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.
- 8 parts sugar (I use Sugar in the Raw, but granulated sugar or brown sugar are fine too)
- 7 parts non-iodized (kosher) salt
- 1 part granulated garlic
- Large plastic tub (never use metal for this)
- Mix the salt, garlic, and sugar in a large plastic tub. I use about 2 pounds of mixture to make a large batch of brine. Make sure you mix it all thoroughly and evenly.
- Next, rinse and dry your fish filets, and cut them into your preferred portion sizes.
- Place the filets skin down in the mixture in an even layer and cover completely with brine.
- Depending on the size of your container and how many filets you’re working with, continue to add filets to the tub in layers, covering the flesh of the fish completely in brine with each layer.
- Brine bellies and tips for about three hours, and thicker filets for four hours.
- Line a baking sheet with paper towels.
- Once their brine time is up, remove the fish from the brine and rinse thoroughly underwater to remove all of the brine.
- Next, pat dry the fish with a paper towel and place skin side down on the paper towel-lined baking sheet.
- Let the fish sit in the open air for one to two hours. It will start to form a glossy sheen.
- Time to smoke the fish! 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 Luhr Jensen insulation. 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. 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, heat some honey in a bowl in the microwave (to make it watery thin) and paint a thin 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 breathe. 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 it lasts forever. Smoked fish will taste best if you let it sit at room temperature for at least two hours before serving.