The wind is howling. Snow is drifting up in front of your door. The temperature is a brutal -10 F. It is dinnertime and the closest general store is a long ways away by boat. But then, with the waves white capping off the point, going out isn’t really even an option.
Such was early life in the winter for Alaskans in the South East.
From the very start, winter survival depended on the preserving of food in late summer and fall. In villages all over Alaska, the community insured this by setting up “fish camps,” or staging areas strategically positioned on the banks of rivers with large salmon runs. Techniques of filleting and hanging the fish may have varied between regions, but the end game was the same. It was a race against the changing season and dwindling sunlight.
Today, thanks to the modern convenience of grocery stores, we no longer put up dried fish for reasons of survival. Instead, it endures as a tradition ingrained in our DNA. It still, however, takes work. You have to get to the store early in the fall to pick up your jars or you are liable to not get any. And if you don’t already own a pressure cooker, dehydrator or vacuum sealer yourself, chances are you know somebody who can loan you theirs when they’re done.
Come December, we share. Whether given as a gift or bartered for a pound of moose burger, it is a priceless commodity that can put a smile on any Alaskan face. What will never change is this: a jar of hand-crafted smoked salmon is — and always will be — made from the heart.
When I think about smoking fish it is almost visceral. I cut it into strips, releasing the scent of fresh ocean, and I envision the ice cold water it came from. And when I open up the smoker to check the fish, there’s that wonderful plume of smoke that encompasses me.
Smoking is a craft, not an activity of mass production, with variables like rain and temperature altering the process. Here is how I approach it.
STEP ONE: MAKING THE CUT
If I am planning on jarring, I like to cut my fish into strips, working from head to tail. If I am doing a hot smoke or cooking all the way through, I like to cut up the filet into small, 3 oz sections cross ways from loin to belly.
STEP TWO: A GOOD SOAK
Brining. This is where the alchemy truly happens.
It starts with a simple solution of salt and water , but flavor is what takes it to another level. Brown or white sugar. Soy sauce. Pepper and onion powder. The amount you choose is all about personal taste — as well as trial and error. (That’s why I always taste as I go.)
Next, each filet must be completely submerged in brine. With heavier brines, the fish will float just below the surface. Light-brines require the fish be weighted down. The length of time is a personal choice, but I tend to like a less salty flavor, so I typically “soak it” for about an hour.
STEP THREE: STICK WITH IT
The next step is all about forming the pellicle, the thin membrane that forms when the fish air-dries. This slightly tacky surface gives the smoke something to adhere to.
While some people rinse their fish after brining, I prefer to put it directly onto racks or hang it on dowels. On warm days this step happens quickly. On cold days, I will put a fan on the filets to help expedite the pellicle formation. You can also put it in the smoke house to dry, then start your smoke once the fish becomes tacky.
STEP FOUR: GOOD WOOD
My wood of choice here in SE Alaska is alder. It is very prevalent and a sustainable tree. No old growth forests are damaged.
The amount of time in the smoke house depends on the flavor you like as well as what your final storing method will be. Hot smoke (internal temperature of 145) is used when I freeze the salmon. If I am going to jar up my salmon to put on my shelf, I use a colder smoke (below 87 degrees) and let the final cooking phase happen during the pressure- cooking step.
Through out the process I constantly check the smoke, the temperature, and the fish, looking for that beautiful color change when it goes from a more opaque, pinkish-red color to a deep red-brown.
THE REAL SECRET
The most important step, really, is to enjoy the process as you honor and respect your catch. If you aren’t smiling, then smoke another day. But if you keep an open mind and aren’t afraid to learn, each batch will be better than the last. All I know is that if after a long day outside, I put up my jacket and it has that smokey campfire smell, it means I have had a very good day.