Best wood choices for smoking mackerel + cooking tips

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  February 24, 2022

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Mackerel refers to a variety of pelagic fish species. All the mackerels, like kingfish, are very oily fish.

Oily fish are amazing to smoke because they absorb a lot of delicious flavored wood smoke. Therefore, you can give them the woody aroma you prefer.

Best wood choices for smoking mackerel + cooking tips

The best wood for smoking mackerel is oak or bourbon flavored whiskey barrel oak chips. These strong woods give an earthy smoky taste that’s hard to beat. But, next up is neutral alder or any of the sweet mild fruitwoods. These wood chips offer tons of flavor for the oily mackerel fillets but don’t overpower the natural fishy taste.

Before you smoke the mackerel, it should be brined in a salt mixture. This brine mixture helps preserve your fish and it allows the smoke to impart wood smoke flavor to the flesh.

Trust me, if you use a flavorful smoking wood your guests will be pleasantly surprised when you serve smoked mackerel at your next BBQ.

In this post, I’ll go over all the best wood chips you can use when smoking mackerel.

Best wood chips for smoking mackerel

Smoking mackerel creates a perfectly moist fish with its smoky taste. Fish like mackerel will not dry out because of oily content during more time to cook used with smoking.

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Fatter fish can absorb a lot of smoke flavor and are much less susceptible to drying out during cooking.

The skin over the whole fish helps protect the meat and keeping the skin intact increases your fish’s flavor intake.

Because we only smoke the mackerel fillets for a short period, you really can get away with anything you decide without constantly adding more chips.

For simplicity choose a lighter smoking wood like oak, apple, or peach. You can also experiment to smoke mackerel on cedar planks for extra hardwood flavor.

Also, the longer one smokes, the more intense the smoke flavor the fish will have. In this case, you don’t need the chips to burn longer but if you let them, your fish will be very smoky.

Go for a stronger wood like oak if you like authentic Southern BBQ flavors or choose mild alder or fruitwoods if you like a lighter smokey taste.

Usually, people use maple and cherry wood to smoke fish but in this case, there are better options for this type of white fish.

Alder

  • intensity: mild to medium
  • flavors: earthy, slightly sweet, subtle, neutral

Alder smoke is considered to be the top choice for smoking all kinds of fish because it’s mildly smoky.

It’s a great wood for smoking oily fish like mackerel fillets. Even though alder is not a fruitwood, like apple, it is still just as mild, only less flavorful.

Since alder is mild with a neutral smoked flavor, it infuses the fish with just enough smokiness to make it super delicious without masking the natural flavor of the mackerel.

Alder wood chips give a slightly smoky flavor with a hint of earthiness. There’s also a bit of sweetness but it’s hardly noticeable.

You can also blend alder wood with mild fruit woods like apple and peach and then you end up with a sweet, fruity, and smoky taste. Also, you can blend it with pecan which gives the fish a nutty flavor.

Some people say that alder is in fact too mild for mackerel because the fish is very oily and it needs something stronger.

However, if you’re starting out with smoking or not sure what flavors you prefer for smoked fish, alder is a fail-proof smoking wood.

The Camerons Products alder wood chips are made of good quality timber and offer the perfect amount of smokiness for your fish.

Apple

  • intensity: mild
  • flavors: subtle, fruity, sweet

Those who like mild flavor from their smoking wood will enjoy the pleasantly sweet and fruity taste of applewood chips.

A sweet fruit wood like apple is usually a wonderful choice if you’re seeking a fail-safe smoking wood.

Mild woods like apple and crab apple have a very mellow sweet and fruity taste which is amazing for smoking all kinds of fish.

Some might say apple is too mellow for fatty, oily mackerel fillets but it actually gives a near-perfect flavor because if you smoke for longer, the flavor intensifies.

Therefore, it’s hard to over-smoke the fish with this wood.

It’s light and delicate, with just enough sweetness and fruitiness. Your fish will taste wonderful because of the tangy fruity sweet smoke flavor.

Despite its mildness, this wood adds enough smoke flavor to enter the skin and leave a delicate smoky scent.

As a result, you may get the desired BBQ smoke flavor without making it too intense.

Apple is a wonderful mixing wood for toning down the harsh smokiness of a robust hardwood like mesquite.

For mackerel, you can blend the applewood with the oak for a sweet earthy taste.

I should also mention that applewood also smells amazing and lends a sweeter flavor to the strong earthy scents.

If you use the Oklahoma Joe’s apple wood chips you can combine the dry wood chips with soaked ones and you’ll get better smoke.

Peach

  • intensity: mild
  • flavors: fruity, sweet, slightly woodsy

Although peach is a fruitwood, it also has an interesting woodsy aroma. So, it’s sweet, fruity, fresh, and a bit woodsy – perfect for an oily fish like mackerel.

Peachwood is not much different from sweet apricot or pear wood. If you like sweet mellow smoke, you’ll like the taste it gives the fish.

Peachwood is sweet and fruity so it’s ideal for those who don’t like the strong hickory-like taste.

However, compared to other fruit woods, like apple, you can expect a greater smoke profile and a bit more boldness.

It’s still a light wood, but the fruitiness shines through. Peach also has a distinct woodsy flavor that distinguishes it from the other woods available.

This woody pine-like taste makes peach smoke very refreshing.

Peach doesn’t have a tart or acidic aftertaste and it doesn’t overpower the mackerel’s flavors.

Just be aware that peach can turn the fish a somewhat redder color and produces a better smoke ring than apple, making it easier to smoke.

You can get the Western Premium peach wood chips which have a bold sweet taste.

Ash

  • intensity: strong
  • flavors: earthy, classic smoky aroma, balanced, citrusy, piney

Ash is often overlooked as a smoking wood but it’s actually a great choice for smoking fish and provides a good flavor.

When it comes to taste, it’s somewhere between oak and hickory so it’s a strong smoke wood. It also has a traditional smokey BBQ flavor that is a good match for the oily mackerel.

Most other fish can’t handle this type of strong piney earthiness but mackerel can!

However, wood smoke doesn’t have a distinct flavor like bacony hickory, for example. Instead, it has a flavor of classic bbq with a bit of earthiness, citrus flavors, and some piney aromas.

Ash trees are everywhere in North America so you can probably find a chopped ash tree nearby. It seasons faster than other hardwoods so you can start using it for smoking after several months.

Ash burns fast though so be sure to soak the wood chunks first. It is a good wood for hot smoking fish though and if you want classic woody aromas, it’s a fine choice.

Oak

  • intensity: medium-strong
  • flavors: earthy, smokey, slightly musky

The best wood for smoked oily mackerel is true earthy and smoky oak. It gives that classic Southern BBQ-style taste.

Oak is the best wood for smoked mackerel because it adds a strong earthy and slightly musky smokey taste which complements the strong fishy flavor.

These contrasting flavors balance each other out.

If I have to use one word to describe oak it’s probably earthy. Red oak is the best variety to try as it has a strong flavor and it burns a clean smoke.

This wood doesn’t have any sweetness to it, so it’s more a traditional wood which is a good combo with dry rubs, black pepper, and lemon wedges.

Oakwood is strong but not nearly as intense as hickory or mesquite which can be too overpowering for fish.

You can use the low and slow smoking method with oak wood because it burns rather slowly compared to other smoke woods.

But it works for hot smoked mackerel too because the smoke isn’t too dense or intense and you can control the smoke, especially if you soak the wood chips.

For a traditional smoky aroma, you can use regular Camerons Premium oak wood chips or try Post Oak wood chips which have a hint of sweetness to them!

Whiskey Barrel chips

  • intensity: medium-strong
  • flavors: earthy, strong smoky, bourbon whisky

All kinds of mackerel, including king mackerel of kingfish as it’s called, can benefit from a distinctive smoky flavor like bourbon oak barrel chips.

Don’t worry – your fish fillets won’t taste like alcohol at all.

You can use these aged oak whiskey barrel wood chips for hot smoking or cold smoking the fish.

Pitmasters use Jack Daniels whiskey barrel chips to give their smoked food a strong traditional smoke flavor with an earthy and bourbon aftertaste.

The fatty and oily fish, mixed with a refined whiskey smoke flavor tastes amazing.

Because the chips are created from aged whiskey barrels, they have a much richer flavor than regular oak chips.

These impart a lovely heavy smoke to the mackerel, with notes of earthy and bourbon whiskey aromas.

Because mackerel is an oily fish, it can better handle the heavier oak barrel flavors than lean fish.

It’s a step up from ordinary oak wood chips, and it’s ideal for fans of delicate and complex smoke flavors.

These wood chips are ideal for mackerel because of their subtle flavors of faint bourbon vanilla, rich earthy oak, and traditional smoke flavor.

Luckily, you can get world-renowned Jack Daniels whiskey bourbon wood chips from Amazon for an affordable price.

Cedar planks: smoke the mackerel like salmon

It’s never safe to smoke with cedar wood chips. However, you can safely smoke using the cedar planks method.

It’s the same smoking method used to cook salmon.

Place the mackerel fillets on cedar wood planks and then smoke them on the grates. The thing here is that you’re not directly burning the cedar wood so the harmful toxins don’t get into the food.

When you smoke on cedar planks, the flavor from the heated planks penetrates the mackerel fillets but doesn’t infuse them with harmful chemicals from hot burning cedarwood.

If you own a Big Green Egg or Kamado Joe smoker, it’s the perfect cooker for cedar plank mackerel.

The planks contain natural oils which protect the wood while hot smoking fish.

You should soak the wood planks prior to smoking. Then, for an interesting twist on classic smoked fish, you can stuff your fish and smoke the mackerel that way.

Stuffed whole mackerel is a tasty alternative to smoked mackerel fillets.

Woods to avoid when smoking mackerel

Avoid all types of softwoods. Steer clear of conifer/pine softwoods that are sadly too resinous and have a high level of sap. These saps can turn toxic when burned.

Not just that, but softwoods favor creosote production and will make the mackerel taste extremely bitter and quite frankly, awful!

I talked about smoking with cedar planks earlier. Using cedar planks to smoke is safe but using burning cedar wood chips IS NOT!

Hickory and mesquite burn really fast and are too hot plus their bold smokey earthy taste is too overwhelming for fish like mackerel.

How long to smoke mackerel

Smoke mackerel at a temperature of 250-275°F for approximately 2 hours until the fish reaches an internal temperature of 150 F.

Your smoked fish’s temperature may continue to rise by 3-5°C after you’ve removed it from the smoker.

Use your instant thermometer regularly to track your internal temperature. Fish is a delicate meat and can easily get over smoked which is no good.

Is mackerel good for smoking?

Mackerel is among the cheapest fish on the market and just as underrated as fish for smoking.

Easy to catch, easy to fish, and highly nutritious, tastes of an extraordinary level, mackerel offers any smoking fan a fish-food experience few can match.

With smoke woods like oak, you can really improve the fish’s strong oily fishy taste and make it smoky and bold.

Mackerel fillet is smoked by removing the bone from the main skeleton. The bone helps keep the ewes in place during smoking to ensure they’re presented better throughout the procedure.

Get your best BBQ smoker boning knife out to debone the mackerel

This factor can depend entirely on individual choice and is naturally eliminated before smoking.

Take care with removing the bones early so that it is possible to cook them in a smoker without the flesh breaking apart.

You shouldn’t smoke mackerel without putting it in a brine first. This salty brine mixture makes the fish taste great and you don’t even need to use a lot of seasoning for the mackerel.

For the best-smoked fish, simply add cracked black pepper which won’t overpower the delicate flavor of the smoked fish.

You want to taste the fruity flavor of the apple or peach, or alternatively, you want to taste that strong oak, bourbon, or cedar plank aromas.

Takeaway

As you’ve read by now, the wood chips you use will definitely influence the taste of the smoked mackerel.

If you’re not using much more than wet or dry brine and basic seasoning you can use strong smoking woods like oak or whiskey barrel chips to give an earthy flavor.

Alternatively, sweet fruity woods will give a mellow smokiness that everybody enjoys.

Smoked mackerel is a delicious fish to serve with toast, in salads, or as an appetizer.

Here’s another great smoker fish to consider for your next cookout: tasty mullet!

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Lakeside Smokers is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with BBQ Smoking (& Japanese food!) at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.