If you start with a fish whose flesh is of poor quality, then you’ll end up with a poor finished product no matter how much smoke it soaks up. The worst mistake to make when making smoked fish is to start with a fish that you wouldn’t want to eat another way. Tony Amato image
Smoked fish. The currency of instant respect and admiration in the world of casual salmon and steelhead an anglers. Take a bunch to work, and everyone is your friend, and they give you the chance to re-tell the story, to exaggerate how big the fish was, and generally to puff your-self up a little bit. There’s a certain smug satisfaction in being known as the guy who brings smoked fish to work. I mean, anybody can bake muffins or pick up a dozen bagels, but fish that you caught AND smoked? That’s a whole different level.
Smoking a salmon or steelhead is one of those undertakings that when done correctly is not terribly difficult, but executing each step correctly is important. There are definitely right and wrong ways to do things. And the first step can be the hardest. But even the most inexperienced angler and charcutier can produce smoked fish that others will love.
We’ve all heard the rationalizations of an angler who just wants to run up his body count by taking home a fish, any fish…even the dark, rough-looking buck or the hen that has clearly already spawned and looks like a hammer handle…“he’ll smoke up OK.” No, no he won’t. If you start with a fish whose flesh is of poor quality, then you’ll end up with a poor finished product no matter how much smoke it soaks up. The worst mistake to make when making smoked fish is to start with a fish that you wouldn’t want to eat another way.
It is also important to understand just what sort of fish you have. In general, spring Chinook and summer steelhead are better to eat, smoked or otherwise, than fall Chinook, coho or winter steelhead are. This is because fish that enter rivers several months before they spawn need a higher fat content in order to survive. A fish from a longer river system will have better meat than a fish from a shorter river will, and for the same reason. When dealing with fall salmon and winter steelhead, especially those from short coastal river systems, it’s best to keep only the brightest specimens, whether for smoking or for any other sort of table fare.
In addition, if you have a fish that is right on the borderline of being a keeper or not, bucks are typically a little bit better to eat than hens are, especially as they mature sexually. The production of eggs seems to take more out of a hen, physically, than the production of milt takes from a buck. Hens with ripe eggs are often of marginal quality.
Now that you know what sort of fish to look for, you need to understand how to take care of the fish between the time it is caught and when it is processed. Once you’ve decided to keep the fish, stun it with a sharp bonk or two to the head and then bleed it. Over the decades, preferred methods of bleeding have come in and out of fashion. As a teenager, I remember seeing steelhead hanging from trees at the good holes, a slit in the wrist of the tail and blood dripping down to the rocks below. A pocketknife to the heart was how the cool kids did it for a while. These days, it seems that either cutting or ripping a fish’s gills is the preferred method. However you decide to do it, it’s best to get as much blood out of the fish as possible.
Once the fish has been bonked and bled, it needs to be cooled off. It is not absolutely crucial to get it on ice immediately, but you definitely want to keep it as cool as your situation allows you to. Whether this is shade, gill-strung in the river, under a layer of damp moss, in an ice chest or in a drift boat fishbox, get the fish as cool as you can as soon as you can. Since salmon and steelhead are not warm-blooded, there is no compelling reason to get the guts out of them right away.
When it comes to cutting the fish up, think about maximizing surface area of the flesh. The more surface area is exposed to the brine and smoke, the more flavor your finished product will have. Cut the fish into several smaller pieces rather than fewer bigger pieces. Think about what would require more paint—a six-foot 2 x 4, or that same board sawed up into 12 six-inch blocks? The blocks clearly have more surfaces than the board would have. In terms of smoking fish, this equates to more meat surface area to absorb the smoke flavor.
Also, each piece should have a “skin side.” This skin side is what will rest on the racks in your smoker. If anything is going to adhere to the rack, you’d rather have it be the skin than the flesh.
Now that your fish has been bonked, bled, cooled, and cut up, it’s time to put the pieces into a brine. This is where recipes come in. Some people are as protective about their recipe as the are about their egg cure. Some people are as committed to their recipe and ONLY THEIR recipe as they are to their spouse. This is fine. But it’s really not necessary.
Here’s the secret to making good smoked fish: The process is way more important than the actual recipe. It’s like a cheeseburger—as long as you have burger and cheese of reasonable quality, and as long as you prepare it the right way, it’s going to be good. Whether you choose to put onions, coleslaw, a fried egg, etc. on your cheeseburger is strictly personal preference. Nobody loves a cheeseburger with pepper jack cheese but hates one with cheddar.
Similarly, when it comes to smoking fish, if you like garlic, teriyaki, bay leaf, etc. flavor in your fish then by all means throw some in. Just know that the preparation and treatment of the fish and the execution of the process are much more important to the finished product than the ingredients themselves are. Start with salt to make the moisture exchange happen and sugar to offset the salt, and everything else is just preference.
HERE IS MY USUAL RECIPE:
- ¼ cup of NON-IODIZED salt
- ¼ cup of sugar (white or brown, which-ever is handy)
- 1 quart of water
- Stir until thoroughly dissolved
Fish brined over-night are placed on racks and allowed to dry for a few hours until a pellicle forms. Then they go into the smoker for 4 to 8 hours. Tony Amato image
Put fish in a plastic, glass, or crockery bowl. Pour the brine over it and stir the pieces around a little. The pieces on top should be placed skin side up so that the meat side is definitely soaking in the brine.
A 6-7 pound fish will need 1 quart of brine. A bigger one will need more. Just double, triple, or multiply the entire recipe by however much is required to make sure that all of the meat is submerged in the container.
Let the fish soak on the brine for at least 8 hours in the fridge. There is no such thing as too long, unless the fish starts to deteriorate. I’ve left it on brine for as long as 48 hours in the fridge before. It will only absorb so much brine and no more.
Take the fish out of the brine and rinse the pieces under clean water. This will remove excess salt and fish slime, and will greatly improve the flavor of the finished product. Do NOT skip this step.
Let the pieces of fish air dry meat-side-up for an hour or so until they’re just barely tacky. This tacky outer layer, called a pellicle, will form on the outside of the meat. This pellicle provides the best surface to absorb smoke.
Get the smoker hot and smoking at least 20-30 minutes before putting the fish in. Alder chips provide the best flavoring for smoking fish by far, followed by apple. Alder gives the classic, northwest, “smoked fish” flavor, while apple gives a slightly sweeter and milder flavor.
Before you put the pieces of fish on the smoker racks, spray the racks with nonstick cooking spray. This makes the fish much easier to remove after the smoking process is done.
Place the chunks of fish on the racks skin-side down. Don’t let individual pieces touch each other. Placing the pieces so that the smoke can reach every exposed millimeter of meat will improve the flavor. If you want pepper on the fish, put it on now. The pepper will adhere/imbed into the pellicle.
Put thicker pieces closer to the heat source, and thinner pieces further away from the heat source. This ensures that the whole batch will be done much closer to the same time.
Spring Chinook and summer steelhead will be more forgiving of over-cooking than fall salmon or winter steelhead will be. The more fat a fish has, the less likely it is to dry out. In fact, a May or June summer steelhead or an early-run spring Chinook (or just about any salmon caught from saltwater) will drip grease like cooked bacon. This keeps it moist. A fall or winter fish with less fat can be overcooked and dry out.
The length of time to leave fish in the smoker can vary depending on a couple of different factors.
One factor is the sort of smoker you use. A thin, uninsulated sheet metal smoker (like the classic Little Chief and Big Chief smokers) are significantly affected by the outside temperature. They’ll smoke an 8-pound summer steelhead in 6-8 hours during the heat of August, but can take twice that long (or longer) on a winter steelhead in January. An old fridge with a hot plate in the bottom will usually take less time to smoke the fish because it’s insulated, and because the hot plate will generate a lot of heat. A smoker with heat control can be adjusted, and thereby be more predictable.
Another factor is the amount of heat that the smoker generates. This can obviously be a function of the BTUs that the heating element cranks out, but it can also be a function of the burning chips in the chip pan. When the chips are really burn-ing, they’re putting out additional heat. The fish won’t absorb the smoke flavor from more than about two pans worth of chip smoke, but having burning chips underneath the racks generates additional heat, so I burn chips until the fish is done (unless I’m leaving it in overnight or other-wise trying to go slowly).
Smoke the fish until it turns a dark reddish golden brown, the thin part of the belly pieces curl inward and the ends of the pin bones in the “shoulder” pieces are clearly visible in the thick part of the meat. The tail pieces will usually be some of the first ones done because they’re thinner, and the pieces from in front of the dorsal fin will usually be the last ones done. Depending on how uniform or how irregular your pieces are, some may be done well before the others. It is totally normal for the last pieces to take quite a bit longer than the first pieces.
Some people will extoll the virtues of “cold smoking,” or smoking at a low temperature over a long period of time. I’ve never found this to make a difference to the final product. A fish that is done after 7 hours and two pans of alder from a Little Chief will taste just as good as one that was cold-smoked for two days will. Cold smoked fish is good because the kind of person who has the set-up, the time and the skill to successfully cold-smoke anything is probably already meticulous about the rest of the preparation process and isn’t going to waste a couple of days (not to mention their reputation or talents) cold-smoking a dark or spawned-out fish. Naturally, occasional “quality control” is not only permitted, it is encouraged. Smoked fish never tastes any better than when it is still warm. If you’re going to package smoked fish, there are a few things to keep in mind. Let it cool before packaging. Putting warm fish into plastic bags leads to condensation. You want the fish to be room-temperature and dry before putting it into any kind of plastic bag. If you use a vacuum sealer, remove any bones (especially the pin bones from the shoulder pieces) before sealing. If you don’t, the bones will poke holes in the bag, causing you to lose the seal. An alternative to removing the pin bones is to put the pieces together meat-side to meat-side in the bag. This works best if you can have mirror-image pieces from both sides of the fish, as they’ll nestle with each other just right. Also if you use a vacuum sealer, be sure to use a longer bag than you think you’ll need. The vacuum sealing process can suck liquid out of the smoked fish and interrupt the seal (as well as gumming up the sealer itself). The longer bag allows the vacuum sealing process to be completed before the liquid has made its way to the bag’s opening. Another way to defeat this liquid creep issue is to place a folded paper towel in each bag between the fish and the bag’s opening. Be deliberate and planful in the amount of fish you put into each package. It makes a great gift, and it makes a great lunch item to take backpacking or hunting. In such cases, it makes more sense to have several small packages rather than fewer large packages. That’s about it. Making good quality smoked fish has a lot more to do with what you do than with what you use. So long as you start with a high-quality fish and you handle and prepare it properly, you’ll end up with a finished product that’s just as good as anyone else’s. As time goes by and you produce more batches you may develop certain flavor preferences, but selecting the right fish and following the process are the most important “secret ingredients.”