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.

25 thoughts on “How to smoke an eel”

  1. Hi! I’ve been Reading this amazing blog for a while now and am inspired by your food adventures. I think this post highlights your commitment to pure culinary experiences and is also very entertaining (how was it taking a live eel home in a flimsy plastic bag!?). Keep it up, I’ll keep reading!

    1. I went to the small Chinese supermarket after buying the eels and absent-mindedly put the bag on the counter when counting out my change. One eel slithering around is odd enough but having three in a mad tangle was horrific. The shop-assistants didn’t bat an eyelid, proper Chinese! Imagine if I’d done that in Tesco, the screaming would have security on me like a shot.

      1. You should try the eels in tesco scenario, sounds quite funny. Had an issue with a wayward eel once in a hong kong street shack. Again, no one seemed to mind eating away with a paniced eel slithering under the tables!

  2. You should try out some top eel specialist restaurants in Japan, for example, Kabuto in Tokyo and Tomoei in Odawara.

      1. There are some decent ones in Fukuoka Prefecture that you can try. The top three are:

        1. 田舎庵 小倉本店 (inaka an)
        2. 富松うなぎ屋 黒田本店 (toumatasu unagi ya)
        3. 黒崎田舎庵 日日屋 (kurosaki inaka-an hibiya)

        I haven’t tried them but let me know if you tried any of them.

        The eel specialists around Tokyo are the best in Japan though because eel dishes are the traditional dishes in that area.

  3. Amazing detail. Thanks for sharing this.
    No that they smoke eels in this country, but… let us try to hit Casa das Enguias together, in Sarilhos Grandes (big troubles), Lançada, Montijo, Portugal.
    38.684653, -8.951074

  4. Hi

    I have smoked eels three times now. I cold smoke them first for about 2 days depending on the size of the eel . Then hot smoke for about 3 or 4 hours but not too hot. I prefer the texture to be firm .I also open up the big fish over about 600 grams as they are too big to properly absorb the smoke. I am mazed how long you salt them for as i would have thought this would make them very salty to the taste . I brine mine in 80% brine for about 2 or 3 hours. just shows there is more than one way of skinning a cat ( or an eel)

    1. Hey thanks for your comment. Yeah I like the really fat ones a kilo or so. I find the small ones give a really poor yield otherwise. And since I don’t smoke them very regularly I like get as much meat out as I can.

      Wow you cold smoke them for two days? Must be when the weather’s a little cooler. I bet you get a deep smokey flavour and as you say a very firm finish. Like a kipper, which I also love. Mine are more like lightly smoked haddock. Also do you mean an 8% brine or 80%? Mine are salty but not as salty as you imagine.

  5. i am used to eating smoked eel but the ones in europe are about a finger or a litle over, thick wish we could buy them here

  6. Thanks for the handy hints. Just caught eight eels about 0.75 kgs each in the creek outside my partners old family home in New Zealand. The aunts and uncles have gone out fishing and left me to prepare and smoke the eels so at least I now know what I am doing. will try hot smoking and cold smoking another time

  7. Your site is beautifully done and thank you – do come to Victoria Australia we catch them by the bag full, all sorts; Lake Bolac even has an eel festival . I was taught a trick to dispatch the eel by putting it in a bucket of ice where in they expire after an hour. BBQ, my wife (a South Korean) loves to cook them, pickle, or pie I love the flavour.

  8. After you caught them – just place in sturdy bag and place them in freezer. Most humane way of killing them.

  9. All very interesting reading, Sunday afternoon in Tasmania and just smoking my first eel. My parents came from Poland and smoked eel was a delicacy we occasionally had when I was a child, hope mine tastes as good.
    The detailed description of kill, prepare, salt and cook were very useful so if mine isn’t perfect I can’t blame you!!!

  10. Hey I live in Maine, in USA. We are buying and smoking and selling eels locally. Our customers love them and are crying for more supply. We brine an hot smoke – yummy! More eels the better. Small to large – they all taste great! Go Anguillla rostrata!

  11. Wonderful!

    My wife and I spent three years in the Netherlands, and fell in love with smoked eel. We are now back in New Zealand, and have retired to a small lifestyle block. I found your site after catching an eel and wondering how the heck to prepare it.

    So I googled “How to prepare an eel for smoking”, and the most interesting hit was your excellent post. You write with passion and skill, and your preparation instructions are very clear and easy too follow. Best of all, they work!

    My wife said the taste was a little too salty, but delicious – she proved that by picking the bones clean!.

    Thanks very much. I have written about the experience in our little Fuddy Farm blog, an acknowledged my gratitude in the post with a link to this one.

  12. Hi,
    I’m writing from Istanbul, Turkey. While surfing the internet I came across your site, it’s very well explained n detailed, tx for the time n effort.

    I have 2 questions; 1) We’ve been arguing for the last 2 weeks with hubby whether to wet the wood chips or not while smoking eel. I insist instead of “cooking” the eel in the smoker, the smoke will cook/smoke it.
    2) He insists on laying the eel on smoking racks in the smoker. We are planning to sell smoked eel once we get the brine n smoke techniques right.
    We can get 350-400 gr. live eels only n they r thin as well 🙁

    There is almost no one to ask in Turkey because like other parts of the world, people do not eat smoked eel (snake fish) due to their appearance.

    1. Hello Istanbul!

      There is no need to soak wood chips. If you want them to smoulder for longer rather than having them go up in one short burn, place them in a foil pouch or metal tin. The smoke will smoke it, but it’s the heat that will cook it. The heat can come from coals or logs or any heat source really.

      You can lay your eels flat but because they are small it might be fiddly. Best to run a long skewer through the heads and hang them by the skewer if your smoker is tall enough. Also because they are thin smoke them at a very low temperature so not to over cook them before they are nicely smoked.

  13. Thank you for the details, Worked extremely well and was told it was the best smocked eel they have ever had. How long do you think the smoked eel would last for? And what about if I vacuumed packed it?

    Thanks again

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