Smoking fish is like brewing beer in the sense that commercial operations strive to make a consistent product. People doing it at home strive to come up with something so good they have to call their friends at odd hours and say, “You’ve got to try this.”
Smoking is the ancient method of keeping fish edible for long periods. Today smoked fish is commonly shrink wrapped and put in the freezer. Typically fish is prepared in a brine marinade or a mix of sugar and salt before smoking. You want: containers to hold the fish while it brines, brine ingredients, a smoker, wood chips and a fan.
Brine Containers: a 6”x 12” x 18” plastic container from the restaurant supply place holds 4 sockeyes and fits conveniently in the refrigerator. You can stack them. If you don’t want plastic on your food a covered bread bowl, gallon glass pickle jars, stoneware crocks, or Pyrex baking pans work just fine. You don’t want to use metal pans.
Brine: There are hundreds of brine choices. My go-to recipe was shared by a young woman who was incarcerated at Southeast Alaska’s Kid Jail, the Johnson Youth Center, during the short time I worked there. She was a good kid from a bad situation who should never have been locked up. This is my annual reminder to myself that prisoners have a lot to offer society if society gives them a chance. People love this recipe.
Hawaiian Strips Basic: enough for 4 sockeyes. 1 quart soy sauce, 1 ½ cans undiluted pineapple juice concentrate, 1 ½ cans cold water, 1 pound plus 1 cup of brown sugar, 1 clove garlic (too much garlic overpowers pineapple and salmon flavors). I usually double the recipe, put half the fish into one container with the basic recipe. The other half goes into 2 one gallon jars with whatever ingredients catch my imagination. Just now I’ve got a jar going with the basic recipe plus a crushed mango and some hot mango chutney, and another jar with an added cup of spruce tip jelly. Other add-ins that have worked: shaved ginger, chipotle pepper sauce, 2 cups crushed fruit: apricots, nagoon berries, salmon berries or blackberries (blackberries give the meat a dark purpley outside with a beautiful orange inside), fruit preserves, other kinds of juice instead of pineapple, Bruschetta Originale herb mix (sprinkled on just before the fish goes into the smoker—this is terrific), wasabi.
Leave skin on fillets. Cut fillets into pieces about 1 ½ to 2 inches wide except tail ends which are 3 or 4 inches wide. Set pieces in brine. Put containers in the refrigerator. If you don’t have room in the fridge clean ice in a large cooler works better anyway. Set covered containers into the ice almost to the top. Keep them cold. Twice a day turn the fish gently by hand. After a few hours you’ll notice the fish firming up. Leave them in the brine for 12 to 48 hours.
Consider throwing the collars in your brine. If you bring fish to a commercial smoker to have them filleted and smoked, it’s a fair question to ask if they pare off the bellies. Some places do and don’t send them home with the fish. There’s a lot of meat and fat on the bellies, the good kind, Omega 3’s. With smoked collars and bellies selling for more than steak it’s worth using them yourself.
Wipe olive or canola oil on your clean smoker racks—if you don’t the fish sticks to the racks and beautiful pieces break up when you pull them off. Gently strip off excess marinade with your fingers. Arrange on racks skin side down. Set fan over racks and turn it on for an hour or so until the meat surface loses its shine. This matte finish on top is called the pellicle and it makes a substantial difference in the texture of your fish. After this step put the racks in the smoker, load the pan with wood chips (some people soak the chips in water first). If you’re using different brines in the same smoker tie a piece of colored string on racks to tell them apart. Set smoker on tiles or something so it’s not directly on the deck. Plug it in and relax. While the fish are smoking clean up the kitchen and throw out the brine. Don’t reuse it.
Smokers: come in all sizes and price ranges. Mine is a five rack Big Chief. Good points are it’s made in America, small, light, easy to operate, inexpensive and holds four average sockeyes at once. Not so good points are it’s thin walled and doesn’t have a temperature control which means the amount of time before the fish is ready varies with the outside temperature and wind. Wood chips can be alder which is the traditional wood and there’s lots of it around, or mesquite; a bolder smoke, or hickory, somewhere between alder and mesquite, or cherry or apple. Cherry is a milder smoke, apple’s more bitter. A few woods, like elderberry, have toxins in the wood. With so many woods that are excellent smoking woods, don’t experiment with esoteric stuff unless you’re sure it’s going to be safe to eat.
After an hour open the smoker, pull out the bottom rack, move each of the racks above it down one row and put the rack that was on the bottom on top. Refill the wood chips pan, cover the smoker. Do the same in another hour. On a hot day it might take 3 to 4 hours to smoke this way. On a cold, windy day it might take nine hours. There’s no need to add wood chips after 4 hours but probably no harm if you do. Keep alternating racks, though. On cold days you can speed the process by wrapping your smoker with foil faced bubble wrap insulation. That raises the internal temperature so you’ve got to watch it more closely.
When the fish is done is a matter of personal preference. Not raw and mushy, not baked and bread crumbly. Hawaiian Strips brine keeps fish moist. When the top surface of the fish begins looking quite dry on top, it’s close. At first glance you think, ‘Oh, Oh. I wrecked it.’ but it’s probably okay. Oils will leech through that dryness as the fish cools. Break open one of the thinner pieces and see how it’s doing on the inside. Tail pieces tend to be thinnest. If you arrange them all on one rack you can pull that out to cool while the others go a while longer. If you let the thin pieces go too long and they’re more dry than you’d like they are just the thing to make cream cheese salmon spread, salmon fettuccine, salmon deviled eggs, etc.
Let the fish cool. Vacuum seal two or three pieces per bag and put them in the freezer. Good job. These are popular in Christmas packages headed to family and friends down south and lend themselves to all sorts of easy and elegant recipes. One little trick to do with freezers is to freeze a paper cup of water and turn it up side down in the freezer. That way if the cold kicks off you will know it. Typically you’re in the freezer at least once a week. In the unlikely event your freezer has died you can save the contents by getting them to another freezer or canning which we’ll talk about next time.