If you’re a regular reader of my blog articles or are a subscriber to my Youtube channel and enjoy all the fishing videos I produce, then it’s probably no surprise when I tell you that I thankfully have an abundance of salmon in my freezer each year, caught from the pristine waters of Kodiak Island, Alaska. Salmon is a primary staple of nutrition for my family and as I’ve shared in some of my salmon recipe blogs and videos, we prepare it many different ways. As much as we love catching and cooking salmon though, I have to tell you, when you eat it several times a week, year after year, one has to get a little creative with it so as not to get burned out.
One particular method of preparing salmon that I never get tired of though is cold-smoked salmon jerky. I seem to eat it as fast as I make it! To give credit where credit is due, the method of preparation that I’ll be sharing with you here is something that I learned while working as a guide for my friends at Alpenview Wilderness Lodge on Kodiak Island. I make it a little different from how I originally learned, but as you’ll see it’s quite easy.
Cold Smoking VS Hot Smoking
To begin, cold smoking is a bit different from the more common hot smoking method. Most of the smokers that you see sold at outdoor stores are for hot smoking, which essentially is method of flavoring and cooking fish or meat at a low temperature for many hours. Cold smoking, on the other hand is likewise a way of flavoring fish or meat, but it’s more a matter of drying and preserving it, instead of slowly cooking it. Cold smoking can take several days to even several weeks and is done by first curing the fish or meat in a brine, smoking it at a very low temperature, and then letting it air dry, similar to what you see Alaska natives doing with their catch each year. Again, there are many different ways to cold smoke food items. This is just one tried and true method that produces great results.
Step #1 – Build a Cold Smoker
I decided not to do a complete step-by-step overview of how to build a cold smoker for this blog, as it’s really pretty simple. All you need is a drying rack of some kind, a bug-proof screened-in box for the rack, and a covering or enclosure to put over the whole thing while smoking, as seen in the photos below. I found a small, handy dandy stainless steel utility rack that was perfect for the actual rack part of the smoker and I then built a big screen box to put the rack in. I put side and top doors on my box for easy access to the fish or meat, and I sealed the whole thing up very securely with weather stripping. For the smoking process, I built a takedown plywood enclosure that goes around the rack that I can easily store when not in use. As a side note, plywood is not recommended for hot smoking, as it may produce an off-flavor. However, since cold smoking is done as such a low temperature, it really isn’t an issue. The only other thing you need is a small pan or pot to put a few pieces of charcoal in, and you’re all set.
Step #2 – Cut and Brine Fish
Once your cold smoker is ready to go, the next step is to cut and brine your fish. Now while I’m making salmon jerky here, you can use this same recipe and process for making fish jerky of any kind. Halibut, for example, also works nicely.
In this example I’m using pink salmon. The fillets are not all that thick, so I’m leaving the skin on and cutting them into half-inch to inch strips. For thicker fillets, I’ll cut the strips at about a quarter-inch thick. Whatever the case, try to keep your strips of a uniform size and thickness so they all dry out evenly together.
Next, you’ll want to make your brine. Putting fish or meat in either a liquid or a dry brine before smoking helps to remove any remaining blood and moisture from the fish, as well acting a natural flavor enhancing preservative. While every salmon smoking enthusiast in the world seems to have their own unique brine recipe, the two main ingredients in all of them is brown sugar and salt. You can do a search on the internet and come up with all kinds of interesting recipes, but to keep it simple, I’m mixing 2 pounds of brown sugar…which is your standard-sized package…with one-quarter cup of salt. If you want to make a liquid brine to soak your fish in, just mix the sugar and salt in a bucket or large pot with a gallon or two of water and chuck your fish strips in it. As you can see in the photos below, I’m using a dry brine. I simply put a layer of fish strips in a big container, cover it completely with brine mixture, add another layer of fish strips, cover with brine, etc. No matter if you use a liquid or a dry brine, make sure your fish is totally covered or immersed and leave it in the brine for several hour or overnight.
After your fish is good and brined, rinse it off thoroughly, place it on your smoking rack, and let it air dry for a few hours until the surface gets what’s known as a pellicle…which is a dry, tacky outer surface on the fish. I also lightly sprinkle black pepper on my fish at this point, which is simply a matter of taste. To expedite the pellicle formation, you can use a fan of one kind or another and let it blow gently on the fish.
Step #3 – Smoking
After a good pellicle had formed on the surface of the fish, it’s time to smoke it. Again, the point of cold smoking is not so much about slowly cooking the fish as done when hot smoking, but more so as a means of flavoring and drying out the fish. As cold smoking is done at a very low temperature, I put a few charcoal briquettes in a small pot, and when they’re ready to go I put a handful of wood chips on top and start smoking away. Traditionally, fruit woods are used when smoking fish and poultry as it produces a nice sweet flavor. I like to use a combination of apple and cherry. Alder wood also is great for smoking fish and is a traditional smoking wood in Alaska, as there is no shortage of it.
I smoke my fish for about four hours or so, as that’s really all it takes to give it a nice smokey flavor, and then I transfer my rack to the screen enclosure for the drying process.
Step #4 – Air Drying
The drying process will be affected by things such as the temperature and humidity, but it typically takes several days to dry a batch of salmon jerky. You’ll want to keep your drying rack in a well-ventilated place, out of direct sunlight, and in a place where fish-eating critters will not have easy access to it.
You’ll want to dry out your fish until it all has a jerky-like texture and consistency to it. Not too soft, and not too chewy. After you do a batch or two, you’ll get an idea of how many days it’ll take to dry out your fish and how it should look and feel when it’s ready.
When you’re jerky is ready to go, just take it off the rack, peel off the skin before eating (which makes a healthy treat for your pet) and enjoy. You can immediately share it with family and friends, or package some up with a vacuum sealer and throw it in the freezer for later.
Check out the video below to see more…