Hot Smoking Salmon... Throwing Down the Gauntlet

Discussion in 'Fish' started by akhap, Sep 4, 2012.

  1. akhap

    akhap Smoke Blower

    This is my first post from the standpoint of adding something of value to the forum.  I admit to the fundamental fact I am a smoked salmon snob.  Further, I am terrible at trying to say nice things about stuff I know is not first-rate...  I have been very serious about smoking salmon for right at four decades and we do a lot of salmon every year. 

    What I am going to do is show my basic salmon smoking process in a very simplified form...  It will include absolutely everything needed to produce outstanding smoked salmon with details about why I do it the way I do...  Please, do not hesitate to question, challenge, or beg on any aspect of what I post.  Some things will not agree with what you see on a regular basis and I may very well step on some toes...  I apologize in advance and will happily explain why I will remain adamant on those points.

    If I do not get run off I promise to show some things like smoked black cod and spectacular whole smoked Dolly Varden fileted from the inside out...

    Outside my window as I type this we are under a severe weather warning... I hope my smoker is still here in the morning:


    400 PM AKDT TUE SEP 4 2012



    I can see Turnagain Arm out the window, a block away...  So I stand a very good chance of losing this entire post at any moment...  If it was anywhere else they would name this little weather event...

    I have seen salmon from start to finish... even commercial fished for them over 30 years ago...

    The water is alive with salmon...

    Okay, just wasted too much of my life in PhotoBucket trying to find a picture that seems to be gone...

    Start with good salmon, fillets, skin-on, and previously frozen.  Fresh salmon may take up the brine unevenly and this never happens with previously frozen fish, so I always use fish that has been frozen.  If you bought the fish it probably has been around long enough to go in and out of rigor mortis which is probably plenty good enough.  There are five species of Pacific Salmon in AK and we get all of them.  Rainbow trout/steelhead is really a salmon and drawing the line between sea-run cutthroat trout and salmon is really an exercise in splitting hairs... but we get both of those as well.  Add Dolly Varden and lake trout to round out our menu and realize they may all be treated just the same.

    This not the most antiseptic smoking...

    Farmed Atlantic salmon is only acceptable food if you are a cat...  From the incredible negative aspects of the dangers of raising them in Pacific Salmon waters to the dye used to boost their color acceptance to the fact they are at best mediocre table fare, they should be avoided...

    I believe in keeping fish frozen and smoking in small batches as opposed to the concept of freezing smoked salmon.  Smoked fish (food in general) is usually best right out of the smoker, in my opinion and freezing smoked fish does not improve texture, especially, or anything else.

    Because of the weather I am going to go ahead and post this and take things in small steps... please bear with me.

    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 4, 2012
  2. chef jimmyj

    chef jimmyj Smoking Guru Staff Member Moderator Group Lead OTBS Member

    I personally am not a fan of Salmon but it is a huge seller in the many restaurants I have worked so I am always interested in better techniques. So bring it!...JJ
  3. akhap

    akhap Smoke Blower

    Unfortunately it looks like the img links from PhotoBucket do not come up automatically.  I would appreciate insight into correcting that.

    Anyway, the standard brine I use is extremely simple and direct.  I have played with a vast array of different brines yet still use this for the vast majority of the salmon I smoke.  Salmon does not need anything hidden and flavors may be added after the fact very easily and controlled to the finest degree.  Adding anything during brining only limits the canvas, and good smoked salmon is incredible without support.

    If I ever have to gag down another piece of mushy teriyaki trash and smile it will be too soon!

    The brine is the very standard:

    for each gallon of brine add one cup non-iodized salt and two cups brown sugar.  Bring to a boil while mixing, then cool.

    I use food grade five-gallon buckets and cut the salmon in chunks of about a half pound.  Cover with the cooled hypertonic brine and soak fish for 90 minutes.  Then rinse well with cold water and place on the racks for pellicle formation.

    Longer brining periods produce very erratic results based on the thickness of the chunks, condition of the fish, and specific salinity of the brine.  Soaking for exactly 90 minutes reduces those variables and consistently produces excellent results.

    Dry brining usually produces wonderful results but is tricky and often leads to bad failures...  There are some conditions where I use it, but it is not a rookie method, IMHO&E.

    Put fans on your fish, hit it with everything you have to produce a beautiful, glassy surface.  It is the single most important step in the entire process and cannot be ignored or worked around.  The surface is critical, but the depth is also an important element.  If it is very dry out and the surface glazes beautifully in 15 minutes it might make you think the pellicle is ready, but unfortunately it is not.  Put in a warm smoker the humidity will rewet the surface and the oils will not be sealed in the flesh at all.

    A funny story from smoking salmon from last summer... We were dog-sitting a dachshund for a friend and Ginny is simply the most food-oriented dog that ever drew breath.  I looked away when I had racks of red (sockeye) salmon drying and some were at ground level.  The chunks were large.  Ginny sneaked away and when I found here just minutes later she tried to run.  Her little legs were just too short to lift her salmon augmented belly off the ground though, so she ran with her front feet completely off the ground, rear legs driving, until the rear legs drove her hind end off the ground and front legs pulled her an inch or two... and shoved her back onto her hind legs to repeat the cycle.

    Amazingly, I was concerned about Ginny's welfare and loaded up a turkey baster with hydrogen peroxide and squirted it down her throat...  That got things moving! ;)  She gave back almost all of the salmon!  Later, I found big chunks of salmon she had secreted in her bed for later.

    Okay, the pellicle is formed... It is solid, glassy, continuous, does not give much when pressed, and looks and feels substantial.

    Put the fish in the smoker and start the smoke running heavy.  This is the most important smoke as the fish is wetter and will absorb far more smoke now than later.  Different woods do different things, taste-wise and need to be considered.  Using several woods will increase the complexity of the smoke.  Without going too far into it, as this could easily be a major discussion all by itself, a mild wood (alder, maple, birch, cottonwood) is a great starting point to get the smoke started.  Adding a wood like cherry (apricot, peach, apple, pear, or plum are very close) for a sour note followed by a good shot of hearty (mesquite, hickory, pecan) builds a flavor profile with a lot of character.

    NEVER smoke salmon over 140F!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  

    The fat in salmon is clear and the pellicle keeps it inside the fish.  If the pellicle is wanting the oil will leak.  It is often ignored or overlooked... it is critical to the quality of the fish!

    Lights are flickering and it has gotten dark outside...  I will poat this now rather than risk losing it and continue in another post...


    Smoke is for the nose and need not be heavy to be good and solid. 
    phil129 likes this.
  4. akhap

    akhap Smoke Blower

    And if you have been forced to swallow some of the smoked stuff I have over the years I can understand that!

    But, being the generous sort... send me a private message here with your mailing address and I will send you some samples of the next batch of salmon I do.  I will bet your tune takes a 180 and you wonder what just happened... ;)

  5. akhap

    akhap Smoke Blower

    Okay, I got past the wood part and left a few things dangling, intentionally.

    The temperature is critical in smoking salmon and 140F is the magic number.  Start at 140F if you like and keep it there, or start under 140 and work up if you feel your fish needs a little more time...  If your fish is oozing clear liquid your pellicle is either deficient or has been compromised/broken.  The pellicle keeps the oil in and if it is too thin or damaged the oil can ooze out.  If it meets temperatures over 140F it will turn white.  Oils lost indicate the fish is diminished both in richness and texture.  Oils denatured by temps over 140 indicate diminshed richness and negative textural changes...

    While 140 is "magic" it is not exact for all species...  Feel free to question this if you like, as there is quite a bit of info relative to other species to go into.

    I am leaving this at a very superficial place...  I am more than happy to discuss any aspect of this...

    Salmon pieces are seldom the same thickness and conditions are always very different so there is absolutely no way to predict how long it takes to finish your fish in your smoker!  The fish should be very firm.  Start with the thinnest pieces first when looking for "done" and any pieces that hint at white fat are done...

    The salmon should flake nicely and show very uniform texture throughout the entire piece.

    I usually vacuum pack individual pieces while warm and the visual appeal is terrific...

  6. chef jimmyj

    chef jimmyj Smoking Guru Staff Member Moderator Group Lead OTBS Member

    Great info thanks. Just curious...Why make the dog vomit? Is there anything there that would have hurt her?...JJ
  7. akhap

    akhap Smoke Blower

    Imagine a 12 pound dog with at least five pounds of salmon in her gut... the things she would have to go through to return to normalcy were huge and a purge eliminated most of them. And she could not walk, let alone run as she was...
  8. akhap

    akhap Smoke Blower

    The wind is something else tonight! Several pieces of birch branch have sailed past us and some have landed with serious authority,,,
  9. Hope all is well after the bout of weather. Great info on the salmon, which is one of my favorites, but fresh like what you have is a limited option here.
  10. akhap

    akhap Smoke Blower

    The storm was a dandy! Biggest gust was clocked at 131 mph. As we like to say, if it was anywhere else they would name these storms! A lot of trees went down including the neighbor with three cars in his driveway pinned down by one big spruce...

    Lately pin cherries have been the ornamental of choice around town and lots of them have gotten big enough to stick up into the wind. They are laying down all over the neighborhood today. Think I will go grab some chunks for smoking and wood turning as we are extremely limited on local options.

    As a test some years ago I took identical pieces of salmon and varied the brine times. All were kept under conditions as identical as I could make them. Taste testers were asked to see if they could tell the difference. Too salty was the comment on any soak extended for more than 3 hours and textural quality was best at the shortest soak. The longer-brined fish held more water, took longer to smoke, and failed to flake as nicely as the 90 minute.
  11. bigfish98

    bigfish98 Smoking Fanatic

    Do you cold smoke any salmon?  Any tips on that process?
  12. timleo

    timleo Smoke Blower

    What kind of smoker do you use?  I'd love to see a photo of the equipment.
  13. buckbuck

    buckbuck Newbie

    Cold smoke is so good but it takes days to do it .by If you want to learn how to smoke fish id suggest paying a visit to neah bay Washington . The best smoked fish comes from there :) maybe I say that cause I'm from there or it is simply the best lol
  14. timleo

    timleo Smoke Blower

    There's a little smokehouse on the south side of Chicago that does smoked fish...that's all they do.  The smokehouse is right on the Calumet River...more of a canal than a river.  The first time I went there I prayed they didn't get the fish out of the industrial river where they are located.  (They don't.)

    The first time I saw the smoked salmon, I thought "I dunno if I want to try that."  The first time I tasted it, I thought "Why have I never eaten this before?"  

    Angels sing when the salmon is smoked.
  15. thsmormonsmokes

    thsmormonsmokes Smoking Fanatic

    I like your style, dude.

    My thesis level writing requirement was done on salmon aquaculture in the Pacific.  I'm with you 100%.  It's bad news bears and can murder wild salmon runs with sea lice, to say nothing of the low levels of antibiotics they dump into the water so bacteria can get good and immune to them.  And somewhere in my research I read someone claiming that you can't tell the difference between farmed salmon and wild salmon.  Whoever wrote that has obviously never had fresh sockeye.  About the only good thing to farmed salmon is that theoretically it could take some of the pressure off wild runs.

    And I also hate teriyaki.  Not just on salmon, but generally speaking.  Doesn't taste good.

    Anyway, great thread.  If I can ever get confident enough in controlling temps in my smoker and if I can find decent wild stuff down this way, maybe I'll take a run at it some day.  When I was in New Zealand I had a few rainbows smoked commercially and shipped to my hotel.  It was mind blowing.
  16. akhap

    akhap Smoke Blower

    Cold smoking is entirely different and a whole new thread would be much better than sidetracking this one... But the primary differences are length of time to smoke/dry and the temperature.

    The worst failures in smoking salmon happen when cold smoking. It is far more difficult than hot smoking and the possibility of a spot of bad weather complicating things is very real.

    A friend turns out the best cold-smoked salmon I have ever seen or tried. Lengthwise 1/4" thick strips with the skin off. With kings the strips are very long. He polishes each piece with cheese cloth dipped in olive oil and it looks like red amber.
  17. akhap

    akhap Smoke Blower

    I mostly use a home-built aluminum box with a steel fire box to burn whole wood charcoal with chunks of solid wood for smoke... I can regulate temperature by moving the firebox outside the box and plumbing the smoke and heat in through steel pipe. There is also a vent in the lid and the bottom. Generally, winter conditions work perfectly with the fire inside and the summer works best with the fire outside. The draft vent in the firebox gives me enough control to easily maintain temps in a band of less than 15F.

    Running about 50 pounds per batch is fairly standard, but often I will run just a couple fillets.

    I will take some photos when I get the chance and post them to help describe how I control things

    I have more automatic systems, but prefer manual.
  18. akhap

    akhap Smoke Blower

    Thanks for the welcome! ;)

    I keep a few large Dolly Varden char each year and fillet them from the inside, leaving the back skin intact, head and tail on. When laid out like a butterfly, flesh side down, the head and tail point up and they smoke beautifully! They are very pretty fish to start and the gold left by smoke just completes the whole look! And they are very good eating when someone finally breaks down and tears into one.
  19. jrod62

    jrod62 Smoking Guru Group Lead OTBS Member

    The wife wants some smoke fish. Going to try them your way . Thanks
  20. Being a huge fan of smoked salmon, and living in the Pacific Northwest, I'm very interested in trying out your method. One question... You say forming the pellicle is the most important step. How long do you let the salmon go during this step and how do you recognize when it's ready?

    I've been letting it sit, uncovered, in the fridge overnight for this step but have no idea how to determine if the results are adequate.


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