In some Alaska places, smoking fish has been raised to an art form. Residents who smoke their own salmon or other species can make a product that commercial smokers wouldn’t generally attempt — guarding the recipes they’ve perfected through years of trial and error. “One of the most unique products that I’ve seen over the years is a semi-smoked black cod that was smoked at 115 degrees Fahrenheit,” said seafood technology specialist Chuck Crapo. “It wasn’t quite cooked and it wasn’t quite raw. It had an amazing texture to it.”
The various and intricate methods of smoking fish were the topic of a lunchtime lecture at the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge visitor’s center recently.
Crapo is a fish smoking enthusiast and has been able to interact with home smokers and commercial operations across the state.
“Every time I go in I learn something different, because everyone is doing so many different things with smoked fish,” Crapo said. “There’s really not just one way of doing it. There’s probably 650,000 ways of smoking fish.”
Crapo said he’s used some of the things he’s learned over the years in his own fish smoking routine.
The key to getting consistent results, Crapo said, is doing the same thing the same way each time.
Fish caught at different times of the year can smoke differently due to their fat content.
Fish that are frozen may react differently from fish that are fresh.
Different sized fillets may come out different, and temperature is always a factor to watch, whether cold-smoking or hot-smoking.
It’s a process that takes a few years to figure out, if it ever can be said to be truly figured out completely, he said.
“Sometimes you think you have a consistent product and there’s some material that doesn’t react like you think it should,” Crapo said.
Crapo related how one man who smoked king salmon would not divulge his recipe — king salmon are difficult to smoke well. Crapo didn’t mind sharing the formula he uses for brine and for dry salting, after explaining he has something of a sweet tooth.
“One of the biggest challenges in all this stuff is how do you make the same product year in, year out,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve had one year of smoking or 50 years of smoking — you still get surprised by how the product turns out. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it isn’t.”
There are different theories to brining salmon before smoking it. Some cookers call for a solution high in salt and placing the fish in the solution for a short time.
“One of the things I’ve seen over the years is processors are having a difficult time keeping their salt solution consistent, so they’ve decided to go to the other side and adjust their production system going down really low, using brines maybe 2 percent salt.”
The idea is to leave the fish in the brine for a long time, such as overnight, so the salt is distributed uniformly.
“There are no hard and fast rules,” Crapo said. “I’ve seen people do brining in all different ways.”
Crapo prefers a brine that is 3 percent salt and 10 percent brown sugar. That’s 1/2 cup of salt and 1 1/2 cups of brown sugar for each gallon of water. This brine does not require a rinse step.
Not only does the brown sugar satisfy his sweet tooth, Crapo said, it also gives a great color to the smoked salmon.
For dry salting, the best way to produce a product you want to cold smoke, Crapo recommended a 1-to-1 mixture of salt to brown sugar with a brief rinse to clean off the salt before smoking.
The salt reacts with proteins in the fish to produce a sticky film on the face of the filet, Crapo said. This film captures the smoke flavor, so it shouldn’t be rinsed off too thoroughly.
Another important part of the smoking process is drying.
“You go down to the store and you look at product, you’ll find some people who are really good at this and some people who aren’t doing so good,” Crapo said “Perhaps they’re not drying well enough.”
The brine and the drying of the fish are two of the tricks that will improve the appearance and quality with the end result being a smoked product that looks like it is professionally produced, he said.
Many people Crapo knows have gone into smoking salmon as a hobby and turned it into a business.
“You can make so many different products,” he said, “it’s fun to experiment.”