There are 2 (two) radio stations here in Sitka. NPR and a butt-rock station called "the Rock". The Rock plays the same 12 songs every hour. As a result I hear Montly Crue "Smoking in the Boys Room" whenever I haul out the little Chief smoker and my old glass mayonnaise jar. It's time to smoke some fish.
Food preservation in the summer takes up entire weekends. Putting up fish is best done with a six pack and music that is decidedly not from The Rock (Although, I can brine the hell out of fish to Joan Jett). We don't smoke entire loins or fillets of fish anymore, we just smoke the bellies and collars. These are generally the waste cuts that aren't good for much else. They're also the fattiest portions of the fish and are amazing smoked.
Everybody here has their special brines or process and I'm no different. I learned to smoke fish with my dad. Every year at about thanksgiving we would make the brine with all sorts of sauces, elixirs, zests, salts for the rainbow trout we caught all summer. I remember being hunched over the deep sink in the garage while dad poured and stirred and grated.
I am much more lazy. My brine is 2 ingredients (4 when I'm feeling fancy). I use a dry brine because it really pulls the moisture from the fish. By the time I get around to getting the fish in the Brine, we've been cutting and vacuum sealing fish for close to 3 hours and I am OVER dealing with fish. Get it in the jar and get it done. Brining is just the beginning though. Smoking fish takes at least 2 days.
I inherited this smoker from my dad. This is a Luhr Jensen Little Chief electric hot smoker. It works ok.
Muskeg Harpy's tried and true dry Brine
2 parts brown sugar
1 part rock salt
Fancy add-ons (totally unnecessary but make you feel fancy).
1T Celery seed
1T dried Dill
King salmon belly, cleaned and ready to go. These can be really kind of ugly looking so don't let that deter you.
Slice the belly (or whatever else) into reasonable chunks. Score the surface of the flesh if you are as lazy as me and don't feel like slicing off the membrane (It doesn't hurt anything but it will restrict the brines penetration into the flesh.)
Dredge the salmon in a big bowl of your brine. Make sure the meat is well coated. Really, this brine is very cheap so don't be stingy.
Layer the dredged fish in your mayonnaise jar (really, any non-reactive container will work. I just like that my jar full of brining fish says best foods). Dump any leftover brine over the top of the fish. You can see how the fat and moisture from the salmon are already dissolving the sugar and salt. Place jar in the fridge for at least 12 hours, but not more than 36.
Take the pieces of fish out of the brine and rinse them in cold water. The brine is a gross, fish syrup at this point and will stink up any cloth it touches. Place them on racks to dry for at least 12 hours before smoking. This forms the pellicle, or skin or crust, on the outside of the salmon that gives it the characteristic chewiness. I put this rack in the oven so the house doesn't get too fishy. Let it dry for at least 6 hours if not 10.
Once everything is dry, you put the fish on the racks of your smoker. It sometimes helps to grease the racks so they clean easily. The strategy is to place the thicker pieces on the bottom rack and the thinner ones on the top. My little chief is hottest at the bottom, nearest the element and chips.
And the racks go into the smoker. I use apple chips for salmon, its a sweet smoke that won't over power the fish. Hickory is alright but mesquite is pretty extreme on fish.
And that's it! All you do is watch 4 episodes of The Riches on DVD and your fish is done. (4-6 hours) You need to add chips periodically to keep the smoke going.
Smoked fish keeps for a long, long time in the freezer. It's important to refrigerate the fish that you make because it will spoil. Cold smoking is better at preserving food for storage outside the fridge than hot smoking.