I'm been experimenting with Smoking Salmon using different brines and smoking times. It is a lengthy process. My spreadsheet would make your head spin. I'm trying to come up with a product for a small business. One of the challenges in doing that is I need a product that appeals to the widest audience, not just what I personally like.
I did TONS of research. I've read probably in excess of 40 or 50 different brine recipes and smoking methods. I was completely BAFFLED that the brine recipes, brining times, and smoking times are ALL OVER THE MAP with a HUGE variance.
For example, brines range from a ration of 4 parts salt to 1 part sugar all the way to 1 part salt 4 parts sugar, both wet and dry!
In addition, brining times range from an hour or two to 12 hours (overnight) or more!
What I've determined is that most all recipes are seriously flawed in that 99% of the 40 or 50 recipes I read do not take into account some crucial information: the thickness of the salmon, the type of fish - specifically the fat content, and whether the fish is fresh or frozen. These factors combined have a SIGNIFICANT effect on how the fish takes up the brine. Yet in almost everyone's recipes they mention none of these factors, or just the type of fish.
The smoking time is highly dependent on the temperature, type of smoker, and the type and thickness of the fish. Yes most recipes say, smoke at XXX degrees for Y hours. Or smoke at this temp for this long, then this temp for this long, etc. This is a flawed approach, it is both dangerous on one end, or, risks signficantly overcooking the fish on the other end resulting in a very dry product. My conclusion is any recommended smoking TIMES should be completely disregarded. The bottom line is the internal temp of the fish needs to be brought up to 145F for 30 minutes to insure the parasites and bacteria are killed. So all you need to do is use a digital probe thermometer to know how long to smoke and then experiment with different temperature strategies. This takes the guesswork out and works for any fish of any type or thickness. Just remember to measure the thickest piece and put your thickest pieces in the bottom trays in the smoker.
My wet brines are using an amount of salt just enough to make a raw egg barely float. The amount of sugar is left to personal preference.
I'm finding my dry brines impart the salt into the flesh much faster than the wet brines ad also the sugar as the dry brine draws moisture out of the fish much much faster and lives sort of a semi-hard salty/sugary glaze on the salmon (which I try to rinse as much off as possible). So the ration of salt to sugar is lower and brine times are shorter on dry brines.
My conclusion is that your average person, personally prefers their smoked salmon on the sweeter side. Essentially I'm seeing a trend in a lot of recipes out there where they use between a 2-1 and 1-2 salt-sugar ratio on their wet brine and brine for 6-12 hours. I've found this produced too salty of a product, but again, us Americans really like lots of salt and sugar.
On the dry brines, most people are using close to a 1-4 ratio of salt to sugar with brine times in the 1-6 hour range. Depending on the thickness of the fish, I've found the dry brine times need to be very short. Otherwise you end up with what is referred to as Indian Candy, not traditional Northwest style smoked salmon. This totally makes sense. I've had people test some of the samples and the gravitate towards the candy. They love the sweetness and this is the reason I think man recipes have higher sugar than salt and long brine times. Most of you out there are making Smoked Salmon CANDY! Which is fine. But this illustrated how wide everyone's person preference can vary.
In general, experimenting with different recipes in the 1-4 all the way to 4-1 salt-sugar ratios, both wet and dry, it is my opinion that on a 1-inch thick previously frozen Coho Salmon, brine times in excess of 4 hours produce too much saltiness or sugariness. It it were 1.5" thick, fresh King, then it would be less salty/sugary tasting. (I will go broke testing with King - once my recipes are dialed in, I'll adjust them for King)
Another factor is I'm brining small 6 oz. pieces. Many people brine the whole fillet or large pieces of fillet then cut into smaller pieces after. This method I'm not sure about because it means the end pieces will absorb more brine through the sides of the fillet.
I think I'm going for something in-between. Just enough sweetness to please the pallete but still let the salmon flavor come through without overpowering it with too much sugar and salt.
Where I'm at now is I'm tackling the issue of the outside of the salmon being a lot saltier and sweeter than the interior. This isn't actually that big of a problem as when you eat the smoked salmon, you don't tend it eat the outer later then the inner. You eat both together so the balance each other out. But for better balance and food safety I think it is best to try to get a deep, even cure.
The two ways I'm thinking of doing this is doing a brine with a low lower salt-water ratio and brine for a lot longer, OR, freshen the salmon by letting it sit in water for 30 minutes instead of just rinsing it off, then let it cure (without the brine) in the fridge overnight to let the salt and sugar move farther into the meat.
Wish me luck!
Edited by jazzy - 9/20/11 at 11:38am