How to Tea-Smoke Wild-Caught Fish

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The Subtle Art of Building Distinctive Flavor

Tea-smoking wild-caught fish might sound like an intimidating, exotic prospect if you’re unfamiliar with the Chinese tradition of tea-smoked foods. However, tea-smoking is actually an accessible way to cook and enjoy wild-caught seafood, a process that produces tea-stained, tender fillets infused with the delicate aromas of oolong, sencha, or jasmine tea leaves.

Tea-smoking fish is also a fun way to practice creativity in the kitchen, as choosing your heady potion of tea and spices can make you feel more like a wizard than a cook There’s no 

Here’s how to tea-smoke any fillet of wild-caught fish. 

What You Need to Tea Smoke Fish

When you’re tea-smoking any protein, you will be using a dry mix of ingredients made up of equal parts white rice, sugar, and loose or bagged tea leaves. Different recipes use different ratios, but this simple 1:1:1 combo is a good place to start. These three ingredients create an ideal smoke that sticks to the fillet of fish (that’s the sugar’s contribution) without tasting burnt (that’s where the uncooked rice comes in). For two 6-ounce portions of wild-caught seafood, you’ll want to use about ½ cup of each.

You also need a steaming vessel. Traditionally, the tea-smoking is done in a wok with the help of a steamer basket, but you can improvise with a pot or pan that fits a steamer basket or rack and can be sealed up with either a lid or sheet of foil. Check out this recipe from Good Housekeeping to see how you can do this with a roasting pan and wire rack. 

Choose Your Tea

Mild, white fillets like halibut and cod match up with the vegetal aromas in a straightforward Japanese or Chinese green tea. Hojicha, a smoked green tea, will give your fish an extra hit of smoke; because hojicha has this added intensity, it might be nice to use with a meatier preparation of halibut or coho. Jasmine tea, which is usually made up of a combination of green tea and jasmine petals, will impart a delicate floral flavor to your recipe. By the way, to stay with the jasmine theme, you could use jasmine rice as part of your smoking blend. Cod or halibut would allow the floral notes of this tea to shine through.

Black teas are going to build up intense, caramelized aromas on the fish, which would complement the gaminess of sockeye. Earl Grey will impart the citrusy aromas of bergamot, while a smoked black tea like lapsang souchong is quite particular and may be too intense for some people’s tastes — but the richness of a fillet like sablefish could tip things into balance, with such a smoky tea. You could also explore the possibilities of using chai, which essentially is a readymade tea smoking blend made with warm flavors.

Add Complementary Flavors

In addition to tea leaves, you can use dried spices to build a smoking blend that gives your seafood even more complexity. Consider trying hard, aromatic spices like black or szechuan peppercorns, star anise, cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, or dried fennel seeds in your blend. Even a sturdy herb like rosemary can be nice. Fresh citrus zest is also game, as are hardwood chips. 

Tea-smoking will add nuance to your wild-caught seafood recipe, but it isn’t going to season the fish itself. Use a marinade or brine with ingredients that match your smoking blend to give the fish a solid foundation of flavor, leaving ample time to allow the fish to marinate/brine — at least an hour. 

Basic Tea-Smoking Process

Whether you’re using a wok or an alternative vessel, you will be lining the bottom of it with aluminum foil (you just need enough to hold your tea blend in place). This creates a barrier between the wok and the tea so that it can be heated up without burning and becoming bitter. 

Add your tea-rice-sugar-spice blend to this foil, then turn up the wok to high heat until the tea just begins to give off a bit of smoke. This should take a few minutes. At this point, you’ll add the fish to the wok, setting it into the steamer. Make sure you pat the fillets dry before you do this so that they don’t stick to the hardware, and give each fillet enough space for the smoke to circulate. 

Then, create as tight a seal as you can over your setup, using a lid, foil, wet towels, or a combination of these things in order to keep as much of the smoke in the wok as possible. This will smoke the fish more efficiently, and also prevent your kitchen from getting too smoky. 

Lower the heat to medium and partially cook the fish: salmon, especially thinner cuts, will need about 7 or 8 minutes on the heat, while cod and halibut can stay on for 10 minutes. Sablefish can use a few more minutes, depending on how thick the fillet is.

Next, turn off your stove and move the wok from your heat source, leaving the lid on so that the smoke can continue to infuse into the fillets, settling onto the surface of the fish as a caramelized residue. A good rule of thumb is to let the fish smoke while off the heat for about the same time it spent over a burner; for example, a 7-minute salmon should smoke for 7 minutes. 

Carefully unveil your fish so that you don’t get burned by any excess steam. The fillets should be flaky, moist, and stained from the tea. They’re ready to eat warm, but can be chilled and enjoyed cold. 

For specific tea smoked recipe inspo, check out our blog post with a range of ways that you can enjoy tea smoked fish. 


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