04.08.08–Traditional Foods and Recipes–Smoking Salmon And Other Fish

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Smoking Salmon and Other Fish

Since the advent of freezers, smoking has become more a technique for adding, special flavors to fish than it is a means of long-term preservation. All smoked fish requires storage at cool–38 degrees Fahrenheit (3.5 degrees Celsius) temperatures. And, for storage longer than several weeks, all but the most thoroughly smoke-cured (smoke-dried) fish should be frozen or canned.

If your end purpose is mainly to preserve delectable taste, however, smoking or kippering part of your catch is rewarding and relatively effortless. It is also a technique open to immense creativity. The strength of the brine, adding ingredients, the length of brining, drying time without smoke, the kind of wood used, the length and temperature of the smoke–all these elements are varied in many ways to achieve different tastes and textures.

What kind of fish to smoke

In Alaska, the fish most often used for smoking is salmon, but many species are suitable. Some people swear the technique was developed especially for steelhead. Sablefish, or black cod, is also a popular fish for smoking, as are grayling and whitefish and lake trout. In fact, smoking them right on the riverbank may be the only way to bring home a catch of grayling, their flavor is so delicate.

Whatever the kind, the fish must be top quality. It should have been cleaned and gutted immediately when caught and kept cool and shaded. If the fish isn’t good enough to eat fresh, it won’t be good smoked.

Frozen or completely brine–cured fish may also be used for smoking. Thaw frozen fish in the refrigerator. Then treat it as you would fresh fish. Soak out brine–cured fish in several changes of water for up to 12 hours, or until it is no longer too salty.

Methods of Hanging Fish For Smoking

The way you plan to hang fish in the smokehouse–or on the racks of a smaller smoker–determines how you cut them before brining.

Small fish may simply be gutted to be hung whole on S-shaped hooks. Or string several gutted fish on a round wooden stick that is inserted under the gill flap and through the mouth. Smaller dowels may be inserted in each cavity to hold it open for even smoking. Or split small fish so that the meat may be hung on two rods run through the flesh just beneath the bony neckplates.

A large fish may be split along the back and bonded so that the meat opens in one piece, leaving the belly solid. To do this, first remove tail and gills. With a sharp knife, make a crosswise cut down the backbone on each side of the head. Then make two lengthwise parallel cuts on each side of the backbone through to the stomach cavity. After some practice, you will learn to lift out head, backbone and entrails in one piece. Clean the cavity thoroughly.

If the split sides are quite thick, slash the flesh with several lengthwise parallel cuts (not through to the skin), so that the smoke will penetrate. These splits may be hung across open poles, or they may be propped open with dry cedar sticks placed across the fish and inserted into the flesh at each side. A longer stick may be inserted all the way through the skin near the tail end of the fish to act as a rod from which to hang the fish. If the fish is heavy, a second rod may need to be inserted behind it for additional support.

Another method useful for both small and large fish is to remove the head and split the fish down both belly and backbone, leaving the tail section unsplit to act as a hanger.

Or simply fillet the fish and smoke the two sides or cut them in strips or pieces. Strips run the length of the fillet and are usually about 1-1/2 to 2 inches (3.75 to 5 cm) wide. They may be hung or set on trays. Chunks are generally smoked on trays and should be about 2 inches (5 cm) wide and no more than 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick.

In preparing the fish, always keep them as cool and tidy as possible. After the pieces are cut, soak them for about 30 minutes in a cleansing brine of 1 cup (240 mL) salt per gallon (3.8 L) of water to draw off blood.


Salting is an essential feature in smoking fish. Unsalted fish will usually sour or spoil if kept at smoking temperatures for any length of time. The strength of the brine and the amount of time the fish is left in it and some of the ingredients are all matters of preference.

One method of determining the ratio of water to salt is to just keep adding salt to the amount of water it will take to cover the fish until no more salt will dissolve in it. Some people always swear by the efficacy of dropping a raw potato or egg into the water and adding salt until the object floats.

Or you can be conventional and measure. Try using 1 pound (456 g) of salt for every 5 quarts (4.75 L) of water.

If you’re new at it, you can leave discretion entirely to someone else and pick one of the recipes that comes complete with brining instructions. Most do.

Brine ingredients–always water and salt, of course–may also include brown sugar and or some spices. The length of the brining also varies, from 25 minutes to 8 or 10 hours. Because of that, by the way, grayling is better simply sprinkled with salt rather than brine–soaked prior to smoking.

Desalting and Air–Drying

Once fish is removed from brine, rinse or scrub it well to be sure all visible particles of salt are gone. If the brining has been more than a few hours, it may be necessary to soak the fish under running water or in several changes of fresh water to remove saltiness. You may cook a small piece to see how salty it is, or run your fingers over the flesh and then taste them for saltiness.

It is also important to air–dry the fish enough to glaze the meat before smoking begins. Choose a shaded, breezy location and protect the fish from insects by covering it with cheesecloth. The temperature should be below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.5 degrees Celsius). If the meat is not sufficiently dry before smoking begins, it will tend to steam and soften instead of becoming firm once heat is applied, and white spots may develop on the flesh. The drying may take several hours, overnight, or up to two days in damp weather. Fish may be hung in the smokehouse during this period if ventilation is good. A blower or fan may be used to speed up the process.

Making the Smoke–Hot or Cold

The choice of wood leaves still more room for personal preference. IT should NOT be evergreen because the resinous smoke transmits an unpleasant taste. Alder is the most popular choice in Alaska, but hickory chips, crab apple, cottonwood and sawdust are other possible selections. Many of the recipes (following) indicates the cook’s choice.

The temperature of the smoke also makes a difference in the final product. Most processes beings with an initial period of cool drying when the temperature in the smokehouse is about 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius). Then smoke is introduced and the heat is adjusted so that the internal temperature of the fish is brought up to about 85 degrees Fahrenheit (29 degrees Celsius) for cold-smoked fish and to about 150 degrees Fahrenheit (65 degrees Celsius) for hot–smoked or kippered fish. In other words, kippered or hot-smoked fish is cooked, ready to eat as soon as it comes from the smokehouse and subject to more rapid spoilage; while cold–smoked fish has been moderately preserved–still in need of refrigeration but able to retain safe quality for a period.

The length of time the fish are smoked depends on how dry you want them. A light (that is, shortened) cold smoke is recommended for fish that is to be canned, since the canning process brings up smoke flavor.

Flavor and texture is also regulated by how close the fish are hung to the heat. For cold smoking, it stands to reason, the fish are hung farther from the heat source than those being kippered.

For all these matters–choosing the wood, controlling heat and smoke, Adolph Mathisen’s directions–Adolph’s Cold-Smoked Salmon, Steelhead and Black Cod–contain excellent advice.

Storing Smoked Fish

After smoking, allow the pieces of fish to cool for a short time while they are in the smokehouse Cold–smoked fish may be left to cool a longer time than kippered or hot–smoked fish. After that smoked fish may be wrapped tightly and stored in the refrigerator. Cold–smoked fish will generally keep about three weeks. Kippered fish, a much shorter time. To retain the best flavor, however, do what the commercial packers do–freeze or can smoke fish immediately, unless you plan to use it right away.

Smoke-Cured Fish–Indian Style

Only thoroughly smoke–cured fish–the Indian style prepared by Eskimos, Indians and other bush dwellers as the winter supply for themselves and their dogs–may be kept successfully unfrozen for longer than about three weeks.

Preparing this product is tricky. It is actually smoke–drying. It requires four days to a week of continuous fire, and the resulting product is only about one–third its original weight, is quite firm and has a glossy surface. Fish and fire must be tended very carefully or the fish simply cooks to tasteless shrivel rather than drying slowly. This dehydrated fish will keep for an undetermined period, (not indefinite), but it, too, must be stored tightly wrapped, in a dry place, at a temperature that does not rise above 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.5 degrees Celsius). It is boiled 10 minutes before being eaten.

Adolph’s Cold–Smoked Steelhead, Salmon and Black Cod Method

It is important that you smoke fish only in cool weather. The ideal temperature is between 30 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit (–1 to 4.5 degrees Celsius). This keeps the smoke cool.

The ideal fish for smoking is steelhead. The steelhead has a flavor all its own, and the oil content in the fleshy part of the fish is perfect for a good, moist smoked product.

Prepare your fish for salting–steelhead or king salmon, whichever you prefer to happen to have–by splitting the fish lengthwise. Then remove the backbone so that there is none on either side. Use a very sharp knife.

Set the fish on a tray, fleshy side up, and just cover with a medium grind noniodized salt. Lift and shake the fish lightly to remove excess salt. The salt should be evenly distributed on the fleshy side of the fish.

Now you need a tub with a rack that fits inside. Set the fish, fleshy side down on the rack so that it is not resting on the bottom of the tub. It is important to vary according to the size of the fish the length of time that it stays in the brine that forms. A 6 to 8 pound (2.7 to 3.6 kg) fish should stay 14 hours. A 10 to 12 pound (4.5 to 5.5 kg)fish, I would leave there about 8 hours. If the fish is over 18 pounds (8 kg), leave it 24 hours.

After that time, I remove the fish and rinse it lightly. Then I put it in a tray and allow it to drain for about two hours.

Then the fish is ready to hang. I use stainless steel tuna hooks because they do not mar or discolor the flesh. They have two prongs: each one is a hook with an eye in it. Using the cotton–type line made for wrapping meat, I hang the fish on 8–inch (20 cm) loops threaded through these prongs.

I hang the fish in the smokehouse and allow it to air–dry for a day or two before I start the smoke. Again, the temperature should be 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.5 degrees Celsius) or cooler. This removes as much of the moisture on the outside of the fish as possible. The drier the flesh, the brighter the color the smoked fish will be. This is the big secret of getting good color.

For cold smoke, the fish must be hung as close to the top of the smokehouse as possible. Keep it far away from the heat, so that the smoke will be cool by the time it reaches the fish.

A lot depends on the quality and condition of the smokehouse. Number one, you should be able to control the ventilation. The smoke has to pass through your smokehouse and be vented through the top. Mine has a pitched roof covered by a plywood sheet I can raise and lower to control the amount of smoke going out the top.

Then, of course, you must have a pit in which to build the fire for making smoke. Again, it is desirable to be able to control the amount of heat and air that go into the burner.

For cold smoke, start the fire with dry wood and then feed it green alder for the long smoke, but be sure to remove all the bark. If you don’t, your fish will have a bitter taste.

I start with a very small fire, adding to it when the logs burn down to coals so that the added wood will ignore without smoldering too much. If the fire isn’t burning properly, it will give off gray smoke. You must have enough draft to make sure the smoke is blue.

Continue this process for a minimum of six days. Smoke the fish until oil begins to show on the outside. The fish can be taken out or at least sampled at this time, but leaving it a while longer will give it more color.

Black Cod or Sablefish Smoking Method

On a 8 or 9 pound (3.6 to 4 kg) black cod, split and remove the backbone, cover with salt (same as for salmon or steelhead), shake off surplus and place on a rack for 12 hours. Use the same method for smaller fish but reduce the number of hours in proportion to the size of the fish. Hang in the smokehouse, keeping a low fire as cold as possible, until the fish are a very pale yellow. Too much color makes the fish bitter.

To cook smoked cod, put it in boiling water, allow it to simmer 12 to 15 minutes without covering, or until the fish flakes. Do not overcook it or it falls apart.

Cited From: Adolph Mathisen, Courtesy, Bunny Mathisen, Petersburg, Alaska.

Cold–Smoked White Fish Fillets Method

Any white–fleshed, lean fish which will produce fillets weighing more than 1 pound (456 g) may be used. cut the fish in fillets, removing the backbone and skin. Cover with a saturated brine and hold for two hours. Remove and drain for 10 to 15 minutes and air–dry for two hours. Hang fish and cure over a fire with a fairly light smoke for eight hours at a temperature not higher than 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius). If any of the flesh is resting against a stick or pole, turn the fillets after the first four hours so that the smoke penetrates evenly.

After the first eight hours, smother the fire so that a dense cloud of smoke is obtained and continue smoking until the fillets are a deep straw yellow, turning them as necessary to color evenly. This operation should take about six hours. Cool the fillets thoroughly and wrap each separately in waxed paper. Store in a cool, dry place. They will keep about 10 days.

Cited From: Smokehouses and The Smoke Curing of Fish (adapted).

Smoky Joe Portable Smoker Salmon Method

No Smokehouse? Try this recipe for a small amount of salmon that may be processed in a portable smoker.

10 pounds (4.5 kg) salmon fillets

Brine #1–water to cover, plus 1 1/2 cups (360 ml) rock salt

Brine # 2– 1/2 cup (120 mL) each–noniodized salt and brown sugar–per 1 quart (1 L) water needed to cover fish

Seasonings: pepper, garlic powder, maple flavoring, honey (optional).

Soak the fish in Brine #1 about 30 minutes (no longer) to draw off any remaining blood. Rinse and cut into chunks about 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick and 2 inches (5 cm) wide. Place in Brine #2 and refrigerate or keep in a cool place about eight hours or overnight.

Remove fish from brine, rinse in cold running water, drain and pat dry with paper towels. Allow fish to air–dry until the surface looks shiny and is tacky to the touch. Sprinkle fish with pepper and garlic or other seasonings–such as flavored salts–and brush with maple–flavored honey, if desired. If the skin has been left on, pierce it in several places.

Allow about 15 minutes to preheat the smoker, using hickory or alder chips. Oil racks to keep fish from sticking and arrange fish, allowing space between pieces for smoke to circulate and placing small pieces on top racks farthest from the heat.

The length of smoke depends on your taste (and the manufacturer’s instructions if you are using a commercial smoker). Check the fuel every hour or so. When smoking is finished, allow fish to cool thoroughly at room temperature, up to two hours. Then wrap well in plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator or freeze.

Smoked Brown–Sugar Cured Salmon Method

Clean and fillet salmon. Prepare a salt mixture by combining:

  • 2 cups (480 mL) salt
  • 1 cup (240 mL) brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons (30 mL) white pepper
  • 1 tablespoon (15 mL) each: crushed bay leaves, allspice, crush whole cloves and mace.

Dredge salmon in salt mixture to collect as much as will cling to the flesh. Leave for six to eight hours. Rinse and scrub under running water to remove all traces of salt. soak salmon in running or frequently changed water four to six hours. Dry in fresh air for six hours. If the day is damp, dry up to 10 hours.

Start fire and let it burn down to coals; smoke temperature should not be over 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius). Smoke fish for eight hours, then build up a dense smoke, keeping temperature below 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) and using a spray of water when necessary. Continue smoking for 16 hours. It is best to keep fire going continuously for the 24 hours, but if you must let the fire die at night, start again in the morning. When finished, the fish is almost tender enough to spread with a knife.

If fish is to be canned after smoking, limit the dense smoke to four to seven hours, or until the flesh surface is light brown. The canning process will intensify the smoke flavor.

Cited From: The Fisherman Returns (adapted).

Crab Apple Smoked Salmon Method

“Some people use alder to smoke salmon, but we use wood from crab apple trees that are plentiful on Gravina Island near Ketchikan, where our homestead is located. I like the sweet, mild fragrant smoky odor and taste we get from it.”

Fillet salmon (any species) or steelhead. Cut it into 4-inch (10 cm) squares, about 2 inches (5 cm) thick. This way all the fish will be uniform in flavor. Fish halves can be smoked if preferred. Use uneven pieces and backbone for canning. For each 5 pounds (2.25 kg) fish, sprinkle with the following mixture, adjusted to suit individual taste:

5 teaspoons (25 mL) salt

3 teaspoons (15 mL) raw sugar

1/4 teaspoons (1 mL) black pepper

Let the fish stand overnight. Drain. Place fish chunks on racks in smokehouse, skin side down, over glowing coals and charred wood in order to dry and glaze. This takes about one hour. Then smother the glowing coals to a heavy smoke with green chunks of apple wood or peeled alder.

For quick kippered fish, ready in about eight hours, use low rack, 18 inches (45 cm) from the fire.

For longer smoking, use middle rack, 30 inches (75 cm) from fire. After the first eight hours, smoke about two hours each day for 7 to 10 days. the fish will become dry and hard–smoked.

To cold–smoke for canning, use the top rack, 48 inches (1.2 m) from fire, three to four hours.

Cited From: “I Smoke Salmon” in the Alaska Fishing Guide, by Helen Blanchard (1979).

Norwegian Smoked Pressed Salmon Method

After cleaning as usual, cut off tail and head. Then cut along spine and remove backbone. Spread flat and hold down edges of back skin with wooden picks. Cover with salt and sugar–1 quart (1 L) salt to 1 cup (240 mL) sugar. Press between two wide boards with a small weight on the top for two to three days, depending on the size of the salmon.

Remove the salt mixture with a cloth. Wash fish with 1 teaspoon (5 mL) saltpeter dissolved in 1/4 cup (60 mL) of brandy or water. Smoke for eight hours in cool alder smoke. Let salmon hang for about six days before use. The temperature should be cool, about 38 degrees Fahrenheit or 3.5 degrees Celsius.

Cited From: The Fisherman Returns.

Kippered Salmon Method

Kippered fish is dried in cool smoke, then cooked in hot smoke for a short period. It is a quick–to–spoil product and must be kept refrigerated or frozen. But it is ready to eat with out any further cooking when it comes from the smokehouse, and there are many people who like it as well, or even prefer it to cold-smoked salmon. The dark orange or red coloring of commercially kippered salmon comes from a very short (30–second) dip in food coloring right after the fish has been drained of brine. Home–kippered fish has a browner sheen. “Any kind of salmon may be kippered.” says Robert Browning [Fisheries of the North Pacific], “but white king salmon and fall–run chum salmon are the species most commonly kipper–processed. First quality kippered salmon consists of choice, evenly shaped and sized pieces of the side. But odd pieces (such as collar tips or tail chunks) are extensively used, too, turning into human use perfectly good salmon that otherwise might be discarded entirely or made into animal food or meal.” Other species of fish may be kippered, too. Herring–slit along the back so that it will open in one piece, leaving the belly solid–is especially popular. Adjust brining and smoking times depending on the size of the fish.

Halve salmon lengthwise and cut into chunks. Soak pieces in a brine solution of 2 1/2 cups (600 mL) salt dissolved in 2 quarts (1.9 L) of water for 30 minutes to two hours, according to thicknesses. Be sure the chunks are well covered in brine. Rinse the pieces thoroughly in running water and lay out on a rack to air–dry for an hour or two. If flies are present, protect fish with a covering of cheesecloth or a light smudge of smoke. When the fish has dried sufficiently, the surface will be shiny and dry to the touch.

Start the fire and let it burn down to coals; smoke temperature should be about 80 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit (27 to 32 degrees Celsius). Smoke fish a total of 12 to 15 hours until a good glossy skin has formed. During the last two hours, increase the temperature gradually–up to 250 degrees Fahrenheit (121 degrees Celsius). The internal temperature of the fish itself should not go above 150 degrees Fahrenheit (65 degrees Celsius). If the temperature rises rapidly to 250 degrees Fahrenheit, the smoking time is decreased 40 to 60 minutes. Cool and eat.

Cited From: The Fisherman Returns.

Cooking Alaskan By Alaskans Cookbook


2 responses to “04.08.08–Traditional Foods and Recipes–Smoking Salmon And Other Fish

  1. Pingback: Hook Tenders News » Blog Archive » ‘hook tender’ on the web

  2. Hi,
    I am curious as to what our ancestors used for curing the fish before smoking it. (Salt) That wasn’t a commodity inland was it?

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