Photo: Sockeye Salmon Candy
Contributors to this blog often write about fishery policy and the love they share of catching fish. Every so often, there’s a discussion of the culinary delights that drive most of us to the sea and fuel our love for seafood. I’ve cooked a lot of fish in my life, but pound for pound the best seafood I’ve ever cooked was the smoked salmon I made last week.
I bought a pellet smoker this spring, which was a great investment. However, I didn’t fall in love with it until I smoked some salmon. With one cook, this machine has changed the way I approach and think about seafood, probably forever. And the sockeye salmon candy I made was so delicious, I want to share it with the world, and share the recipe with you. This super-accessible, super-handy culinary tool might just be your meal ticket to amazing smoked fish whenever you want it.
First, the smoker itself
For those who may not know, a pellet smoker uses small pellets of extruded scrap wood fiber and sawdust upcycled from other applications. These are fed from a hopper to a burn chamber by an auger that is spun at specific speeds and intervals to keep the grill smokey and precisely heated. Pellet smokers let you hot smoke a variety of foods and afford a great deal of temperature precision without being so big you have to tow them with your car.
There are lots of pellet smokers out there, some good, some overpriced, some not so great. I took a look at the competition, and found one that seemed robust and well thought-out at a good price point. Keys for me were electronic controls that are simple and straightforward, and the ability to produce a precise cook with a low temperature option (down to 150º). As for quality, this baby is solid, US-built, and all the components are well engineered and precisely machined. I know because I opted to build the thing myself rather than have someone at the hardware store with a lack of incentive to tighten screws do it for me. It took the better part of a Saturday, and I’ll attest to its sturdiness.
I also opted for the combo pellet/propane version, because sometimes you just need to make some sausages and I was in the market. But as an added bonus, this puppy has a propane burner off on the side, which is perfect for making sauces, reheating your glaze to drizzle on whatever you’re smoking, or frying fish to a perfect beer battered crisp without stinking up the house.
This smoker is one of the smallest the manufacturer produces but it’s more than big enough to cook a turducken (come November), which is about all the space I need. And it’s also big enough to fit about four whole chickens (worth it), a 15 lb brisket (this was a great COVID-times wedding gift) or four large salmon filets (the purpose of this post).
Second, the fish
Like many readers, I will never cook farmed finfish in my home. I was delighted to find plenty of Alaskan sockeye in the cold case here in Maine this summer. It may not be self-caught, and it was certainly frozen at one point, but you just can’t beat wild Bristol Bay reds for taste, texture, or that unbelievable color. Sockeye filets are also great for smoking because they’re small enough to get a pretty nice uniform temperature. I’m sure, however, that this recipe would work for any species of salmonid you lay your hands on.
Third, the recipe
As I’ve come to appreciate, the key to a really good smoke (as with most anything else) is good prep. In the case of fish, as well as poultry, that means overnight brining. The brine makes such a difference in locking moisture and salty goodness into the fish that I won’t do it any other way. The brine I used is simple, with about 1/3 cup kosher salt and ½ cup brown sugar per quart of brine. Make enough brine to completely cover your fish in a glass or enamel (i.e. non-reactive) container. Cut the fish into half- to three-quarter-pound sections, cover with your brine, and let sit in the fridge overnight. Then take it out of the brine and pat it dry.
I did some research on the science of the seafood I was about to smoke, and found the second less-well-known key to a really good seafood smoke: the formation of the pellicle. This proteinaceous membrane forms over a period of several hours on the outside of fish left to air dry. Smoke will adhere to the pellicle, enhancing flavor, and the moisture contained within your meat will stay better contained. It’s best to do this step in a cool place with good air circulation (I used my basement work bench and a fan). Don’t worry, properly brined fish won’t spoil during the pellicle formation process if you’re close to room temperature. Set up your pellicle station, and let the fish sit unmolested for a few hours.
Towards the end of this drying period, if you want to add some sweetness to your fish, go ahead and prep a butter glaze to put on the fish. You can use any sweet flavor you’ve got around. I used 100% pure Maine maple syrup, some of my mother’s wildflower honey, and 4 tablespoons of butter. You can use a lot of sources of sweetness for a glaze; I read a couple recipes where folks used strawberry reduction. In this case, variety is your spice!
Next, it’s time to smoke. Get your smoker going, on a high-smoke setting if you have one, and get the temperature set at a steady 150-160º. My smoker takes about 10 to 15 minutes to get up to temp and verifiably stable. Brush a little olive oil on the cooking surface, close all vents so heat is indirect and smoke is maximized, and lay the fish down. Brush enough glaze (if you’re using it) onto your fish to add a shine to it, but be sure to save at least half of your glaze.
If you’re smoking, adhere to the old grilling maxim: “if you’re lookin’, she ain’t cookin’.” Get your temperature probe out and press it into the middle of one of the thicker cuts of fish, maybe one you’ve placed closer to the center of the cooking surface. Close the lid, and let it go.
A couple hours in and your temperature should be up towards 100º. Around this time, you can take a look at your smoked salmon creation, the excuse being that it’s time to add glaze. Brush the rest of your glaze onto the fish, close the lid, and keep cooking.
Around 3-4 hours into the cook, the fish should be approaching the key final temp range of 130-140º. If you like your fish rare or moist, aim for the low end (it’ll continue to rise another few degrees after you take it off heat). I stopped when my probe read 132º. Take your fish off, shut down your smoker, and prepare to eat the best fish you’ve ever made. Make sure to share with family and friends, however you might be able to do so, as soon as possible!
Whenever I cook fish, I think about the critter that gave its energy to me, and the fisherman who went out to sea and caught it. The transfer of biomass from the sea to my table is a wonderful thing, no less enabled by the ingenuity of our seafaring heritage, our seafood infrastructure, and whichever mad genius first designed a pellet grill.
I hope you get to enjoy much of the ocean’s bounty this year! Remember, eat US-caught wild seafood, eat local if you can, and also remember to thank a fisherman!