No two methods are the same when it comes to intermixing the basic five elements of smoked salmon — the fish, the brine, the smoke source, the temperature and the smoker; all lead into an endless tangle of smoking philosophies.
“It’s just like eating candy,” said Soldotna fisherman and resident Mike Staffan of his version of the delicate Alaskan treat — slow and sweetly smoked salmon. “It’s the way it should be and I love it.”
With “fresh” silvers still running strongly throughout the Kenai River system — and falling prey to Vibrax spinners and streamer variants of purple and pink color combinations — it is not too late, or all that complicated, to begin experimenting with smoking fish on a personal scale.
Staffan favors the “cold” and slightly wet smoke of his hand-built 128-cubic-foot smokehouse. Above all other considerations of combinations of herbs and spices or alder smoke over apple wood smoke, the most important thing about the total smoking process is that you like your own fish when it’s done, he said.
His smoking process takes days. First, Staffan’s salmon soak in his undisclosed brine for about 48 hours before spending another 12 hours on the racks of his smoke house.
There are so many different ways to go about smoking salmon and everyone you ask has his or her own brine. There is no best brine recipe, Staffan said.
Curing brines generally have a base mixture of water, brown sugar and salt. Fish spend from two hours to two days taking up the flavors and curing from the salt.
Staffan puts his fish on the smokehouse racks wet and dripping with his thickly concocted brine, which falls onto lower racks, glazing the fish as they slowly cure in circulating smoke.
Built from standard dimensional lumber and residential windows with screens, Staffan said the smokehouse looks a little bit like an outhouse. The small out building cures his take of his special treat of whole smoked 6- to 8-inch landlocked kings — about 150 annually —and a portion of his family’s summer sockeye haul.
Local fishing goods clerk Butch Nylandier threw a nod to one of the “unique” ideas in smoking fish as he told of a tribe on the coast of Washington state that uses soda pop as a brine base for salmon.
“It’s got all the basic ingredients,” he said. “You just add a few things.”
Kenai River fishing guide Kevin Thurman, of Alaska Fishing Service, takes an opposite view of the cold smoke, which he said leaves fish “mushy.”
“I like mine cooked,” he said.
Thurman favors the hot-smoke process of his commercially made smoker/grill. Running between 180 and 210 degrees, hot smokers cook fish within them more so than curing them during the smoking time. Keeping the fast-is-delicious mindset, Thurman cuts his fish into strips to be baggie cured in a brine mostly made of Mr. Yoshida’s marinade and brown sugar. In the end he gets a fully cooked and sweetly flavored snack.
After two hours on the rack, Thurman has a grip of “Alaskan candy” ready to eat.
“I’m not in to the raw stuff,” he said.
With those temperatures watch your fish closely; Thurman warned any newbie that might tackle his own smoking.
There is an endless supply of step-by-step instructional videos online showing how to build smokers at home.
One of the least expensive ways to begin smoking fish is by converting a used gas grill into a smoker by disabling all but one burner and placing a small steel bowl full of wood chips at one end and your brined salmon on the grill rack at the other end. A meat thermometer can be added through a small drill hole to improve temperature control.
The resulting contraption is a hot smoker that will work in the lower temperature range
Reach Greg Skinner at firstname.lastname@example.org.