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October 2003 Issue
How to Smoke Salmon
by Philip R. Gantt
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Welcome to Seasoned Cooking and to Phil's International Flair!

First, I would like to thank readers who have purchased Grillmate Gourmet Sauce from my web site. I hope you enjoy the free cookbook as well as the sauce. In addition, I would like to thank readers for their feedback and recipes that you have shared with me. I'll be trying some of these out and perhaps using them as subject matter for future columns.

Fall is a time when the salmon are running in most large rivers of the Pacific Northwest and perhaps also in streams that enter the Great Lakes. Anglers who have stocked their freezers with the bounty of the river may be wondering what to do with all of that salmon. Smoked salmon is a favorite with just about everyone I know. This month I am going to give some general guidelines for smoking fish as well as some tips for making your salmon some of the best in town.

People that live in different areas of the country will have different woods available to them that are suitable for smoking. Several woods are preferred, depending on location. My favorite is oak, however Alder is popular in the Pacific Northwest. Hickory, in my opinion, is too strong for salmon and is better suited for smoking meats. Most sporting good stores and many markets carry wood chips for smoking. For salmon, the best to select are woods that impart a milder flavor. Alder, oak, apple and mesquite are preferred. I also like to add a dried corn cob when smoking salmon. The corn cob seems to impart a sweet flavor to the fish.

These general guidelines should help you produce a superior product from your fish. It is best to use fresh fish, if possible. However, thawed fish will work well also. If you purchase fish, be certain that it is wild salmon and not farmed salmon. From my experience, farmed salmon becomes mushy when smoking, especially if it has been previously frozen. Trout and steelhead are also suitable for smoking with this method.

Now, on to the recipes! Be well, and good eating!

 

Smoked Salmon

The first step in smoking salmon is called brining. This means soaking the fish is salted water for some period of time. Some people like to flavor the brine with seasonings or liquid smoke. I prefer to keep it simple.
  • 10 lbs. salmon fillets or steaks
  • 1 gallon water
  • 2 cups brown sugar
  • 2 cups table salt
Dissolve the sugar and salt with the water in a large bowl. Place the pieces of salmon into this brine and allow it to soak at room temperature for 45 minutes to 1 hour. If you soak the fish too long, the end product will be very salty. If you like, you may season the fish with spices before placing in the smoker. If you do this, try something simple to start like pepper, lemon pepper, or a sprinkling of your favorite herbs.

Next comes the smoking part of the process. Any covered grill is suitable for smoking. However, you must be certain that the fish does not rest directly above the coals. For smoking, it is best to use wood like mesquite chunks or oak as the base for the fire. If you must use charcoal, make sure that the coals have a complete coating of ash before applying wood chips for smoke. If you happen to have a smoker, place the fish on the top rack, cover and apply your wood chips for smoke. Cover and allow it to smoke for 1 hour before testing. Smoking salmon does not have to be a lengthy process, particularly if the smoke chamber is very warm.

To achieve a cooler smoke, make a smaller fire and smoke the fish a bit longer. Add wood chips as necessary, but not too frequently. You will want to use wood chips as you would use spices in a sauce. Use a little of this and a little of that, not too much of one thing. With a cool smoke, you may keep the fish in the smoker for several hours, however monitor it closely to make sure that it doesn't overcook or become too dry. If you use a very cool smoke and process the fish for only about 30 to 45 minutes, you will have lox.

The process is the same if you use a standard covered grill like a Weber Kettle. Before putting the fish on the rack, push the coals to one side of the kettle. Apply the wood chips and replace the grill. Place the fish on the opposite side of the grill (not over the coals) and cover, making sure that the air flow hole on the lid is over the fish. Adjust the air flow holes so that there is just enough air to keep the fire going. Increase the air flow as necessary.

You may also smoke salmon in a covered gas grill. Assuming that you have a grill with burners on each side, fire up one of the sides but not the other. You want to put the fish on the side with the burners off. For smoke, place the wood chips in an empty coffee can and place directly over the heat, under the grill. Since a gas grill does not have a method for restricting air flow, you will want to monitor the fish very closely. The smoke in a gas grill will be warm and the fish will therefore smoke rather quickly. Keep the flames at a minimum and allow it to smoke for 45 minutes before sampling.

To Soak or Not to Soak, that is the question. Many people prefer to soak the wood chips in water for about half an hour before using. This accomplishes 2 things: One, the chips will burn longer and are less prone to flare up; and two, the water will add humidity in the smoke chamber enabling the heat to penetrate the fish more rapidly. Frankly, I seldom, if ever, soak my wood chips before using. Why, you might ask? Because I prefer that the chips begin smoking immediately upon application to the coals. Yes, I may go through more chips this way, but the smoke is what flavors the fish. More chips, more smoke. Also, without soaking, the smoke will be dry rather than moist. I feel that a dry smoke gives me more control over the smoke process. So, it is a matter of personal choice. I have tried it both ways with excellent results from both. Soaking the chips before using is an extra step in the process that I prefer to avoid.

So, there you have it. All the basic information you need to smoke your own salmon at home. And, it beats paying in excess of $15 per lb. or more for smoked salmon! Smoke up and enjoy!

  • Yields: 20 servings
  • Preparation Time: 1 to 2 hours minimum
 



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