Smoking fish and making jerky are somewhat similar in that the process removes the moisture from the product (fish or meat).
In either case it is your preference as to how dry you make it. If either is completely free of moisture it will keep without refrigeration, but it is not nearly as palatable as it is with some moisture left in it.
Smoking fish is slightly more challenging than making jerky, but if you are prepared to follow basic guidelines it is not a complicated process.
Any of our Yukon game fish are great for the smoking process. Salmon and lake trout are most commonly used but pike, whitefish and others also make the grade.
The first and extremely important rule is to use fish in good condition (not freezer-burned or dried out from lying on the floor of the boat).
Much has been said about the powerful flavour-building preservation action of smoke, but smoking is no magic cure that will restore freshness and good flavour to food that is already deteriorating.
Fillet and bone out the fish. The fillet is thicker at the front, especially on a bigger fish, so cut off the tail-slabs (last 4-6″ of fillet) which are thinner and can be started on a higher rack as they will be finished sooner.
Some people do the whole fillet uncut, but I have had more success cross-cutting—that is making a number of cuts from top to bottom and end to end (down to the skin but not through it). This allows the brine to get throughout the fish more readily.
The pieces are then immersed and soaked for 8-12 hours, or overnight, depending on thickness and any instructions being used.
BASIC BRINE: 1/2 cup salt, 1/2 cup sugar (white or brown), 1-1/2\ l. water. Mix until salt/sugar is dissolved.
NOTE: Many other brine recipes are available on the internet and commercially prepared brine mixes are available locally at Sports North and The Sportslodge.
When the time in the brine is completed as per suggestions above or directions, the fillets are removed and rinsed well. This thorough rinsing is critical, otherwise the product is too salty.
Rinse under the cold water tap. Where running water is not available do it in a bucket, changing the water a number of times. A soft brush can be used during the rinse cycle.
The next step is even more critical than a thorough rinse. It is simply air-drying the fish (a fan can be used) until a dull sheen (pellicle) appears on the surface.
This will take a number of hours, and perhaps all day or night. This step is essential. Without it, the fish will end up mushy and inedible.
After air drying, the fish is ready for the smoker.
Smokers come in various shapes, sizes and heat sources. They can be homemade from 45-gallon drums, old fridges, or wooden boxes. They must be clean, free of insulation, plastic lining or be of bare wood.
The best way to start is with a smaller size aluminum, electric heat smoker such as a Little Chief, Big Chief or Totem, available locally. The Cadillac of personal electric smokers is The Bradley, with or without electronic controls, which takes all the guess-work out of the smoking part of the preparation.
Similar to the brines, various wood-chip flavours are available. Some are better for the job depending on your tastes or the type of fish. Alder is always a good choice and is also available along the banks of all our Yukon rivers, lakes and streams.
Spray Pam, or brush cooking oil, on the bare racks to keep the fish from sticking.
Thicker fish pieces should be placed near the bottom and thinner ones near the top. They can be rotated as needed during the smoker time.
NOTE: A sure sign that you are starting off too hot is a “curd” (creamy-coloured liquid) forming on the surface or in the cross-cuts of the fillets.
This is easily removed by dabbing with a paper towel. It does not affect the final flavour, just the appearance. This is part of the learning curve re smoker temperature.
Sprinkle Demerara sugar or brush liquid honey or maple syrup on the fillets during the smoking process.
If new to smoking, check occasionally to make sure things are proceeding well. Add more wood chips to the pan as per instructions or at least 2-3 times during the first part of the smoking.
The product is ready in 3-12 hours, depending on the temperature inside the unit (and the outside air temperature).
Refer to the instruction manual, if available, or check on the internet for minimum temperatures to avoid the slim possibility of spoilage or contamination.
Store in snack-sized packages in the freezer and keep it hidden from the kids.