My family has diverse interests. In other words, we all like doing our own thing. But one outdoor pursuit that brings us all together is fishing Lake Michigan for salmon and trout on Capt. Scott Gutschow’s Reel Action Charters out of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. We cherish the memories the family makes whenever we reunite here, and the bounty of salmon when the Good Lord smiles on our pursuits.
There are many favorite recipes in which we enjoy the Big Lake salmon and trout—from the simplicity of grilled fillets with salt, pepper and olive oil to flaked leftovers in Fettucine Alfredo. A universal favorite is properly smoked salmon.
For years, we took much of the catch to the local butcher shop where they handled smoking the salmon, but since acquiring a Camp Chef Smoke Vault and a growing curiosity about creating home made delights, I’ve taken to smoking the salmon myself at home.
Smoking fish is a little tricky starting out, but it’s a learning process. With practice you’ll get better and better at it, and turn out consistent product that will make you the pitmaster in demand.
This is the basic recipe and procedure I’ve landed upon based on advice from Matt Anderson at Camp Chef, Hank Shaw’s Hunter, Angler, Gardner Cook website, and some additional research on the World Wide Web.
- 3-4 good-sized salmon or trout fillets (skin on, remove as many pin bones as possible)
- 4 cups of brown sugar (dark brown is best, but you can add black strap molasses to make light brown sugar dark. Sometimes, I even add it to dark brown sugar as it adds nice depth of flavor and color to the fish.)
- 1 cup of kosher or pickling/canning salt
- 1 head of garlic
- olive oil spray
- Fillet fish. Prepare fillets by removing pin bones and getting as many scales off the skin as possible. Rinse fillets in fresh water and pat dry with paper towels. Allow to air dry while you are making rest of preparations.
- Peel all cloves in a medium head of garlic, then mince garlic. It’s easiest to do with a garlic press. Place garlic in a large non-metallic mixing bowl.
- Add dark brown sugar and salt to mixing bowl in a 4 to 1 ratio. Add supplemental molasses if you desire. Mix these ingredients thoroughly. A stout fork works well for this. Keep stirring until salt and garlic is evenly distributed through the mix
- Score the salmon fillets through the flesh, down to the skin, but do not cut through the skin. Make the scoring cuts about one inch apart. At this time, also cut the fillets into manageable size pieces for brining and for the smoker.
- Layer the bottom of a large, nonmetallic container with a thin coat of the sugar mix. (A large Lexan tub or a ceramic crock or pot works great for this. A large glass cake pan is okay, too, but deeper is better.)
- Next coat the meat side and between the scores in the flesh with sugar mix. Be sure to get an ample, even covering on all surfaces.
- Lay the first layer of fillets in the container flesh down into the sugar mix at the bottom. Lightly press them in place.
- Next layer a very thin layer of sugar on the skin side. Then place next layer of coated fillets flesh side up. Skin to skin.
- Place the next layer of coated fillets into the container flesh side down. Flesh to flesh. Repeat pattern until all fillets are in the container, then sprinkle any remaining sugar mix evenly on top.
- Cover loosely with plate or plastic wrap, and place container into refrigerator for at least six, and up to 9 hours.
- Remove the container from the fridge, and take to sink with clean, cool, running water.
- The sugar mixture will have pulled a great deal of moisture from the fish, firming the flesh and creating a great deal of gooey, sticky syrup in the container.
- Remove each fillet and rinse individually under running water to remove syrup. You may want to be very careful about removing all particles of garlic if you don’t want them to flavor the fish too strongly in the smoker, but some folks like it that way, so leave them if you want.
- Gently shake as much moisture as possible from each fillet, then place them well-spaced on racks. The racks right from the smoker work great for this. Make sure that air can reach both sides of the fillets easily.
- Place these racks in a room temperature area with good air circulation—a light breeze is best. You can use a small fan or ceiling fan to bolster the air movement.
- Allow the fillets to sit under these conditions for at least 6-8 hours. This will allow the thin, sticky coating called the “pellicle” to form. This coating is essential as it allows the smoke flavor to adhere to the flesh.
- When they are ready, the fillets will be of a much darker color than when you started and slightly glossy.
- Start your smoker. Turn it up high for 10-15 minutes to get some well-soaked apple and/or cherry chips smoking. Then turn the heat down—way, way down.
- While the smoker is heating, spray the smoker racks with a light coating of olive oil to prevent the skin sticking to them. Then place the fillets, again well spaced, on the smoker racks and insert them in the smoker. (Hint: Heat rises, so it builds most near the top of a smoker. Put the racks with the thickest fillets in this position.)
- I’ve found great success with Hank Shaw’s recommendation of 2 hours at 100-125 degrees, 2 hours at 140 degrees, and up to 2 hours at 175 degrees. But use a remote reading meat thermometer starting at about 4 – 4 ½ hours to bring the internal temperature of the fish to 145 degrees. When it hits 145, get it off the heat.
- Allow the fillets to cool at room temperature for about an hour before refrigerating. For longer storage, vacuum seal and freeze, but honestly even a moderate sized batch won’t last very long once your buddies find out about it.
Keep a keen eye on the temperature. Experiment. But most of all—enjoy and share the smoked salmon with family and friends!