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I remember my grandfather smoking fish in the backyard when I was a child in Washington. The smoker we had we made was an old 50’s refrigerator that weighed the same as an Oldsmobile that had been gutted out and fitted with racks to accommodate the large catches we brought home.
The art of smoking, as I was taught, is to be patient. Low and slow was always my grandfather’s philosophy and for a good reason: it always came out dry smoked but tender in the middle and always evenly smoked.
The main points to consider for smoking fish are the temperature, cut, brine, wood, and smoker. We will talk about each of these points as they relate to my favorite and one of the best fish for smoking, sockeye salmon.
Sockeye are visually stunning fish to look at, but they are also one of the best-tasting fish on the planet. With their rich pink/reddish meat (wild-caught) that gives them a bolder flavor than other salmons and a high-fat content, Sockeye are the perfect salmon for smoking.
Mouth-watering taste aside, sockeye salmon are also supremely nutritious and healthy, with one of the highest concentrations of Omega-3 fatty acids of any fish.
My hope is that this post will help you to understand what it takes to turn this flavorful and good-for-you fish into delicious smoky treats and meals and also just how simple smoking sockeye salmon really is.
Let us now dive into a few of these points in-depth to give you a little understanding of the basics and give you a running start in smoking this delicious and nutritious fish. This is my favorite way to cook sockeye and, in my opinion, is quite easy to do.
Low and Slow Is the Way to Go, Said the Old Man
One thing I remember asking my grandfather was why was the temperature so low when smoking. His answer was that it was necessary because fish fillets tend to be thinner. Fish cook fast but smoke slowly, so lower temperatures were preferred over higher ones.
Too much heat rendered the fillet dry, which is good if that is what you are looking for. I have in the past dry smoked fish for hiking and backpacking because it was salt-cured then hard-smoked at a higher temperature. This made it stable for packing.
A softer smoked fillet is optimal for things such as dips and serving with crackers or for those who may have a hard time eating dry smoked fish. Bones are also harder to pick out of soft smoked salmon as well, so if you like it soft maybe you should remove the bones prior to smoking.
Critical Step to Smoking Sockeye – Deciding on the Cut
When it comes to preparing sockeye salmon, you must first decide what cut you going to be smoking. A steak-cut sockeye salmon offers more of the meat to be smoked but limits your ability to debone the fish. Steak cuts also take longer to smoke due to the density of the flesh.
Do not let that discourage you from steak cuts, however, because they are optimal for culinary dishes where you need all the meat from the fish you can get, such as dips and salmon patties. Drop temperatures lower and cook slow for steak-cut fish to avoid drying as well.
Filleted fish offer more control over the smoking process due to the thinner cut but also require more attention. Thinner cuts of fish smoke much faster than other cuts but leave more room for error and overcooking – something to think about.
When smoking fillets, you may find yourself running outside more often to check on them and adjust the temperature accordingly. So, again, low and slow is the key to good smoked salmon and other fish.
Deboning is simple with sockeye fillets because of the easy access to the pin bones. Pin bones are those bones running along the middle of the fillet you’ll find after filleting your fish. They are just under the flesh or may stick out slightly. If you run your fingers along the fillet from the top to the tail, they feel like little boney stubbles.
Scrape a chef’s or fillet knife from the head of the fillet to the tail to raise the pin bones. Simply pluck these bones out of the top ridge of the flesh along the fish using fishbone tweezers or even eyebrow tweezers. For larger fish with bigger pin bones, a pair of needle-nose pliers will do nicely.
Other bones such as those surrounding the organ cavity of the salmon fillet can simply be cut away by running a fillet knife under the membrane that connects them to the fish. There is not much meat in this area, and it is worth it to just remove it.
I highly recommend brining and smoking fillets cut into squares and with the skin attached. The fat layer that you find between the fish’s skin and the flesh itself is where most of the flavor comes from, and it is also where lots of very good nutrition is stored.
Cutting the fillets into squared chunks and brining will make it easier and faster to smoke, meaning fewer chips and a more even smoke. This also makes it easier to fit more salmon at a time in the smoker.
Experimenting With the Brine – Make It Your Own
This is the second step after preparation to smoke sockeye and one of the most important ones is making the brine. Smoked salmon brine typically contains a large amount of salts and sugars that are like pickling. This process breaks down small proteins making the flesh less dense and more stable and tender.
The beauty of making brine for smoking sockeye or any other meat is in experimentation. This is where you can be free to get creative within reason and make the fish “your own”. I personally have always used slightly more salt than sugar, and certain sugars are better than others.
The sugar product could be just about anything in combination, but I have always used dark brown sugar for my brine. Smoother tastes can be attained by incorporating natural sweeteners but do not stray too far away from heavy sugars such as table and brown sugar.
Salts are a fickle thing to use. I was taught that pickling salt is the superior choice for brines since the brining process is a loose method of pickling itself. A 10-pound sockeye is a large fish, so we always used a bucket for brining. Add warm clean water until a quarter of a 5-gallon bucket is filled and then add 3 cups brown sugar and 6 cups of pickling salt.
Mix these ingredients and add whatever additions you would like, i.e., soy sauce, spices and then add fish chunks and brine for 6 to 8 hours at room temperature. After this time has passed, remove the fish, pat dry with a paper towel and you are ready to smoke.
Choosing Your Wood – Go With What Works for You
The wood used is really not too specific. Sockeye salmon are red flesh fish and I have always enjoyed cherry and alder for chips, but you can experiment with different types to see which you like best. Try to opt for medium-sized chips rather than overly large or small ones. You do not want them to burn too fast or too slow, so find a happy medium.
Some chips such as hickory or oak chips are harder than others and will burn slower. Because of this, maybe try a thinner chip if going with denser wood. The chips themselves can be expensive when buying name brand but if you know what species of wood chips you like, you can look around for wood mills in your area. Often, they sell chips cheaper.
If you do not have access to a mill, you can often buy generic brands at any sporting store or general retailers such as Walmart and Cabela’s. The brand really does not matter as much as how the chips look – try to get a bag that has the chips that work best for how you are smoking.
What Smoker Should I Use?
There are many different types of smokers (see our in-depth guide on fish smokers) available but try to consider the amount you are smoking. When I was a kid, we smoked so much salmon and trout, we had to make our smoker out of a refrigerator by adding a burner unit and gutting the inside.
Regarding cost, you do not have to break the bank to have a good smoker. For a first smoker, remember that most can hold quite a bit of fish, so a large smoker may not be necessary.
In recent years, I have not smoked as much fish because I am in Montana and my usual quarry is rainbow trout (which are much smaller). But one simple smoker that I have always enjoyed is the Little Chief brand. These are simple insulated metal-cased smokers that are affordable and work very well. Because of its cheaper cost, Little Chief smokers make great first-time smokers.
My father uses a Traeger that he is quite fond of, but it can be more expensive for pellets rather than chips. With barbeque smokers, you will not get the deep smoked flavor that you can achieve with an authentic smoker.
Consider the elements when choosing as well, Little Chief smokers hold out better outside than electric smokers for example. However, there are many particularly good brands of electric smokers that can be used on a covered porch.
I like the Little Chief smokers personally for their smaller size and affordability, but it depends on the amount you smoke. Keeping in mind that you can smoke just about anything ranging from fish to cheese, make sure you get one large enough for what you will need.
Why You Should Smoke Sockeye (and Other Fish Too)
The reason I began smoking fish at an early age was to preserve meat for the family. This carried into the need to preserve meat for the hobbies I enjoy today such as spending time outdoors. I love the amount of customization you can use when brining and smoking your own fish as well.
The brine recipe above is the “shell” that you can use to get started. Try fresh herbs and citrus for a good tangy-sweet combination for red meat fish. Study up and maybe try your hand at smoking other things as well. Cheeses smoke very well in any smoker so long as you choose a medium softness.
I have always enjoyed smoked fish of any kind but smoked sockeye salmon holds a special place in my heart, and every time I eat it, I go back to my childhood. Go pick out a modest smoker for your needs and start trying new things. Smoking fish is individualistic and part of the fun is in experimenting with it. That is what I love about it and I am sure you will too.
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