Alaska Fish & Wildlife News
October 2006

Simple Smoked Salmon

By Riley Woodford
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Dry brining with salt, sugar, bay leaves and cloves. Dry brining takes less than an hour.

This is a good, economical, easy and fairly quick method for preparing smoked salmon. The key is dry brining and letting the surface of the fish dry well before you smoke it.

With your average coho or sockeye, this will provide nice, thick chunks of oily smoked salmon (the thick parts of the filets), and drier, thinner pieces (the section near the tail). I cut the thicker fillets lengthwise through the meat, but not through the skin, so the meat is scored and the dry brine and air can penetrate.

I never liked brining fish overnight in big bowls of slimy soy sauce flavored salt-and-sugar water. Dry brining fish is neater, faster and more efficient. For a batch, I use two cups of salt and two cups of brown or white sugar. I grind about four tablespoons of whole cloves and a big handful of bay leaves and mix this in with the sugar and salt. Dump it in a bowl and then dredge the washed fillets. You can substitute your own spice preferences, or add any other dry spices. I keep it simple.

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After dredging the fish in the salt, place in a bowl. The dry brine will pull moisture from the fish. 30 t0 45 minutes is all it takes - don't leave it longer or it will be too salty.

Some folks recommend putting the salted fish on racks to drip, others layer them in a bowl or container. I’ve tried both and I don’t think it matters, the bowl is much neater and easier. It’s amazing how much liquid that dry brine pulls out of the fish – in about 30 to 45 minutes the fish will be immersed. That’s all the time you need. The time depends on the fish and your taste, but leaving the dry brine on for too long will make the fish too salty. If you tend to be conservative with salt in general, pull thinner pieces out early and err on the side of less time. An hour is too long - I've made that mistake.

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After thoroughly rinsing the salt from the fish, allow it to dry before smoking. The surface should be dry to the touch and shiny. This will also cut the smoking time.

Rinse the fish really well and put it on racks to dry, so the surface is dry to the touch and shiny. You want a pellicle or skin to form on the surface. I use a fan and dry the fish overnight before placing in the smoker. I smoke with green alder and wrap an old blanket around the “Little Chief” to keep the smoke in. My new "Big Chief" works considerably faster, especially with drier chips. Smoking time varies from two or three hours to six or seven hours, depending on your smoker and the wood you use, so keep an eye on your fish. If you consistently use the same smoker and wood, you'll get a sense after a few batches how much time is required.

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