Dave's amazing smoked fish – usually salmon or steelhead – has pleased a plethora of palates over the last few decades! And we are happy to share exactly how he makes it! Which isn't exactly exact!
Just as the way you might put butter and syrup on your pancakes, or salt on your steak, is not an exact science, neither is this.
So it's not really a "recipe," from that perspective. It's totally a matter of "personal preference." Even if we gave you exact amounts, you would end up changing them anyway.
For example, after making your first batch, you might prefer it to be a bit sweeter... or not as salty... or more moist... or tougher and more like jerky.
Plus you will start out with different sizes, thicknesses, and amounts of fish. So just decide now to get over the need to be exact, and you'll be the happier for it, and enjoy the process more.
Speaking of "the last few decades," here's Dave during the first decade of our marriage holding one of his catches. Other than me! (Prepare yourself; he loses the locks in the following pictures.)
(Dig the harvest gold kitchen?! That was totally IN back then!!! And rips in pants were not a fashion statement; they were hard-earned – not manufactured – and hard-patched-up, in this case, by ME!!)
The pictures that follow were taken at different times. I mean, why bore you with pictures of the exact same fish-smoking episode? Since Dave has been doing this for years, I'm bringing you pictures from many different episodes!
Besides, I forgot to take pictures of parts of the process, so this is the only way you get pictures. So this is why his look changes from picture to picture, in case you thought he was a quick-change artist, including beard and lack thereof!
Back to Dave's smoked fish... Lest you think this is all in my own mind, here's what Berdie, a dear friend of ours (especially mine) said: "Dave's smoked fish and the smoked cheese he gives us at Christmas is the BEST!!!! We share it at gatherings! It's perfectly perfect! We love it!"
1) Obtain a fish. You have two options for this first step, and as far as the end result – the smoked fish – is concerned, both options work equally well.
Plan A: Catch a salmon or steelhead (which I discuss at the end of this article)
Plan B: Purchase fish - Like if Plan A is not feasible or falls through. For example, you don't know how to fish, or you live in a place where the nearest river is a hundred miles away!
As you can clearly see below, my husband, Dave, is a "Plan A" kind of guy!!! This fish was SO heavy, he could hardly hold it with a smile! (Yes, this is the same guy as the one in the harvest gold kitchen above! Ain't he cute?!?!?)
2) Fillet your fish using a good fillet knife* and cut it into smaller pieces, as desired. Dave likes to cut his pieces about the size (or volume) of a large cookie, or 1/4 of a sandwich. Just keep in mind that smaller, thinner pieces will cook faster, and larger, thicker pieces will take longer to cook. Not a problem either way!
* Dave says you want a fillet knife with a 7-9" blade with a little bit of flexibility (which you need) in the blade.
I guess his hair just migrated
from the top of his head down
to his chin. He's still just as
3) Put one layer of fish pieces – flesh side up, skin side down – into a bin that fits into your fridge. (Making room for it in your fridge might be its own step, and, in our case, no small feat!)
We got our bins years ago, but this type is what I would buy now as I really like the curvy handles; they don't dig into your hands, especially if it's full of heavy fish and liquid. Just make sure before you buy – that the size you get will fit into your fridge!
Something to look for (if you buy them elsewhere) – and what I like about these particular bins – is that there is a thicker "lip" on the under side of the handle. Some bins have just a thin edge, making it very uncomfortable on the hands (at least mine!) to lift heavy loads. The weight presses the thin edge down into your hand, but the rounder and wider edge on the handles spreads out the weight!
4) Liberally sprinkle salt over the pieces. Don't bury them, but apply enough that you can see it on the pieces.
5) Dave uses a small bowl as a scoop – but you can use an actual scoop – to scoop up white sugar and sprinkle liberally over the salted pieces.
6) Drizzle maple syrup over all the fish, like you would pour it on pancakes. It spreads. Repeat for other layers, continuing until all the fish you have is prepared this way. (You can fill it as full as you can lift!)
What kind of maple syrup, you ask? Dave just uses whatever kind we have on hand – Log Cabin, Mrs. Butterworths, Aunt Jemima's... He always used the full-sugar kind of syrup. But you are welcome to use sugar-free, less-sugar, no-high-fructose kind... or even real actual maple syrup!!! (We got this gallon-size jug at Costco because of how much he uses.)
7) Set the bin in the fridge and allow the fish to soak in the brine for 12–18 hours. (Longer won't hurt anything at all!) Dave uses his cell phone as an alarm since he has it with him all the time. The 12 to 18 hour range has to do with the timing you're working around. If 12 hours puts you at 3am, then go for longer.
I personally – generally – prefer to use a Pampered Chef Timer (of which I have FIVE!), because I can clip it to my person and just have it with me no matter where I'm at in the house! (I also use one of these as my alarm clock by my bed, have two of them in the kitchen on the fridge because when I'm cooking or baking more than one thing, they each need their own timer.)
8) Rinse the pieces under running water – in your kitchen sink... a mud room or laundry room sink... a faucet outside – wherever you like. (This picture is not our faucet, BTW; I didn't think to get a picture of Dave doing this step, so I looked for a picture on Pixabay, where I got LOTS of my stock photos (thank you, Pixabay!), and I just couldn't resist sharing this one!!!)
9) Arrange pieces on racks of smoker. It's best if they don't touch so that the edges of the pieces get done and the pieces have a shiny smooth finish to them.
10) Smoke in a smoker* for several hours until cooked to your preferred doneness, rotating racks every one to two hours. The cooking time will vary according to thickness of pieces. Dave removed ones that he felt were done, but then had to smoke some of the thicker pieces longer cuz they weren't done.
* There are some details to know about smokers that I brought Dave in to answer, so a little "Bonus Lesson from Dave Shelton on SMOKERS & GRILLS" begins right after step 11.
11) Remove the pieces from the rack and pack into zip-lock bags to store. Dave doesn't have a special way of doing this; he just packs the pieces into zip-lock bags! These keep for a few weeks. If you won't be eating them that quickly, store in the freezer.
* Bonus Lesson
SMOKERS & GRILLS
At this point I (Barb) want to offer a few thoughts on smokers for those who would like to know more from someone who has tried different smokers and smoker products, namely my husband, Dave. This is what has worked for him, and it's now Dave talking: (I even gave him his own font.)
"For years, I have used a traditional propane smoker. The ones I have used were similar to the one pictured here, but they only had metal doors. If I were needing to get one today, I would buy one like this on Amazon...
...as it has the window in the door so I can see the meat as it's smoking without opening the door and losing the heat. This smoker has several trays, as you can see, and allows you to do larger batches at once.
Over the years, I've looked at different options for smoking my meats and fish, and have adapted how I do this.
When I do smaller batches, I use my pellet smoker grill instead of the above-pictured smoker. It's similar to the one pictured below – which is a Traeger – but mine is an off-brand and is cheaper. (We affectionately call it a "Traeger Wanna-Be.") Here's a picture of a Traeger Pellet-Grill:
For the first couple of hours, when I want a heavier smoke flavor, I will use the A-MAZE-N Pellet Tray as an additional smoke source, which puts off minimal heat, and mostly just smokes the food. After smoking for a couple of hours, I will fire up the pellet grill (in the same smoker-grill), and start applying heat.
The thing I like about the A-MAZE-N Pellet Tray is that it smokes without putting out much heat, It will convert any BBQer, smoker, or pellet grill into a smoking device where heat is not needed.
This works perfectly for smoking cheese where you don't want the temperature to get over 90 degrees, or the cheese will melt. If you want to smoke cheese in the Traeger or the smoker, you'll need to keep the temp reeeeeally low, which means you need to watch it carefully.
The smoke you get in the BBQer or Traeger or smoker is created by heat. You can control that heat somewhat, but usually the minimum temp is still going to be too warm to smoke things like cheese. That's why this A-MAZE-N Pellet Tray is so helpful for when you want smoke (or extra smoke) without the heat.
How to get the smoke? That's where A-MAZE-N Pellet Tray comes in...
You can put this tray (below) in a traditional BBQer where you have a rack and the enclosure, and use the tray for smoke, but you don't have the heat.
Note that this only smokes your meat or fish; it does not cook it. It's perfect for cheese because cheese doesn't need to cook. The meat, on the other hand, does needs the heat.
If you need anything explained more, please let me know in a comment below, and Barb will pass it on to me and I will be glad to answer!
~ Dave Shelton
SALMON OR STEELHEAD?
Even after 41 years of being married to an avid fisherman who has caught and cooked both salmon and steelhead, I personally cannot tell the difference between the two. Even though Dave says it's obvious, I can tell NO difference in how they look or taste. They are like "identical twins," as far as I'm concerned.
But no worries for you!!! Dave says that, as far as smoking them goes, they are processed and cooked exactly the same. Which, as you have now seen, isn't all that exact, but you know what I mean!
Let us know
in the comments if
you tried this, and what
you used and prefer!
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