Smoking your catch


smoking fish


Smoking kokanee salmon from Lake Mary Ronan. David Reese photo

    There's nothing like the taste of fresh, smoked fish.
    And for fishermen like Ralph Johnson of Columbia Falls, smoking fish is a way for him to enjoy his catches all year. Anyone who likes to smoke fish has their own favorite recipes and methods, but at the core of all of them are some basic principles.
    There are two general methods of smoking fish: hot-smoking and cold-smoking. 
    Hot-smoking (also called barbecuing or kippering) requires a short brining time and smoking temperatures of 90° F for the first 2 hours and 150°F for an additional 4-8 hours. Hot-smoked fish are moist, lightly salted, and fully cooked, but they will keep in the refrigerator for only a
few days. 
    Fish is smoked as it dries over a smoldering fire. Wood smoke adds
flavor and color, and the brining process helps to preserve the fish.
    Cold-smoking requires a longer brining time, lower temperature (80-90°F) and extended smoking time (1-5 days or more of steady smoking). Cold-smoked fish contain more salt and less moisture than hot-smoked fish. If the fish has been sufficiently cured, it will keep in the
refrigerator for several months. 
    Freshwater fish naturally contain many parasites. These parasites are killed during the hot-smoking process, if the temperature reaches 140°F.  
    Any fish can be smoked, but species that are high in oils, such as salmon and trout, are recommended because they absorb smoke faster and have better texture than lean fish, which tend to be dry and tough after smoking.
    Use seasoned non-resinous woods like hickory, oak, cherry, apple, maple, birch or alder. Avoid pine, fir, spruce, or green woods. If heavier smoke flavor is desired, add moist sawdust to the heat source throughout the smoking process. Control heat by adjusting air flow.
    Johnson's outdoor smoker allows him to smoke 15 large fish at one time or up to 100 pounds of salami. For wood, he uses cherry or apple, cottonwood or hickory. His heat source is charcoal briquets, and he places his wood over the top of that. He soaks his wood overnight in water, so that it doesn't burn too hot, and he runs his smoker between 150-170 degrees. "Other wise it gets dark too fast," he says. "This way it gets a nice orange color."
    Freshwater  fish like trout pick up most of their smoke flavoring and color early in the smoking process, so Johnson says "I really put the wood to it early."
    The following are some basic steps that you can use to smoke your own fish. You may want to experiment a little with some different ingredients to create your own brine. You might want to start with the basic brine solution that is listed under Step 1, and then add what you like to it.  
    The brine solution is one of the keys to a good-tasting smoked fish.
    Johnson uses one cup of salt and one cup of  brown sugar per gallon of brine solution, with a teaspoon of liquid smoke thrown in.
    Stir until completely dissolved. Place fish in the solution, being careful that the fish is completely covered with the brine; place in refrigerator.
Thick chunks of 1" or more should be in brine 8 to 12 hours.
Thin chunks of less than 1" 6 to 8 hours is sufficient.
    Remove fish from brine and rinse each piece under cold water.
Gently pat dry and lay pieces on paper towel to air dry for one hour.
(After one hour you will notice the fish has a glazed film on it. This is called the pellicle, which is a normal and desired result of the brining process). When the fish is sticky to the touch it is ready.
    Smoke fish for about 2 hours at 200 F. Use your favorite wood chips or chunks when smoking and experiment to find the taste that best suits your taste. Add wood chips about every 30 minutes if necessary (depending on how much smoke taste you want. 
    To cut down on smoking time, remove skin from fish before putting in brine, then place fish in cheese cloth after the brine process (this helps get rid of fish oils faster and cuts your smoking time by about 1/4).
    Here's another recipe for smoking those kokanee salmon that are being pulled through the ice on northwest Montana lakes.
Smoked Salmon with 5 Peppercorn Crust
Recipe is designed using a Weber kettle barbecue to smoke the fish in. 
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar 
6 tablespoons salt 
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger 
3 bay leaves 
1 teaspoon crushed allspice 
3 - 3.5 lbs. salmon fillet with skin 
1/2 cup mixed color whole peppercorns 
2 cups apple or hickory wood chunks 
1 tablespoon honey 
3 thin red onion slices 
fresh dill sprigs 
    In a 1 to 1.5 quart pan, bring 1.5 cups of water, sugar, salt, ginger, bay leaves, and allspice to boiling over high heat. Stir until sugar dissolves
completely. Let cool. Soak wood chunks in warm water for about 1 hour.
Rinse salmon fillet, pat dry, and lay flat with skin down in a rimmed pan about 12 by 15 inches. Pour brine over salmon, cover pan tightly and chill for 24 hours. Occasionally spoon brine over fish.
    Mound 18 charcoal briquettes on the fire grate of a barbecue with a lid. Ignite briquettes.
    Meanwhile pour enough hot water over peppercorns to float them, soak at least 15 minutes. Pour brine off fish, rinse fish with cool water and pat dry or dry with an oscillating fan. Set skin side down on a large sheet of foil, cut foil along outline of fish. Run honey over top of fish. Drain peppercorns and scatter evenly over fish, patting to set them lightly in place. When coals are dotted with gray ash, 25 to 30 minutes, halve them and push to each side of the grate (Setup for indirect cooking)
Add 1 Hickory and 1 Apple wood chunk to each mound of coals.
Set grill 4 to 6 inches above the fire grate and lightly oil the grill or spray with Crisco.
    Place salmon on foil in the center of the grill. Put lid on barbecue and close vents to make 1/4 inch openings. After 30 minutes, check temperature and if necessary add 3 briquettes to each mound of coals, and repeat this every 30 minutes of cooking. Add wood chunks as needed. Check thermometer often to be sure that temperature stays about 190 F. If temperature drops, open vents slightly, if temperature
goes up, close 1 or 2 of the vents. Cook salmon until the internal temperature is 125 F in the thickest part, about 1.5 hours.
    Using foil and a wide spatula, slide fillet onto a baking sheet without sides, then transfer fish from sheet to a platter. Serve salmon warm, cool, or chilled. If making ahead, cover airtight and chill up to 3 days.

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