Smoking Alaskan Salmon

Here at Forto’s Fort we have a smoke house that we built a few years ago for the purpose of smoking delicious sockeye (red) salmon we catch each year in Kasilof, AK dip netting.

Most of the people head to the Kenai River. There you will find an almost carnival atmosphere with thongs of people camping on the beach, bouncy-houses for the kids and even a make-shift church is set up on Sunday mornings.

We go to Kasilof, just about 20 miles to the south. It’s not as crowded but there is still a lot of people. Luckily our friend, Dave is a commercial fisherman and he has a fish camp. We typically drive down on Friday morning and stay through Monday.

If you don’t know what dip netting is, it is where you stand in the water up to your chest and hold on to a huge net with a 10-12 foot handle as the tide is coming in and going out. There are literally thousands of salmon making their way up the river to spawn and we are lucky if they get caught in our nets

Our smoke house and smoked salmon recipe was passed along by a dear friend of ours, Marvin “Pee Wee” Rankin, who sadly passed away last year. We dedicated our smoke house with a little plaque with his name on it as our little way of thanking him for the knowledge and friendship that he passed along. Pee Wee taught us how to be Alaskans. In our three years or so as friends he and I talked many times about what all Alaska has to offer. I am so thankful I was able to share my time with him.

The catch

With the help of our friend Dale, we brought home 28 sockeyes this year. We caught all of those on three tides in Kasilof over a weekend camping trip. We had some big ones but most were average sized of about six or seven pounds. We filleted up the biggest ones to cook on the grill and placed them in Foodsaver bags and placed them in the freezer.

We prepare the fish just like you would any other. When we catch them at the river we do not clean or gut the fish. We freeze them immediately on ice in our super-large cooler. I know a lot of people clean their fish right away at the river but our process is done at home. This way we can take our time and it is a lot cleaner to do it in our sink rather than the river bank.

Here in Alaska there are just as many ways to smoke fish as there are families that fish for them. Some people cut the fish up in strips and dry them out under smoke on long racks, others use a grill, some smoke their fish and can it.

As many of you who have read our blog post on our walk-in smoke house you have asked what is the process we use to smoke our fish. Well here it is:

The the brine

Our process starts with catching the fish but the smoking process really starts with the brine. After we have filleted the fish and cut the pieces up in reasonable sized pieces we place them in a large plastic container and fill it with ice cold water and a cup of kosher salt. We place this in the fridge for 24 hours. This process removes all of the slime and the fish begin to firm up.

The marinade

After 24 hours we take the container out of the fridge. We dump out all of the water and wash off any excess brine from the fish pieces. We then add 1/3 cup liquid smoke, 3 cups of teriyaki sauce and pack the fish in six pounds of brown sugar.

We place the container back in the fridge and stir every six hours for the next three days.

As you can see we are now four days into our smoking process. It is important not to rush it. Our smoked salmon is a little bit like jerky and we like it that way. Many people use those little metal smokers that you can buy at any big box store and in my opinion the fish comes out too wet. It tastes good but it just isn’t to my liking like our process is.

After three days in the marinade, we take all of the fish pieces out of the container and lay them on newspaper and blow a fan on them over night. This allows the fish to dry out and and cuts the time in the smoke house down.

This year our catch filled our whole island in our kitchen, probably about 200 pieces.

The smoke house

[Read…Walk-in Smoke house ] 

Our smoke house is 23 racks. 16 large racks hold about 20 pieces of fish and several small mesh racks hold less. The mesh racks are built a little closer to the flame so they get more heat and smoke quicker. We like to put the fish bellies, one of the best pieces of meat on the fish, on the smaller racks.

After we place all of the fish on the racks we fire up the smoker. We use a propane fired system. It looks similar to what you would use to fry a turkey at Thanksgiving. There is a knob inside so that we can control the flame. This is important. Since we are cold smoking the fish we want to keep our temperature at about 160 degrees.

We use pellets for our smoke. They come in many varieties in a large 20 pound bag. My favorite is the pecan. This year we used hickory.

We smoke the fish from anywhere between six and ten hours. The time depends on the temperature and humidity outside too.

This year we smoked the fish for 6 1/2 hours.  That was just the right amount of time. I measured the internal temp and it was 165 degrees. The fish did come out a little darker this year than in years past. We did use a different teriyaki sauce and the hickory pellets for the first time.

Over the next six hours I go in and add 3 cups of pellets to the pot. This allows me to see how the fish are smoking as well as adjust the flame each time if needed.

I sampled a few pieces while still in the smoke house. It is delicious. It tastes almost like candy. The flavor profile of the brown sugar and teriyaki sauce along with the strong flavor of smoke and the salmon is something I look forward to every July.

The finished product

This year we ended up with 13.5 pounds of smoked sockeye. We wrapped each half pound package tightly in plastic wrap and then in butcher paper so that they stay safe in the freezer for us to eat over the next year. I usually send out a few pounds to family and friends and the rest I use to make salmon chowder, smoked salmon dip, and I love to eat it with ramen noodles and I also like to take a package out on the sled dog trail as snacks.

[Read…Walk-in Smoke house 

This whole process takes almost a week to complete and is the highlight of my summer. I love the whole process. I love going down to spend the weekend in Kasilof at my friend Dave’s fish camp, I love the dip netting with family and friends. I love the sun burns, the camping, the stories, the people watching. I even love the six hour bumper to bumper drive home after a long weekend of fishing. It is something that the whole family is a part of. The whole thing to me is a purely Alaskan experience and one of the reasons why I love living here. True, we don’t need this fish to survive the winter, contrary to what you may see on reality TV but it is a nice supplement to our diet. The fish and all of their bounty is well respected and we spend a lot of time each year talking about our catch and how best to manage the resource here in Alaska. My friend, Dave is a commercial set net fisherman and we always discuss whats on the horizon for the fish. The science of fish biology is amazing to me and the process that the salmon go  through in their life cycle is incredible.

This year we are going to try a lot more recipes with our smoked salmon. I will be sure to share them here. If you have a favorite, share it with us in the comment section and we will be sure to give it a try.

Follow Robert on Twitter @robertforto