How to Fillet Mackerel for the Smoker in 5 Easy Steps

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Last Updated on August 6, 2021
Annabelle

Annabelle Watson

Annabelle is an experienced food writer and editor. She focuses on common sense, easy to replicate recipes formulated to help keep things fresh and exciting while fitting into her day to day life as a wife and mother.

How to Fillet Mackerel for the Smoker in 5 Easy Steps

Photo: Smoked Mackerel fish with Lemon served on the plate by Marco Verch under Creative Commons 2.0

Mackerel is one of the tastiest fish to smoke. It is loaded with heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids and vitamin D. They’re readily available whether you fish for them yourself or just have a great seafood market nearby. Serve them sushi and sashimi-style, or throw them in the smoker.

Smoked mackerel is a simple fish to prepare and requires only a sharp fillet knife and a clean work surface. With a little practice, anyone can learn how to fillet mackerel in five easy steps; here’s how.

1. Choosing the Perfect Fillet Knife

fillet

When learning how to smoke mackerel, the first item you need is a good smoker. There are many models available on the market, so it can be overwhelming to find the right one. However, there are two broad smoker categories from which you can choose. 

The first is a simple box-shaped smoker. It works indoors and outdoors and can be used over a variety of heat sources, from a camp stove to a stovetop. This unit is ideal if you are a mackerel smoking beginner

Alternatively, you can opt for a barrel smoker, which is perfect if you’re an avid outdoors pitmaster who wants to expand their culinary repertoire by learning how to smoke mackerel. This unit operates with charcoal and offers precision heat regulation using vents to control the smoke chamber’s airflow.

Step 1. Making the First Cuts

The first step is to lay the mackerel flat on the table, on its side, and parallel with the front of the table. Hold the fish’s tail with your left hand and make your first cut just behind the pectoral fin; this is the fin closest to the head on the side of the fish. 

Cut at a flat 45° angle toward the back of the fish until you feel some resistance; now flatten the blade so it’s parallel with the table and continue this cut to the tail.

With this motion, you are removing all the meat on the side of the fish all the way to the spine, which should be visible once this cut has been made. Set the fillet aside, flip the fish over and repeat this cut on the other side

You should be left with nothing more than the head, the spine, and the tail, which are thrown away or can be used to make stock.

Step 2. Remove the Rib Cage

Lay each fillet with the skin on the table and locate the rib cage found toward the head of the fillet. Make an accurate cut around this rib cage and throw it away. This is loaded with large bones and inedible.

Step 3. Remove The Skin

This next step is to carefully separate the skin from the meat. It’s optional as the skin is edible and becomes deliciously crispy when grilled or pan-fried.  

However, if you just want to de-skin the fish, take a sharp fillet knife and carefully slide the blade in between the skin and meat at the tail section. Once you’re a few inches into the cut, grab the skin at the end of the tail and work your knife forward until the skin has been removed. 

Mackerel skin is very thin, and even the best fillet knife will leave some behind. Turn your fillet over and make sure all the skin has been removed. If you find any remaining, carefully slide your fillet knife under it and remove it.


What’s left are two beautiful fillets with a dark red blood line running down the middle.

Step 4. Removing the Blood Line

The blood line is a large vein running through the center of the fish and your fillets. To remove it, use the tip of your fillet knife, carefully cut around both sides of the blood line, and throw it away. You are now left with two pure mackerel fillets ready for final cleaning and storage.

Step 5. Cleaning and Storing Mackerel Fillets

Before bagging up the fillets, give them a final check for any skin, scales, or dark spots you don’t want. Rinse the two large fillets to remove any scales, skin, and blood. Cut each fillet into thirds and place them in a bucket of saltwater. Thoroughly rinse each fillet and place in a Ziploc storage bag, squeeze out the air, and they’re ready for the freezer. Do all the these steps correctly and your sure to not make any fish prep mistakes.

2. Smoking Mackerel

Smoked Mackerel fish closeup image with Lemon

Photo: Smoked Mackerel fish closeup image with Lemon by Marco Verch under Creative Commons 2.0

One of the best ways to enjoy mackerel is fresh off the smoker. Smoking mackerel is a simple process if you have the right tools and techniques. 

Filleted mackerel works best with a dry smoking technique. Light your barrel smoker, and preheat it until it reaches 275°F. This medium heat avoids overcooking and drying out the fish. 

Salt both sides of the mackerel fillet and leave in a tray for an hour. Rinse the fillets, and pat them dry with kitchen paper. While the fillets are resting, soak the wood chips in water, leaving them for at least 30 minutes. Applewood chips are the best choice for mackerel. 

Once the fillets are ready, add the wood chips to the smoke chamber, omitting the water pan to keep a dry heat. Lay the mackerel fillets on the grid. If you have left the skin on, make sure you place them with the skin side up. 

Leave the mackerel to smoke for 20-40 minutes, depending on the size of the fillets. Check the fillets with a meat thermometer to ensure that the center of the fillet has reached 140°F.

Annabelle

Annabelle Watson

Fillet Mackerel Like a Pro

Mackerel is an oily fish that absorbs flavor readily. So, it is critical to choose the right wood chips to avoid overpowering the mild-flavored flesh. 

Applewood is a classic wood chip for smoking fish. It has a delicate aroma that adds a touch of sweetness. It also produces billowing smoke to coat the fish evenly. 

If you are dry smoking your mackerel and want wood chips that can stand up to the intensely concentrated fish flavor, try mesquite chips. Mesquite emits a bold smoky aroma, so it is essential to use it in moderation. Add a handful of mesquite combined with milder wood such as cherrywood.