Secrets of Smoking Salmon
Salmon remains one of the best sources of protein and other nutrients found in the Northwestern US and Canada. The methods of preservation I cover here are effectively the same as what various cultures have used to preserve fish and meats for thousands of years. Fish offers challenges when it comes to preservation. Freezing gives you a decent storage life but of course usually requires power to maintain storage. Canning is one valid way of preserving fish, but in my opinion does a less than perfect job of preserving flavor. Smoking is one option that works pretty well for the short term.
These methods are made safer and more efficient through some relatively simple technology.
Fish in general is usually safe to eat fresh, and many saltwater fish like Tuna and Salmon can be safely eaten raw. The shortcoming is in how long the meat can last after death of the animal. Fish meat begins to decompose quickly and steps must be taken to preserve the meat or it will become riddled with bacteria and parasites. Cooking the fish is a quick fix, but also gives a relatively short preservation time. That is where smoking comes in.
The smoking process is fairly simple. Indians would often catch and clean fish then immediately begin a fairly simple smoking process. Smoking fish like this is effective, but can be risky when it comes to eliminating bacteria and parasites. The most common way a home food preserver can deal with this is by soaking the fish in a brine solution.
The things needed for Smoking salmon are fairly simple. I use a Luhr-Jensen smoker which makes efficient use of wood chips and runs on 110V electric power. Thus, it is easier to tend than charcoal and wood burning smokers.
OK, so lets get to it, Here is how to prepare eight to ten pounds of fish.
First, get a hold of the fish, gutted and headed (head cut off). Larger fish will have to be cut into chunks that will fit in the smoker. Smaller fish can be filleted in half. DO NOT cut the fish into fish steaks. This is because the side of the fish that touches the grill in the smoker will stick to the grills. If you use fillets and fillet chunks, you can place them skin down on the grills and the worst that happens is that the meat separates from the skin but you still get a good piece of the meat. Salmon steaks will come all apart and you end up losing a lot of good meat.
Soak the fish in a brine solution of salt, sugar, spices and some preservative. Like it or not, most commercial brine mixes will contain some MSG. I personally would rather have some of the possibly harmful chemical in my diet than definitely harmful parasites or bacteria. Most packages have instructions to soak the meat in brine for six hours in the fridge. I prefer to go overnight just to be more safe. Use a covered pot like the one to the right so that it does not stink up other stuff in the fridge. I add in a few spices to the brine to give a unique flavor to the fish.
The fish and brine is normally a cold marinade that is done in the refrigerator but in cold climates, you can just leave it outside and covered so animals do not get to it. Fish can stay in the brine for several days without going bad, but it will begin to fall apart around four days and will not hold together all that well in the smoking process.
Not all wood is good for smoking foods, especially fish which will be very sensitive to the chemicals in the wood. I have apple trees on the property and the cuttings from the trees make for good wood chips when fed through the chipper. Commercial chips made from Mesquite, Hickory, Apple, Alder and other woods are good options for different flavors. DO NOT use pine as it will impart a turpentine flavor to the food and ruin it. When I use fruitwoods, I like to ad some of the fruit to the chip pan. This makes more smoke and imparts more sugar into the meat. It also makes damaged fruit a little bit more useful than Deer bait. Cut the apple chunks and place them on top of some wood chips, then cover them with other wood chips. Expect to refill the pan several times throughout the smoking process. This is usually done by just adding more chips as the wood breaks down, but some people will dump the charcoal and ashes and then put on new chips every few hours. Do whatever gets the most consistent smoke out of your wood. The smokers also produce heat which will dry the wood, but heat will not give you the flavor. The smoke is what brings in flavor.
Here we see a combination of a large fillet and smaller pieces placed on a smoker grate. The pieces should be placed skin down and not touching each other. You may want to put some spice on at this point, but I usually wait until it is partially smoked.
I ended up cutting the fin off of the bottom right fish. You want to avoid having any of the fish touching the sides of the smoker or it will stick.
Note that the smaller you make the pieces, the more space the fish will take up on the rack because of the space you need to leave between the pieces of meat.
The "fully loaded" Little Chief smoker with about eight pounds of fish. Note that at some points in the smoking process, you will want to swap the top and bottom grates around. The top grate gets more smoke while the bottom gets more heat. If you leave them in place throughout the process, they will turn out inconsistent.
Smoking times will vary widely depending on how you want the end product to turn out. 24 hours will give you a decent jerky type meat. Either way, you will need to change or ad more wood chips about every hour or two. Generally, twelve hours will give you a good meat texture and good smoke penetration for smoked salmon that you will keep in the fridge for a few months. For longer preservation or saving it in a less temperature controlled environment, you have to smoke the salmon longer. 24 hours in the smoker will give you something on the order of Salmon Jerky. Salmon Jerky is tasty and nutritious, but it is difficult to remove the bones from the stuff. I find that the safest way to deal with very dry smoke salmon is to separate the meat and bones immediately after removing it from the smoker when the meat is still soft. The stuff you end up with is then separated into cat food (skin and bones) and a meat that can be eaten plain, or spiced and used as a main flavoring ingredient in thick sauces and gravy. It does not do well in soups.
Twelve hours in the smoker later, out comes a fairly moist smoke salmon. The fish is going to be warm and soft and will fall apart easily when you start prying it off the grates. I found that it is a lot easier and less mess to deal with if I cool it on the grates for several hours, either in the cool night air or in the fridge, before trying to take it off the grates. This is also a good time to apply additional spices. The white greasy substance is Salmon oil - probably the healthiest source of non clogging cholesterol you can put in your diet. This nutrient not only is very tasty by absorbing flavoring agents like spice and smoke, but it displaces harmful cholesterol in your system. I find it best to use finely ground spices on the salmon. In this case, powdered Garlic and Ground black pepper. Avoid over salting the fish once it is smoked. Remember that it had been already soaking in a salt brine for several hours and a lot of salt remains in the meat.
Here is one way of packaging the fish. I am using an older "seal a meal" machine with food preservation bags. Sealing the bag around the shape of the meat helps reduce the amount of air that gets trapped in the bag with the meat. The machine heat welds the pouches that are cut to size from a roll. Newer machines of this type will also vacuum seal the contents of the pouch which give you some longer shelf life. Meat that is sealed like this has good shelf life, but you need to at least refridgerate it if you are going to store it for any length of time. Freezing will change the texture of the meat but will not usually otherwise harm it.
The end result of a process that takes around two days to complete. After a fair amount of snacking, the result is about four pounds of meat yield from six pounds of fish. Considering the many steps involved in the prepping, smoking and packaging process, it is really best to smoke salmon in large batches in order to make it worthwhile. Home smoked salmon can easily trade at local farmer's markets for $10 a pound and really good stuff will go as high as $50 per pound at tourist traps like Klamath Falls and various Indian reservations along the Oregon coast. The value of being able to make it yourself from fish caught in the wild is priceless.
Smoked Salmon Skin (in the bowl to the left) contains a lot of flavor and nutrient which makes it quite valuable to a sushi chef, but care must be taken to prevent it from drying out or falling apart as it deteriorates very quickly. If you are not planning a sushi party, it is best rendered into cat food. Another option if you have a food processor is to finely grind it up and mix with sour cream and cream cheese for an excellent chip dip. Note that once the salmon is mixed with any dairy product, the shelf life and refrigeration requirements will match that dairy product.
The protein and nutrient content ratio of this food to its weight and bulk is one of the best you can possibly have in a winter environment where you are raveling light. It is lighter and more compact than canned meats while giving better flavor but will not fare as well in higher temperatures. Even refrigerated, shelf life of smoked salmon is limited to around one month before you start getting some mold growth and deterioration of the softer parts of the meat. Vacuum packing will stretch the shelf life considerably more than simple plastic sealed packages. Given that salmon runs are usually in the fall, this is an excellent preserved winter food for northern survivors which can easily sustain people without other sources of fat or protein. Fairly small amounts of smoked salmon will give nutrient values than greater amounts of factory farmed chicken, pork or beef. Even better, it is one of the healthiest salty fatty treats for those who need to watch their intake of harmful cholesterol.
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