Smoking a Turkey Primer
Recipe by: Many
Prep time: How long do you have?
This series of messages were compiled into one primer on smoking salmon. It by no means the "word" on smoked salmon, just my personal experiences over the last three years in chasing after the elusive smoked salmon rainbow. I am getting pretty good at it, though, after probably thousands of dollars of salmon mistakes, so here it is, my treatise.
These messages were left to a gentleman who described his his smoking nightmare to me. I remember the feeling well! I started out with the exact same water smoker that he has, except his was electric and mine was just a wood burning smoker.
I think that you must have been led down the merry path of salmon destruction, K.E! I must laugh a bit, because oh so many years ago (3) when I started doing smoked salmon, I too, had only a water smoker with which to attempt to create that lovely velvety smoked salmon that's just about the priciest thing in the fish counter besides caviar! I soon discovered that it is completely impossible to make COLD smoked salmon (where the fish never exceeds 80F in the smoker) with the typical hot smoking kettle. I DID learn how to make hot smoked salmon which can be done in the water smoker but the process (and the results) are quite different from what you described in your attempt. First of all, one of the most important things is how you cut up the fish. For a hot smoke technique (that WILL work in your system) you want to fillet the fish and then cut the fillets (leave the skin on) into chunks of uniform thickness, thus the top pieces will be thicker than the bottom pieces. I usually use the top middle third of the fillet for lox, the front top and bottom third for hot smoking, the bottom middle third for hot smoking, and the tail for eating fresh (no bones, thin, cooks quickly). Lately I have discovered that the bottom middle piece is also good for a cold smoke done in the Japanese sashimi style. Let's get back to what you CAN accomplish with your system. Here's a recipe for hot smoked salmon that will work in your unit. If you can keep the heat at about 150 instead of 200 you will get better results.
First mix up a batch of brining solution--start with 1 cup of salt (use only kosher or pickling salt, I like Kosher salt best) to 1 cup maple syrup (Aunt Jemima's is just fine--don't waste your money on Vermont's finest) to 1 cup brown sugar. Mix this up really well and then mix in your fish chunks. I am basing this on a good sized fish, about 10-15 pounds undressed, AND with the loin section reserved for something better, like lox! If the mixture is too dry when you add the fish, add about 1/2 to 1 cup water. Just make sure the fish is completely covered. Remember also that the salt will soon start to draw moisture out of your fish, so don't add too much water or you will over dilute your brining solution. It takes about 6 to 8 hours for this step, and don't forget to stir the fish from time to time to redistribute the brine. Now, very QUICKLY rinse each piece of fish under water to remove excess brining solution and place on a rack suspended over newspaper or a big tub, skin side down. Put a fan on the fish for another 6-8 hours until a dry pedicle forms on the fish. This coating will keep moisture in the fish while it is smoking and protect it further from deteriorating. Don't do this outside, you will attract ALL The Bugs in the World. I do it in my garage. It is also important that the temp be pretty cool, so I generally salt the fish during the day and drain them at night, so I can smoke them during the day when I am semi-conscious. You said your system is electric, so you will have to figure out how to make the smallest fire with the least amount of heat. As I said, about 150 is good for this technique. Now you want to keep this tiny fire smoking for about 8 hours. The pieces on the top rack will cook faster than those on the bottom, so check BOTH racks regularly. You can undercook this a bit, but because of the brine flavor, I think that a bit on the dry side is better. (next message will describe the lox you CAN make)
You can make "smoked" salmon, but not with your system. This recipe is for the old fashioned lox where the fish is not smoked at all, but isn't a gravlax either. I like gravlax, but I like lox better--it's better cured, in my humble opinion, and therefore has a better texture for me. Take the upper middle third of your filleted salmon. Score the skin at regular intervals with a razor. Cut only through the skin, not into the meat. Take your Kosher salt and sprinkle it liberally on the skin rubbing it gently into the cuts. Sprinkle about a 1/4 inch layer of salt in a ceramic or glass no reactive pan that will comfortably fit your fillets. Place the fish skin side down in the pan and then sprinkle salt over the fillet to cover the surface completely. The thicker the fish, the more salt you will need. I would say for the fish in question (the 10 pounder) about a 1/4 inch on top and bottom is sufficient. Now put this in the dish covered and go away for about 9 hours. Come back and poke your fish. If it is hard as a rock, you have failed miserably. If it feels squishy and raw you need to leave it a while longer. If it feels like the lean part of a slab of bacon, you are in the money. Now you want to rinse the fillets and put them in a finishing brine (2 1/2 cups salt to 64 ounces of water). Put the fish in the COLD brine that you have made while the fish was in the dry salt. Leave it there for another 9-12 hours. Now you are ready to freshen the fish--that is, take out as much of the salt you want to get it to your taste. You accomplish this freshening simply by allowing cold water to flow into a basin containing the fish. Don't let the stream of water actually contact the fish. The force of the water will actually make a hole in your fillet--Not attractive! I think about 20 minutes of freshening is good, but that's my taste PLUS it varies wildly with each fish, so the only way is to taste. If it tastes a bit LESS salty then what you like, you are ready to condition the fish. Drain the fish WELL, and then put it on a rack in the frig to drain for 24 hours. If you weigh the fish with a large heavy flat item you will be water horsing the fish and the result is firmer fish. Now you have lox--slice it thin and get out the bagels. If you want a bit of smoke flavor, you can TRY to put your fish over a smoky place but you can't have ANY heat over 80 degrees.
If you had a cold smoking system, the next step after conditioning is cold smoking and that's what separates the men from the boys, except I am an exception, cause I don't care if this is MAN'S work, I want to do it, so I do. I had my husband build me (actually he hired someone) a hot/cold smoker. It is about 10 feet long, with a smoker box at one end and a firebox on the other end. The firebox is connected to the smoke box by way of a duct. In between the two, built around the duct is a spot for my gas grill, a work area, and a wood storage area. I can hot smoke in the smoke box too, so I actually have two fireboxes plus the gas grill. I start a very very small fire in the cold smoke firebox. I soak oak chips and then put a few chunks of wet wood on my tiny fire. Even with the fire box as far away from the smoke box as it is, I still have to tend the fire every fifteen minutes to make sure I don't get a big flare-up in heat OR that the fire just burns out on me. If it burns out, I have to remove the salmon from the smoke box, start a new fire, let it burn down, and start again. Pain. It usually takes about 16 hours to get a good result, because the true secret of good nova lox salmon is to get the fish dry enough to have good texture without getting it too hot, which ruins the texture completely. If it makes you feel any better, I once salted about 8 of the most gorgeous fillets, forgot about them, and there was just no salvaging them. They were hard salty bricks. They went off the deck which was in retrospect a very cruel thing to do to the critters that ultimately ate those salty bombs. If you are as serious about this as I have become, you must get Jack Whelan's book, Smoking Salmon and Trout! Good luck! Keep me posted. I got my start here, too!
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