What you will find in these pages are workable recipes that have been time-tested in heated smokers using easy-to-find ingredients. In many cases, you'll find the handling process to be as intriguing and instrumental in deriving a specific flavor as the recipe itself.
The collection of recipes in this book, both wet and dry brines, are for smoking salmon and steelhead. When dealing with these fatty fish, the objective of a wet brine is to immerse the fillets in water and desired ingredients, whereby saturating the flesh with flavors. In dry brining, the objective is similar, but the moisture content is initially drawn out of the fish which not only enhances the essence of the meat, but slows bacterial formation as well.
Fully submerging fillets in a wet brine is essential for attaining a balanced flavor.
The process of hot smoking fish is simple: the fats are drawn out while sealing in the flavor and juices. The combination of heat and smoke break down the fibers within the meat, while simultaneously releasing fats. The result is a tender piece of cooked meat packed with flavor. The longer the meat is exposed to heat, the drier it becomes.
No matter what recipe you apply, the goal in attaining a well-textured piece of smoked fish lies in creating a balance between salt, sugar, smoke and heat. Adding other spices and flavors you wish the meat to carry is also part of the equation. It should be noted, however, that hot smoking fish is not a form of preservation. Smoked fish has a shelf-life very similar to that of cooked fish, and if refrigerated, should not be kept much more than a week. Vacuum sealing and canning are ways to keep smoked fish for extended periods of time.
EXPANDING THE HORIZON
Our families have been smoking fish for many generations, and it's something we enjoy as well. Several of the recipes in this book are a direct result of our own experimentation, and many were influenced by our global travels. One aspect of smoking we enjoy, is trying to find a recipe to match our mood, the season, or the flavors we crave at the time.
When it comes to smoking fish, many people stick to their favorite recipe, not wanting to wane from what they know works. This book encourages experimentation with recipes that satisfy other tastes. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to divide up fillets into different brines and smoke them at the same time.
Dry brines cause a great deal of juicing to occur.
On a big salmon we'll often get three or four brines going at once. By placing the fish in separate brines, a range of flavors can be attained. When it comes time to air-dry the pieces, simply place them on the smoking racks, making certain they will not drip onto one another. As the pellicle forms - the glazed layer that encases the fillets when exposed to air - juices will be sealed in the meat, so each recipe will absorb only the smoke, not the flavors of the other batches. This is a great way to add variety to your diet, and experiment with small portions of fish to see if you're happy with the final results. Of course, the more fish you have access to, the greater your level of flexibility and experimentation can be.
ALTER TO YOUR TASTE
One of the benefits of smoking your own fish is that you can create a flavor that appeals to your senses. Many of the recipes we've worked with over the years are quite different from their original form. When living in Alaska's Arctic, we smoked a great deal of fish, though were often limited to the ingredients on hand. As we moved to warmer climates with easy to access markets, not only did our smoking style change, but so did many of the ingredients. The result has been a collection of diverse flavors we never knew smoked fish could carry.
Experimenting with multiple brines is a good way to find a flavor you like. Here, Dill Infusion, Extra Hot Habanero and Japanese Touch recipes were used on one large chinook.
For this reason, we encourage you to experiment with the recipes found in this book. If you like some of the ingredients but not others, switch them around to suit you1· taste. If you desire more of a sweet, salty, hot or tangy flavor, adjust the recipes accordingly.
THE BEST SMOKING FISH
When it comes to smoking fish, there are many misconceptions as to which fish smoke best. As with cooking, the fresher the fish, the better the flavor will be. In other words, your best cooking fish is also your best smoking fish. This is because oil content is higher, the meat is firm and less gamey tasting, resulting in a quality end product that greatly accentuates the ingredients in the brine, as well as capturing the smoke flavor.
When targeting fish for the smoker, it's best to avoid the dark, beaten and battered specimens that are nearing their spawning grounds. These fish are better left to perpetuate the species, and turn out a lesser product in the smoker. While the smoke flavor can mask some of the less desirable qualities of aged fish, it will not restore the edibility to a level it once was when the fish was in better condition.
Many connoisseurs of smoked fish will even go so far as to smoke their favorite cuts, while cooking the remainder of the meat. Some of the best-tasting smoked fish comes from the bellies and collars, where oil content runs high. These cuts take longer to cook because of that oil content. If not allowed to thoroughly cook, the flesh will be mushy, and so are often dismissed as less than desirable. But left in the smoker to firm up, these oily sections are perhaps the best eating meat.
For each recipe in this book, we have referenced the fish to be smoked as "fillets." Depending on the size fish you are preparing, fillet size will vary. The fillets cut off a 40-pound chinook will be much thicker· than those from an eight pound steelhead. The size to which fillets are trimmed will ultimately depend on your smoker's performance and the ambient conditions during the time of smoking. The more you experiment with fillets, the better suited you'll become at preparing them to meet your preference.
The formation of pellicle—that glazed look fillets get when air drying after having soaked in brine—is a key step in many smoking recipes.
PREPARING & PROPORTIONING YOUR BRINE
In preparing any brine, it's best done in a vessel that won't transmit foul tastes. Glass, crockery or plastic containers work well, as do stainless-steel bowls. When exposed to ingredients in some brines, wood and aluminum bowls undergo a chemical reaction, whereby tainting the meat.
When it comes to brines, we are not fond of reusing them. After the slimes, fats and internal moisture leach out of an initial batch of cured meat you will not want to subject a consequent batch of fish to the brine. Rather than reuse a brine, try rationing from the outset to ensure proper proportions of a fresh brine are used each time.
When preparing any brine, note the volume of ingredients and the amount of fish you plan on smoking. Some of the brines listed in this book contain enough ingredients to prepare 50 pounds of meat, others no more than a couple pounds. Unless otherwise noted, all recipes will easily accommodate approximately 20 pounds of fish.
Unless specified, each recipe is for a fillet sliced two to three inches thick with the skin on. The thickness of the fillets you use will vary, as will the smoking time.
One of our favorite ways to eat smoked fish is hot, right out of the smoker, but this is true only for select cuts. The oily belly and collar sections are delectable hot off the racks. And while other, thicker pieces are also tasty right out of the smoker, they often harbor harsh smoke flavors, especially on the surface.
If these flavors are a turnoff, remove the skin and immediately refrigerate the pieces. Keep refrigerated for a day or so, giving the meat time to reabsorb the flavors. The end result is a more moist, rich and succulent!y flavored fish that best represents the ingredients that went into creating it.
Brines can be altered to personal preference.
Salmon and steelhead acquire smoke flavors quite quickly. Smoke flavors can be optimized by burning more chips during the cooking process. In addition, by preheating the smoker and getting the chips burning prior to placing the fish in the unit, a more intense smoke flavor will be delivered early in the smoking process.
You may find that a few recipes are fairly similar in terms of ingredients, however, the handling processes are quite different, resulting in a different tasting end product. You'll discover that handling processes play a major role in optimizing and capturing specific flavors in your smoked fish.
KNOW YOUR SMOKER
Ultimately, the best smoked fish will be achieved through practice. Unfortunately, that means a lot of trial and error. By experimenting with different recipes and learning the parameters of your smoker, what it's capable of doing, how it performs in varied climatic conditions and even seasons of the year, you'll gain the most knowledge of the overall smoking process.
When we lived in Alaska's Arctic, we often smoked fish in 50° below zero temperatures. Even with our Little Chief smoker wrapped in a heat blanket, the process took 10-12 hours, and saw us going through several pans of chips, in an effort to generate more heat. Due to the extreme cold, the meat typically had to be finished in the oven. When using the same smoker while living in Indonesia, the cooking time dramatically decreased. Now that we live in Oregon, our cooking times vary with the changing seasons. By knowing how your smoker reacts and performs in the environment in which you live, you will be able to turn out a quality product every time. These are points you might want to record and keep track of for future reference.
There are many styles and brands of smokers on the market, and what you get depends on personal preference. Some depend on a smoker with built-in temperature gauges and control valves, while a select few constructed their own smokers.
The higher the quality of fish you start with, the better taste and texture it will have in the end product.
The recipes found in these pages can be applied by anyone, no matter what style smoker you use. No matter what smoker you prefer, be sure to always place it in a well-ventilated area, away from walls. Do not use smokers on wood floors or decks and be certain all connections - be they gas or electrical - are solid and in place.
By preparing yourself with basic ingredients, quality fish and an open mind, the world of smoking salmon and steelhead can be unlike anything ever imagined. Capturing unique flavors in your smoked fish is simple, and once you discover how delectable and truly diverse they can be, the only question you'll have is, why didn't I start doing this earlier?