Best wood for smoking kingfish | Get royal flavor out of this smoker fish

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  January 28, 2022

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If you’ve been smoking smaller fish but skipped on kingfish, you’re missing out on really tasty recipes for your smoker.

Kingfish refers to a large king mackerel, a fish species native to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

The kingfish is often called a “smoker” because it has a high-fat content and that makes it suitable for smoking. Trust me, when smoked with the right wood, the flavor is out of this world!

Best wood for smoking kingfish | Get royal flavor out of this smoker fish

Since it’s a large fish, the kingfish fillets are thick and very oily.

This requires you to smoke them at low temperatures for a long time to ensure the flavors of the fish and the smoke wood flavors are locked into the flesh.

The best wood for smoking kingfish is citrus wood, like orange or lemon, because the zingy, tangy citrus flavors give a fresh taste to the thick oily fish meat. For those who prefer a very classic smoky flavor, oak and hickory wood chips are the next best thing for smoking this large fish.

I’ll share the most suitable types of wood for smoking this fish.

Best woods for smoking kingfish mackerel

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Since mackerel is a fatty fish, it benefits greatly from stronger flavored smoke woods like oak and hickory.

But, a citrus wood, like orange or lemon, really brings out great flavors that mask up the slightly greasy smell.

In the case of kingfish, it’s not a leaner fish so it doesn’t benefit too much from smoking wood with a mild flavor.

Orangewood

  • intensity: mild and subtle
  • flavors: light, citrusy, fruity, tangy, and slightly sweet

Orangewood chips are hard to come by but you can use smaller orange chunks too.

Orange is a mild fruitwood, with a smoke intensity similar to apple or cherry wood but it has a very different flavor. It’s commonly used to smoke fish and poultry, especially chicken.

The smoke is light, fruity, citrusy, tangy, and adds some zing to the fish.

Since orange is not too strong, it doesn’t overpower the fish and adds a light smokiness. it’s a bit sweet but nothing close to the sweetness of apple and similar fruitwoods.

Some people even go as far as to combine orange with lime and lemon for an intense citrus taste. It’ll eliminate the need to add lemon wedges to the fish when serving.

Orange is a very pleasant and delicate smoking wood and a sure way to add subtle yet delicious flavor to fish like mackerel and even tuna.

DiamondKingSmoker orange wood chunks are available on Amazon but if you need pellets, you can get the Tropical Spark brand for your smoker.

Lemonwood

  • intensity: mild to moderate
  • flavors: citrus, slightly tart, fresh, fruity

Lemon is similar to orange wood but it has a more fresh, tart smoke flavor.

The advantage of lemonwood chips is that they burn slowly and evenly, creating optimal smoking conditions for fish.

It takes a while for the lemon smoke to penetrate the skin side and the flesh, especially the thicker parts so the aroma will be on the mild side.

However, lemon smoke is amazing for kingfish because of the strong citrus taste, fruitiness, and refreshing tanginess.

Lemonwood is not sweet, but more on the tart side and gives the fish a light yellow color.

The Lemonwood smoke, combined with the sweet and salty brine tastes amazing!

Oakwood

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

Probably the most popular hardwood for smoking many types of meat, oak wood is also an excellent choice to smoke kingfish.

It has a very earthy and smokey flavor but it’s not too strong to overpower the taste of the fish.

Oakwood is best described as a medium-intensity smoking wood.

You can use oak for low and slow smoking because it burns quite slowly. So, it imparts an earthy smoky taste during the smoking process without creating thick, heavy smoke.

It infuses the fish with a delicious yet balanced BBQ flavor – think of it like the type of flavors you get from classic Southern barbecue.

This smokiness works surprisingly well for oily fish like mackerel and even with the brine and seasonings like black pepper and lemon.

For the best-smoked fish, you can count on Camerons Products oak wood chips.

Whiskey barrel chips

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

For cold-smoking fish, you can use Jack Daniels wood chips as an alternative to classic oak wood chips. They are far more flavorful because the chips are made from aged whiskey barrels.

These give the kingfish a pleasant strong smoke with hints of earthy and bourbon whiskey flavors.

Since mackerel is an oily fish, it can handle the stronger oak barrel flavors much better than lean fish.

It’s an upgrade for the traditional oak wood chips and best for those who like nuanced and complex smoke flavors.

The nuanced flavors of light bourbon vanilla, strong earthy oak, and classic smoke flavor make these wood chips a great wood for mackerel.

You can get the world-famous Jack Daniels whiskey bourbon wood chips on Amazon for use with any type of smoker. Just pop them in the smoker box soaked or dry and wait to smell that bourbon aroma.

Whiskey barrel chips are also great for smoking eel, another oily fish like kingfish that is wonderful smoked

Hickory wood

  • intensity: strong
  • flavors: bacon-like, earthy

If you love Texas BBQ, you always use hickory to smoke pork and beef but did you know this wood is suitable for smoking kingfish too?

Hickory has an intense smoke profile but it’s still not as strong as mesquite which is too powerful for almost all fish.

Sure, it’s a strong smoking wood, but the bacon-like earthy taste is a perfect match for fatty mackerel meat.

You can even mix hickory with a light fruitwood or one of the citrus woods. It can be a bit intense though, so if you prefer the classic fishy flavors, only use a small quantity of hickory.

Overall, the earthy and lightly musky aromas blend well with the strong fishy taste of mackerel.

Mr. Bar-B-Q hickory chips add a hearty, smoky, and meaty flavor to the fish.

Alder wood

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

Alder is the most common and most popular wood used to smoke fish. So, it’s naturally suitable for smoking kingfish too.

With a slightly sweet and earthy smoke profile, alder is a great wood to add to your smoker if you want the fish to have a subtle smoky flavor.

The earthiness is not overpowering and the slight hint of sweetness complements the fatty taste of the kingfish.

Alder wood chips can be combined with fruitwood, like apple, to add a fruity and sweet smoke aroma.

Overall, alder is a very balanced wood and is best if you aren’t a fan of strong woods like hickory but also don’t like the citrus-flavored woods.

Check out the Camerons Products Alder Wood Smoker Chips. You can use them dry or soaked to give the mackerel a neutral yet smoky aroma.

What woods to avoid

Grapefruit

Grapefruit is one of the common citrus woods but I didn’t add it to the list. The reason is that grapefruit is actually quite a strong flavored wood.

Although it’s fruity, some people who have used it to smoke oily fish complained that it turned out a bit bitter and tart, spoiling the natural taste of the kingfish.

That’s why I recommend orange and lemon as the best citrus woods for smoking.

Softwoods

You always need to avoid smoking with softwoods such as cedar, elm, pine, fir, cypress, etc. These woods are full of dangerous and toxic resin, oil, and sap.

Ingesting this wood smoke can cause illness in some cases, so it’s best to avoid these wood types.

Many softwood tree species, particularly conifers, have poisons and compounds that can be transferred from the wood to food or the environment.

You should also avoid using discarded wood, as well as painted, treated, or tinted wood. It is not suggested that you use wood in the grill if you are unclear about the species.

Is kingfish good smoked?

Smoking fish provides a delicate moist fish accompanied by a thick smoke-filled flavor. Fish such as kingfish will not dry out during the longer cooking periods because of their high oils content.

Fatter fish species like kingfish, trout, or salmon will suck up more smoke flavor and be less susceptible to drying out while cooking. Fish that are native to cold seas are the most suitable varieties for smoking.

The fish skin on the rest of the meat protects the bone and your fish retains more moisture when the skin remains intact. The longer you smoke your fish the more intense the smoke flavor will be.

Kingfish (mackerel) is a very fatty fish with a fat content between 6-23%.

This means the fats and oils make the meat have a stronger fishy taste. But, this also means the meat soaks up and absorbs more of the smoke flavors.

Hence the name “smokers” and why people love to smoke fish fillets from this large fish.

Smoking king fish & how long to smoke

Before you start the smoking process, you should brine the kingfish mackerel first. A basic brine is fine since the wood smoke is going to penetrate the meat and level up the flavors anyway.

In a large bowl, combine some kosher salt and brown sugar in water. Some people add garlic salt too but it’s optional.

Brining fish takes about an hour or so and ensures that the flesh stays moist and absorbs the smoke.

Place the raw fish fillet in the smoker, turn it on and close the smoke vent (if using charcoal, pellet, gas smoker).

I know some people like to smoke the whole fish but fillets are preferable and easier to serve.

The smoke can gather and reach the raw fish meat from different angles if the vent is kept closed the entire time.

Any smoke that escapes via the vent loses its flavor and potential to destroy the bad microorganisms that cause fish to spoil.

For electric smokers, you can just set the temperature and leave it as long as you add some more wood chips when needed.

The internal temperature of the smoker must always be maintained between 14-185 degrees Fahrenheit, which you can do by refilling the wood fuel or stroking the coals.

It shouldn’t be more than 200 F or it will smoke too quickly.

After three to four hours, remove your fish. The fish fillet’s internal temperature should have reached 130–140°F in the thickest part of the flesh.

A good way to monitor the internal temperature of the meat you are smoking is with a wireless meat thermometer

Takeaway

If you have 3 hours to spare, you can’t go wrong with smoked kingfish fillets.

This fish can be served as a main course of part of a platter with some cream cheese, sour cream, green onions, and hot sauce.

The best mild woods to use are the citrus trees – these give such a pleasant smoked fruity flavor, your dinner guests will surely be pleased with your smoked fish.

If you prefer strong smoky aromas, you can always count on hickory and oak to smoke tasty fish fillets.

When you’re feeling adventurous, you can mix wood chips just be sure to mix mild wood with strong wood to create balanced smoke aromas.

Rather try a lighter whitefish? Try smoking haddock with these wood choices

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.