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Smoked Tuna Belly: A Delicacy That's Surprisingly Easy

Ken Mason is an avid cook. His son Morgan is a fisherman, and he often shares extra bluefin tuna with Ken. This summer, Ken’s been experimenting with smoking the belly, or Toro, of the tuna.

"As you can see have different kinds of toro here; there is otoro, which is the fattiest and the firmest and then this is chu toro, it’s got more connective tissue and it’s a little tougher and it’s a little flakier.” 

The toro is the belly of the tuna on both sides. 

The belly of the tuna is only a very small portion of the fish, often less than 10%– which is why this cut is considered a delicacy. 

“When you trim it right down it really you know it you'll get a pretty small yield, that's why it's the most expensive part of the fish, it’s almost like the foie gras of seafood."

And how did you decide to start smoking it?

Ken gets a lot of tuna, and tries different methods, so one day he decided to try smoking it, "And the smoked tuna belly is delicious,” he said. 

We’re standing in Ken’s kitchen, where he pulls out two one pound filets of chu toro belly cuts from the fridge. 

“After you’ve butchered the tuna, what you have to do is brine it. And you put it in a brine overnight, 8 hours is what I like to use for fish this size. you don't want to over brine it and you don't want to under brine it you know so depending on how thick the toro is it depends on how long you leave it in the brine, so anywhere from 4 to 8 hours.”

The brine is basically a gallon of water, a cup of salt, 2 cups of soy sauce (the dark cooking soy), a cup of white sugar, a cup of brown sugar, and for a little kick: a tablespoon or two of wasabi powder.

"Yeah and so these have been brined and then the next step is very important when you take them out of the brine you have to dry them thoroughly put them on a baking rack in the refrigerator and at least overnight and let them dry because the smoke won't adhere to the fish if it's wet so that's a really pretty critical you can see it's almost like a skin they almost develop like a skin on them.” 

Similar to smoking bluefish, you want it to get a little sticky.

Smoking at home might sound intimidating, but as long as you have a grill, it’s actually surprisingly easy.

“I don’t have a dedicated smoker, but I have a smoking attachment on my weber grill and that’s what I’m going to use. Make sure it's lit, and will let that start smoking.” 

It’s all in the pre-preparation, Ken says. It’s in the cutting of the tuna, it's in the brining and the drying. Smoking, he says, is the easy part.

Ken keeps the finished product on a sheet pan in the refrigerator that's weighted a little bit to compress it. It makes it a little denser so it's easier to cut.

“Well we will serve it just on crackers we can serve it with a salad you can serve it serve on toasted bagels with cream cheese in the sliced tomato if you want just like smoke salmon. There any number of things you can do with it.”

Ken cuts thin pieces of the smoked toro and serves it with some crackers and a homemade aioli. You can see the marbling, and the fish still has a deep pink color.

Tasting the toro, it’s easy to understand why it’s such a delicacy. The smoked belly is so smooth and buttery it literally melts in your mouth. The best Bluefin tuna fishing in our area is right now—the last two weeks of August through the first two weeks of October.

Here’s to the belly. 

Ken's recipe:


Brine for smoked tuna belly:

One gallon water

1/2 cup kosher salt

Two Cups Dark Soy Sauce

One Cup white sugar

One Cup Brown sugar

Two Tablespoons of Wasabi powder (optional)


Combine all and put in a non-reactive pot. Heat to a simmer and stir. Take off heat and chill. Submerge tuna belly in the brine for 6-8 hours depending on thickness.  Remove from brine and pat dry with paper towels. Place baking rack on a sheet pan and place in refrigerator at least overnight. The fish should develop a skin called a pellicle. Smoke for two to two and a half hours between 225 and 250 degrees F.  After smoking, cover with plastic wrap and put on a sheet pan. Cover with another sheet pan and weight it in the fridge overnight.  Enjoy.  

An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.