Dry Brine Methods:
I learned this from Ray Vodapesp of Seattle who fishes off our dock with friends each summer. He specializes in smoking salmon, especially the very oily belly strips and tips (the pectoral fin area), but it works with fillets, too. Ray spends a lot of time in Sitka each summer and when a fresh batch of his fish comes out of the smoker, all work on our dock grinds to a halt and the eating begins.
Mix equal parts of salt, garlic salt, sugar, and brown sugar in a large plastic tub. I use a pound of each ingredient to make a large batch of brine. Make sure you mix it all thoroughly and evenly. Next, take your fish, rinse it well, and put a layer, skin down, in a plastic container (never use metal). Cover that layer completely with brine, then add another layer of fish and cover it completely. The flesh side of the fish (facing up) should be caked with brine in you large Tupperware type container – as many layers as the container will hold.
Brine bellies and tips for about three hours, and thicker filets for four hours. Then take the fish out, rinse it thoroughly under the tap so no brine remains. Next, pat dry the fish with a paper towel; put it on a pan, skin side down, with paper towels under. Let the fish sit in open air for one to two hours then put it in the smoker. I use a simple and relatively inexpensive Luhr Jensen “Little Chief” or “Big Chief”. I’ve experimented with more exotic and expensive units, but always come back to the chiefs. If it’s really cold or windy out, you can wrap the smoker in insulation sold by Luhr Jensen as an option. I don’t put insulation on my smoker unless it’s below 25 degrees outside and windy. Slow heat is better.
It takes anywhere from 6 to 12 hours to finish the fish depending on the size of the load and the outside temperature. I’ve use the Luhr Jensen wood chips and make sure there is pretty constant smoke during the first three or four hours, after that, I add smoke chips every couple of hours. The fish may finish at different times. The lowest shelf on the smoker is closest to the heat source, so I put the thickest pieces there. They often finish first. Check for a deep almost mahogany color and press on the fish to make sure it has cooked through. As always, don’t overcook your salmon. This really isn’t a problem with bellies and tips which have so much oil they are hard to dry out. With filets, you want to barely cook through – just a wee bit of rouge in the middle, slightly darker than the look of cooked salmon, is ideal.
After you take the fish out, while it’s still warm, take some microwaved honey (to make it watery thin) in a bowl and paint a faint layer over your fish. The end result is habit forming.
Final note – never store smoked fish in plastic bags or plastic containers – it ruins it. The fish must breath. Store it on an uncovered plate in the refrigerator. In the open air of a frost free refrigerator, your smoked fish will set up nicely. The longer it sits in the refrigerator, the better it gets, and lasts forever. Smoked fish will taste best if you let it sit at room temperature for at least two hours before serving.