quickly with a clean cloth inside and out. Place the eels on a rack uncovered in the fridge overnight for a sticky pellicle to form on the skin and in the cavity. A pellicle allows smoke to adhere better to food so make sure that the eel is as exposed as possible while it’s in the fridge, that’s why a rack is useful. The resting in the fridge also helps to redistribute the saltiness throughout the eel.

Step 4 – Smoke

You’re ready to smoke your eel. Prepare your hot smoker for a 80-90C burn for up to 90 minutes. It’s very important that you don’t smoke them too hot or they will split and all the oil will burst out. If you’re using a horizontal smoker, lay the eels carefully belly up, you may need a small skewer to stop the eels from turning over. More commonly eels are smoked vertically, tie some string or twine around the throat just below the side fins and use this to hang them head up. If you don’t do this and simply insert a hook straight into the jaw then as the eel cooks it softens and will fall off the hook – a complete disaster! I like to use oak chips, it’s a classic flavour with fish, robust and sweet but really you can use any smoking wood. Check your eels after an hour, they should be nicely smoked, leave for up to half an hour longer if you’ve got particularly fat ones.

For posterity, a 987g eel at the market weighed 751g after smoking and produced 482g of pure meat. Enjoy, it’s worth it.

[*] Yes really, above smoked ribs, chicken, sausage, salmon, pastrami etc. The only thing that comes close is Nick’s Wagyu Brisket burnt ends.