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Smoking fish has to be one of the most ancient skills passed down from our earliest ancestors to modern man. Drying fish and meat is practised by virtually all societies throughout the globe, be they primitive communities or so called modern developed cultures.
I inherited my skills from my grandfather who was considered a master of smoking fish in the community of Cold Lake where I grew up during the Great Depression. The smell of smoked fish that drifted from his towered smokehouse was enough to drive young boys to planning raids on the delicious treats curing in the magic tower.
Towered smokehouses have been mostly replaced by small metal smokers that run on chips or ultra modern insulated boxes that run on small circular cakes of sawdust called pucks. These modern smokehouses suit our urban societies where we live on small lots and limited space.
Pictured with this column are two pieces of steelhead and a fillet from an eastern brook trout. They were cured this past weekend in our smoker and represent the high end of fish we smoke. In the case of the trout its flesh is of a deep red and oozing with fat. The steelhead on the other hand is a light red and heavily muscled to adapt to the fish’s challenging environment of strong river and ocean currents.
Over the years Elaine has developed her own formula for making the brine we cure our fish with prior to smoking. The ingredients of her special formula are passed down to the female members of the clan and even I do not know all the intimate details of her magic potions. This much I can divulge – over time she has changed the portions of salt to sugar in the following manner – two portions of dark brown sugar to one of pickling salt and then she adds a series of spices. The mix is always done a couple of days in advance of the brining process.
We put the mix on in a solid form rather than liquid brine. We find that shortly after the mix is applied it makes it own liquid combined with the natural juices from the fish. If we are using frozen fish we always make certain it is completely thawed prior to brining.
Our fish are soaked for at least 24 hours at cool temperatures. Before it is put on the smoker racks it is wiped with paper towels to remove excessive moisture and solid residue from the brine mix. If we are smoking fish to be canned we always smoke it so that it is still limp when put in the jars – this avoids overly dry fish after processing in the canner.
You can smoke virtually every species of fish we catch depending on your personal tastes. The time you process your fish in many respects is dependent on the heat and smoking characteristics of your personal smoker. Over the years I have learned that you cannot be too vigilant in keeping track of the degree of cooking your fish are undergoing; drying on the edges is a sign of getting done.
Do not hesitate to move racks up and down in the smoker as the smoking progresses. Those at the bottom usually cook faster than the racks higher up in the smoker. It is better to err on the side of low heat and a longer smoking process rather than too much heat and a quicker cooking result.
Finally when you decide your smoking cycle is complete it is important to leave the fish in the smoker for 24 hours if at all possible, allowing the curing process to be complete. This will avoid portions of the fish tasting unduly salty and will give your product a succulent, mellow flavour.
Among my many sins is being a student of the responsible mysteries of single malt Scotch whisky. The secrets of the malting process of each whisky are closely guarded. There are many similarities to the process of smoking fish and making whisky. Just as some whiskies are peaty or oak flavoured depending on the malting process, so is fish flavoured by the material used in the curing process. There are many kinds of wood you can use and in our case I like hickory. But like single malt whisky it is all good.
Ralph Shaw is a master fly fisherman who was awarded the Order of Canada in 1984 for his conservation efforts. In 20 years of writing a column in the Comox Valley Record it has won several awards.