Salmon is one of the most popular fish to eat in the United States. While there are many different ways to prepare them, smoking them is at the top of my list.
Here in Michigan we are fortunate to have salmon in the Great Lakes. However, this recipe is not limited to just salmon. Any fish that is oily enough to smoke well, will work with this recipe. Other Great Lakes fish that I would recommend are lake trout, steelhead, brown trout, cisco, and whiteifish. One thing I will stress is that if you aren't able to catch your own fish for the smoker avoid buying farm raised salmon at the grocery store. Instead, look for a leaner cut of wild salmon. If you have big sections of fat between each muscle segment the smoked fish will turn out very greasy. Another option is to hire a charter captain who knows Great Lakes trout and salmon well. For Lake Michigan check out Captain Kyle Buck and Great Lakes Guide Service in Muskegon.
Most of my salmon fishing occurs when the fish are staging in Muskegon Lake in late August and early September. Fishing can be really awesome if you happen to hit it right. It is the only time of year where anglers with any size boat, or even pier anglers, can target them as they enter the lake. One of the biggest keys to having the best tasting salmon fillets is to simply snip one of the gill arches with a pair of side cutters as soon as you catch them. This causes the fish to bleed out, leaving the mess in your cooler and not your prized salmon fillet. Before freezing them I chunk the fillets up in 3 to 4 inch sections with the skin on. Also make sure you keep them cold; either vacuum seal or freeze them in water.
1 Gallon Water
Salmon Fillets Chunked (Skin-On)
3 Cloves Garlic (Crushed)
Red Pepper Flakes
1-1/4 Cup Kosher Salt
1-1/4 Brown Sugar
The first thing we have to do is create a brine for the fish. I encourage you to get creative with this as there are a ton of flavors that can be added. You must use a non metallic container for brining the fish, I use a 12 quart pail I picked up from a home improvement store. It works great to hold a large amount of salmon and the brine. Add the water to the pail and mix in the salt, brown sugar and crushed garlic. Also add red pepper flakes and Reel n Smoke seasoning to taste. Next, rinse the salmon fillets in cold water and then add to the brine and refrigerate for 12 to 24 hours.
Unfortunately, it isn't as easy as grabbing these bad boys out and throwing them in the smoker. Unless you want some really salty tasting smoked fish, first give each fillet a rinse in cold water. Next, pat dry with a paper towel and place on a drying rack. This is an important part of the process as the fish needs to form a pellicle. Before we form that pellicle though, liberally season the fillets with some Reel n Smoke seasoning. This will give it a little extra flavor and enhance the appearance of your fish. I promise you, people will comment on how much that adds to the fish! From there you want to have a fan blowing over them for 1.5 to 2 hours. You want them to be tacky to the touch and shiny looking. The pellicle will help to absorb the smoke flavor into the fish and gives an appetizing texture to the end result.
Now we are ready to throw it in the smoke! I prefer to use apple chips when smoking fish and like to get a decent smoke going in my electric smoker before I put the fillets in. Smoking is an art, not a science. Things are going to vary based on wind, temperature, and environment. The end goal is to get the fillets temperature above 150 degrees for at least half an hour to ensure it is safe to eat. I start out slow with the smoker set at 140 for a couple hours and gradually bump it up from there to achieve my desired doneness and temperature. This process usually takes anywhere from 6 to 8 hours as I prefer dryer smoke fish vs fish that is still dripping some grease when being served. Gradually bump up the smoke temperature throughout the process and finish for the last couple hours with your temp settings anywhere from 185 to 200 degrees based on the environment.
Once your fish is done, remove it from the smoker and place it on the drying rack again. Allow enough time for your fish to cool to room temperature. Once it settles down to room temp either refrigerate or vacuum seal the salmon for future use and enjoy!
Smoked salmon is best served cold and an amazing treat on its own. We like to mix things up when we serve it to guests though. We usually incorporate it into an appetizer platter complete with many different flavors. Crackers and any mixture of buffalo, beef, or chicken Reel 'n Smoke jerky are the absolute essentials. Other recommendations are wild game sausage, cheese, and olives.
Since when I serve smoked salmon I am also mixing other flavors on an appetizer platter. I want a beer that is crisp, refreshing, and will cleanse the pallet between different foods. Oh, The Citranity! is an American Pale Ale from Beards Brewing in Petoskey, Michigan that fits the bill perfectly. While you can enjoy it right from the source in Petoskey, they also distribute it to various places throughout the state. You may have to search to find it, but we found it at Horrock's Market in Grand Rapids.