Smoking salmon or steelhead can be as easy or as difficult as you make it. By using high quality fish, however, you can produce a very high quality smoked fish product using even the most basic recipe and ingredients. Don’t be fooled into thinking the dark fish you just caught on the river is “good enough for the smoker”, either, as the quality of the product at the end of the process will be exactly what you put into it. Below is a simple recipe that I use to smoke all my fish.
Preparing the Fish After filleting the fish, in this case it’s a steelhead, decide whether you want to leave the fish in whole fillets for a presentation, or single serving size pieces. More often than not I chunk my fillets into a size appropriate to serve several people, so we can pull it out of the freezer as we need it. The pin bones can easily be removed from the fillet with a set of pliers. There are literally hundreds of different recipes for smoking fish, most of which turn out a great tasting piece of fish in the end. This is a very simple recipe that I picked up from local chef, Nicole Meinzer, that produces a great tasting product.
Ingredients -1 Cup Brown Sugar (dark brown sugar works great, too!) -1 Cup Coarse Kosher Salt (Pickling Salt also works) -1 Cup White Sugar -3 Quarts of Water
Combine the above ingredients in a plastic container or non-metallic mixing bowl. To make the ingredients dissolve more readily I use hot tap water and then allow the mixture to cool in the fridge before adding the fish to it. Also, be sure the salt you use for the brine is non-iodized, as iodized salt produces a metallic taste in the fish after it’s done smoking.
Both Pickling and Kosher salt are highly refined, making them dissolve quickly and absorb more readily into the fish. Depending upon your taste you can also add garlic, red pepper flakes, lemon pepper, cracked black pepper, Worstershire Sauce, and just about anything else you can imagine to this recipe. Personally, I prefer to sprinkle some cracked black pepper on my fish prior to placing it in the smoker.
Place the fish in the brine meat-side down and leave it in the refrigerator for 6 to 8 hours. Aside from the brine, the next step in this process is probably the most important in assuring your fish turns out excellent.
After removing the fish from the brine place it either on the smoker racks or on cookie racks and allow it to air dry for roughly two hours. During this time a glaze, also known as a pellicle, will form on the surface of the fish, trapping the brine and fish oils within the meat. A fan can be used to speed up this process, but I typically just let the fish air-dry in the kitchen at room temperature for around two hours or when a tacky glaze is found on the surface of the flesh.
The Smoker There are several commercially produced smokers on the market that work great for smoking fish. You’ll find smokers that use propane as a heat source and others that use an electric element to burn the chips and heat the unit. Personally, I prefer an electric burner because it creates a constant, uniform amount of heat each and every time I use it.
For safety reasons, you should always plan on placing the smoker a safe distance from anything combustible and don’t plan on smoking fish on your wooden deck. A very good friend learned this lesson the hard way by burning his beach house to the foundation. A neighborhood dog couldn’t resist the smell of smoked fish and tipped over the smoker while he was away running errands.
Alder, apple, cherry, and hickory chips are all sold commercially by companies like Brinkman and Little Chief, or if you’re like me, you can make your own wood chips. I simply cut a 2 to 3 inch diameter branch from an alder or apple tree and using a cordless skill saw I slice thin discs off the end of the branch. I have several of these branches in the wood pile that I am constantly cutting pieces off of for the smoker. Once the branches dry out, however, you’ll want to soak your discs in water for several hours before adding them to the smoker.
Placement of the smoker is also a consideration, as strong winds and cold temperatures can lower the temperature within the unit. If outside temperatures become too cold I’ll opt to wait until things warm up to smoke my fish.
Smoking the Fish Coat the smoking racks with a non-stick like Pam to keep the fillets from adhering to the grill and place the fish on the racks. After placing the fish in the smoker I like to leave the lid of the smoker, in this case a Brinkman, slightly ajar to keep the temperature down in the smoker. I typically do this for the first 1 to 2 hours of the smoking process to “cold smoke” the fish, giving as much smokey flavor as possible.
Once you drop the lid on the smoker the heat should be somewhere between 145 and 150 degrees, which is enough to kill bacteria and dry the fish out. Another way of completing the drying process is to “cold smoke” the fish in the smoker and then finish it off in the oven at 150 to 200 degrees. That’s all a matter of preference, however, and I prefer to finish the whole process in the smoker.
Check the smoker roughly every 30 minutes and if smoke isn’t emanating from the unit add more chips. You’ll usually have to do this several times throughout the process. How long you leave the fish in the smoker is dependent upon your taste, but when smoking silver salmon or steelhead in the Brinkman a total smoking time of about 3 hours is all that’s usually necessary. Thicker king salmon fillets will take longer to fully smoke, of course.
Packaging the Smoked Fish
If you want to store the smoked fish in the freezer for an extended period of time using a Food Saver vacuum packer, or similar vacuum sealing type unit, is highly recommended. After the fish is sealed be sure to write the date and what type of fish it is on the outside of the plastic. Once you’ve mastered this process, however, you’ll find that the fish rarely even makes it to the freezer!