First and most import are quality and cleanliness. Use only fresh or fresh frozen salmon that is of a high quality. Dont use that 20 lb water marked gator salmon that was just about ready to spawn-out and die before you caught it up the river. Smoking does not cover or hide poor quality fish. In fact it will call attention to problem areas, think tight hip hugger jeans. A good rule of thumb is to only smoke fish you would eat fresh.
Make sure your preparation area is clean and sanitary, beg/bribe your mother to come over if need be. Carefully clean and remove all the slime and blood from your fish. Fillet or split the fish leaving the skin on. Remove the pin bones down the middle of each fillet with small pair of pliers. Next cut the fillets into equally sized strips, this insures they all finish smoking at the same time. Try to keep both the fish and your preparation room as cool and clean as possible during this time to keep bacteria growth to a minimum.
The second step is salting the fish known as brine or brining. Most people prefer to start with a simple brine consisting of salt and water. Start with a basic mixture of 2 cups of salt to each gallon of water. This allows the flavor of the smoke to shine through on your finished strips. Feel free to experiment adding flavors to the brine at this time. For example add a cup of brown sugar or a cup of soy sauce to your salt water mixture.
It is important that you use only pickling and canning salt, dairy salt, or kosher salt in your brine. Using iodized salt will add impurities and additives that will cause unpleasant flavors in your smoked fish. It is also best to used distilled or bottled water without large amounts of chlorine. You dont want your salmon tasting like the community pool, or maybe you do, I wont judge.
Make enough brine to completely cover all of your fish. A three to one ratio is recommended. For example use 30lbs of brine for 10lbs of fish. A gallon of brine will weigh approximately 8lbs so you would need 4 gallons to adequately soak 10lbs of salmon.
If you cut your strips 1 inch thick then the brine time should be right around 2 hours. Here is another step you can alter to personal taste but we have found 2 hours to work best. Make sure your mixture is refrigerated the whole time you are brining. Rinse afterwards to remove excess salt before drying.
An important step in smoking your fish is drying it to form a pellicle coating. This pellicle coating seals in moisture and helps the smoke stick to the fish. Im not sure how or why, could be magic, but without it your fish will not smoke properly. To get your pellicle, place your fish in the smoker and let it air dry for 2-3 hours until you notice a tough shiny coat develop. Once the pellicle fairies are done and the coating is visible you are ready to smoke your fish.
Now that you are ready to smoke its time to pick which wood chips to use. You can choose from a variety of hard woods. Fruit woods like apple, plum, etc. will leave a sweeter smoke flavor. Alder, hickory and mesquite leave a sharp smoky taste. We use Alder wood chips on all of our smoked fish at Tonka.
Avoid soft woods like pines, firs, and hemp. These can produce a harsh tasting soot and/or cause you to play nintendo and eat cheetos the rest of the day.
After picking your wood flavor place your salmon in the smoker before you fire it up. The most important secret to delicious smoked salmon every time is to slowly bring the temperature up in stages over the course of several hours. This allows the smoke to permeate the fish and prevents curd from forming.
Once you have slowly brought the internal temperature up to 160 degrees Fahrenheit you should let it continue smoking for an additional 30 minutes. All in all your entire smoking time should last 3-4 hours. The longer you let it smoke the more it will dry out and resemble jerky. Experiment with cooking times to find your personal favorite. Really as long as you have cooked it at 160 degrees for at least 30 minutes your salmon is safe to eat.
It may seem complicated at first but it will become routine after a few tries. Be sure to keep notes and records (preferably not in crayon on a used napkin) as you learn what brine mixes, smoke times, and drying times work best for your individual tastes.
Smoking fish is a great way to spend a lazy summer afternoon while fooling people into thinking you are working hard. Grab a bottle of wine or a case of beer and spend the day hiding from responsibility. Be warned though, the smell and the smoke will bring people running faster then paparazzi chasing B list pantie-less celebrities. Of course you could just have Tonka Seafoods do all the work and ship you some of the best damn smoked salmon ever