Where There's Smoke There's Fish

Tillamook, OR - 8:01 am

GUEST: Alton Brown, Vacationer
            Tim Marshal, Fishing Oregon

AB: Vacation. Vacation. You know, that comes from a Latin word, vacuus, means empty, unoccupied.
TIM MARSHAL: Sounds good to me.
AB: Yeah you, maybe. But vacations just make me nervous, you know. This was ... this was my wife's idea. Said if I didn't get out of the kitchen, she was going to go crazy. So, I say to her, "well, you know I've always wanted to go salmon fishing." She says, "Fine."  So, she sends me out here and she books me into this great little hotel in town, right? But you know what she does? She pays the innkeeper extra to not let me in the kitchen.
TM: That sounds like tough love to me.
AB: Tough love, all right. He even locks up the grill. Okay, so here I am trying to catch a fish that even if I do catch, I can't cook. Vacation, who needs it.
TM: What are you vacating from, anyway?
AB: Oh, a show on Food Network called, Good Eats.
TM: I've heard of the Emeril guy. It's, pow!
AB: Bam. Bam.
TM: Bam. Oh, yeah.
AB: Bam.
TM: You know, I ... I don't think I remember seeing you before though.
AB: No?
TM: No.
AB: Well, you know, usually we've got kind of this trademark thing where the opening monologue of the show some how winds up with the last two words being blah blah good eats.
TM: Oh yeah. That's like, "Live from New York?"
AB: No. No. It's not like "Live from New York". It's like, "So even if you don't have any pots or pans and even if your wife paid some guy to lock up the grill, salmon are really good eats."  See, like that.

Tillamook, OR

    Now wild salmon are the hardest working fish in the seafood business. That's because they're anadromous which, uh, you no doubt remember from your high school Greek means, run upwards, which is exactly what salmon are famous for doing, right?

run upwards

    They're hatched way inland in small fresh water streams, okay? And then as they mature, they swim out to sea. They kick around big blue for a couple of years and then they return to their exact home stream and they swim up past rapids, waterfalls, man-made obstacles, hungry critters, you name it, to spawn in the exact same patchy gravel that they hatched from. You try doing that sometime with your pocket GPS.
    Now, what's even more fascinating is that once they cross from salt water into fresh water, they don't eat again, okay? That means they've got to fatten up out there [salt water] before they can go in there [fresh water], which is why we are sitting right here. Because at this transition, this is where the fish are going to be the fattest and most flavorful.

TM: Hey, Alton!
AB: Huh?
TM: You going to reel that fish in there or you planin' on talking it into the boat?
AB: Oh, geez. All right. I got it. I got it. I got it. I think you're going to need a bigger boat.

    [voice over] Most of the salmon available in American markets is Atlantic salmon. Raised on sophisticated aqua farms, they consistently deliver high quality at a reasonable price. But they never develop the depth of flavor their wild brethren are known for. Atlantic, by the way, refers not to geography but to ichthyology. All salmon in the Atlantic are Atlantic Salmon.

    On the Pacific side there are 5 distinct varieties: pink, chum, sockeye, coho and, of course, the chinook or king salmon, ...


Twin Rods Inn - 3:18 am

... one of which now lay filleted in my cooler.

    [voice over] 3:18 in the morning. Some vacation. Here I'd landed the one salmon I'd hoped to catch in my entire lifetime and I couldn't do anything with it. I told the innkeeper I'd double my wife's offer if he just let me use the grill, but he said, "no dice."  Some vacation.

    Wait a minute. Salmon have fed the Indians of the Pacific Northwest for 10,000 years and after all, along with the raven, the eagle and the bear, the salmon was considered to be sacred. If I remember correctly, there's even a legend of an ancient tribe that could just run into the ocean and they'd turn into salmon. They were called, The Salmon People.

    Now this culture didn't have pots or pans or convection ovens and yet they ate salmon three times a day, most of it smoked. That's it, smoked salmon. I don't need no stinkin' kitchen. In fact, there are only 4 steps:  cure the fish, rinse the fish, dry the fish, smoke the fish, eat the fish. That's five. Oh, it doesn't matter.


    [voice over] Like most round, bony fish, salmon have a second set of heavy ribs called pin bones. Now while they don't have to go, pulling now will prevent a trash fish later. Push your finger across the fish moving from the head—or where the head used to be—towards the tail. You'll feel the pin bones just under the surface. Now when you reach one, go after it with a clean pair of pliers. Avoid digging around with the tip and always pull forward with the grain of the meat.

    Now, salmon are not known for associating with salmonella or E. coli, but this is still raw meat. So, wash those fishy hands.

    [voice over] A "cure" is nothing more than a mixture of salt, a cup of kosher in this case, and usually an equal portion of sugar just mixed together. Now, I like to split the sugar between half a cup of dark brown and half cup of white. Herbal additions are okay, but I'd rather spice things up with a tablespoon or two of crushed black peppercorns. Oh, and you're going to need some wide, heavy-duty, foil.

1 C kosher salt
1/2 C dark brown sugar
1/2 C sugar
1 T crushed black pepper

    And there we have a cure. Now if you were to dissolve that in water, you would have a brine. But we don't want to add a lot of liquid in this situation, so we're going to go with it dry. Now, why add this in the first place? Well, for one thing it is going to season the meat which is good. Another thing is that it's going to draw out a good bit of liquid. And that's good, too, because in the process, it's going to denature some of the proteins inside the meat which paradoxically is going to allow it to hold on to moisture during the long smoking process which doesn't seem right, but it is. And last, but not at all least, it is going to create a film of protein on the outside of the meat called a pellicle. And as we'll see later, that is a very good thing indeed.
    So, we begin by moving fillet A over next to fillet B and simply flipping it over. That makes room for a nice big chunk of wide aluminum foil. Ah. And that is going to be the base—a few inches longer than the fish on either side. That's good. Now just peel off the film off of the fillet and move it back over to the foil like that.
    Now, sprinkle on some of your cure, just up and down in the shape of the fish. Just going to make sure some of this gets on the skin side. And then just roll fillet B back over. Now, completely cover this with cure. Just sprinkle it on and don't be shy with it. Because we don't want too much cure down here where the meat is thin, just kind of brush upwards and pack it down as you go. Same thing on this fillet. Same exact action. Just sprinkle it all on.
    Now we're going to rotate this fillet so that the head-ends line up with each other. Roll one onto the other. Now, peel off the film that used to be on the bottom exposing the last side of the salmon. And this where you can use up the rest of your cure. Reapply your film. Pack it down, kind of feel if the two sides are even with one another because that will make a difference. There.
    And just bring the two sides of the foil together. And I usually start at the head. Just kind of crimp it nice and tight up at the head. And kind of draw it up tight. You want a little bit of pressure on the fish. This will also help to move the juices down towards the tail where we're going to leave a little bit of room. There. Just kind of leave that open like that. That's going to let juices out. Good. Now, we need to find some weight.

Until refrigeration came into us in the 20th century, salting or
"curing" was the most common method of food preservation.

Twin Rods Inn

    When I cure at home I always sandwich my newly made salmon sandwich in between a couple of pans like, uh, half sheet pans or cookie sheets, maybe, but my resources are a little on the meager side here. Oh, maybe not too meager. [rips wooden shelf from the closet] Ah. Yeah, that shelf ought to do nicely. Just slide my fish right on to here. Now if you were doing this at home you would put this in your pan and move it straight to the bottom shelf of your refrigerator. But a cooler will do just fine, too. Of course, we need a lid for that. So, uh, will you look up here. [rips another shelf from the closet] Yep. That will do it. Right on top.
    Now I also need some weight. You see, compressing the meat will make it take the cure better and will end up with a finer texture at the end. I would usually use soup cans or a couple of bricks but hey, I don't see any problem with letting our fingers do the walking [finds two large phone books]. Sweet fit.
    Into your refrigerator, of course, for 24 hours. That's the time that I think it takes the cure to really do its voodoo. You could get away with 12, but don't push it any further than that. Now realistically, you should experiment. Of course, the amount of time that the salt's in contact with the meat is going to affect the overall flavor. Oh and remember, half way through the curing process, you want to flip the fish over and put the weight back on. And of course, there is going to be some juice coming out there so make sure your pan can handle it. Tomorrow we smoke.

Twin Rods Inn - 28 hours later

    Thorough rinsing and air drying are absolutely crucial to smoking any kind of food. That's because the cure has brought water-soluble proteins up to the surface of the meat. Now when these dry, they're going to create a matte like surface. It's almost like a shellac, a protein, called a pellicle, that will prevent moisture loss during smoking. And it will act like smoke Velcro. It'll actually attract it. Now a fan will speed the process. You always want to do this in a cool place but not in the refrigerator. It's just too moist in there. Besides, I don't have one.


[Ace] Hardware Store

    [voice over] Now my wife may think she's locked me out of the kitchen but MacGyver's not my patron saint for nothing. Wrangle some hardware here. A box, a dowels, step one.

cardboard box
two 1/4" dowels

Yard Sale

GUEST: Yard Sale Guy

    [voice over] I need to find something, some heat, maybe. What's this? Hmm. I see some things here that'll work out. Here you are, sir. Come on, go for it. Three bucks. Come on. Take it. Take it. Hee, hee, hee, hee, hee. Score. Hey, wait a minute. Hmm. I could use that little thing, too. Come on. Come on. Go for it. Sucker. Ha, ha, ha, ha.


(Skillet $1.70)

DogsPlayingPoker.jpg (17729 bytes)
[Dogs Playing Poker $1.00]

Cabinet Maker's Shop

    If you're going to smoke food, you've got to have hard wood. What I mean is that soft woods—you know, evergreens, like pine and cedar, contain a chemical called pitch. And, uh, pitch makes food taste a lot like turpentine. So, that leads us to ask which hardwood is best. Well I say, whatever you can get your hands on. I mean, sure, there are subtle differences in the flavors produced by alder smoke, apple smoke, maple, oak, hickory, what have you. But it takes at least 6 hours of exposure for those subtleties to reveal themselves in the flavor of the food.
    What's a lot more important, is how you manage the smoke. For instance, you never want to see flames. It's always got to be at a smolder. That's because flames result from a more complete form of combustion. And that combustion produces a lot of other compounds like tar which I usually think of as a road topping not a food additive. So, if you're going to use chips you've got to soak them for at least a couple of hours in water before you start smoking.

    Or you can do what I do and just find yourself ... [spots can full of sawdust] ah ... a good supply of saw dust. Now if you can't make your own, just look up a local cabinet maker shop and offer to take out their trash. Odds are, they are going to love ya. All you have to do is avoid any sawdust that comes from either plywood or any other pressure treated lumber. Because it's got poison in it.

Avoid plywood and pressure treated lumber.

AB: Thanks a lot guys.

Twin Rods Inn

    [voice over] All right. Time to put the pieces together. Got my smoker, got my fan for convection, pan to hold the sawdust, rack to hold the fish, art for, well, art's sake. And let's see, saw dust, that can wait. Okay. First thing I've got to do is got to make a shelf. Let's see. I'll punch a couple of holes here just big enough for the dowels to go through. Too big and, smoke will come out. Punch a couple on the other side. Wish I had a level. Now insert dowel A through holes B and C. Perfect fit. And dowel D through holes E and F. Rack on. Good. Perfect fit.
    All right, now I've got to have access to the sawdust so I'd better cut myself a little trap door here. Yeah. Okay. Good. Pop. All right, make sure the skillet will fit. Nice and cozy. Jeepers. I'll need heat. Heat source. I didn't think about that. Gotta be something in the hotel room. Gotta be something. Look around here. [eyes hot plate] Here is something. Score.

What The World Smokes
W. Africa - Catfish
Japan - Bonito
Norway - Salmon
Scotland - Haddock
Britain - Herring

Twin Rods Inn

    Place your electric hot plate as close to the middle of the box as you can and make sure you turn it so you can get to the thermostat. Then just lay on your skillet full of dust full to the top and turn the thermostat to high. Now in the summer time you can turn it down to medium as soon as you see a good bit of smoke coming out of the top of the box. But in winter time when it's cold, you should leave it on high.
    Now since some fat could drip down from the fish on to the pan causing flare ups, I add a profusely perforated disposable pie plate just that like that. Safety first. Oh, and of course an electric fan will allow you to convert you smoker into a convection smoker thus speeding up the cooking process. Sweet.

    As soon as your fish is dry and you have pellicle formation, you can rack up your fish and get it in the box. Now technically there are two different kinds of food smoking: there's cold smoking and hot smoking. Cold smoking involves exposing the food to a relatively low temperature of smoke, usually about 100 degrees, for days or even weeks. Now this requires either a large smoke house or a smoke chamber that's got an external fire box so that the smoke can cool off as it moves through the duct work. Now foods that are cold smoked are preserved by dehydration and the smoke itself but they are not cooked, okay?

cool smoke
+ long time

    Hot smoked foods are cooked and that's what we're going to be doing here. It is much, much faster than cold smoking but it is a little bit tricky because you've got to balance. You've got to get the right amount smokiness attained just as you attain the right amount of doneness.

hot smoke
+short time

    And for that we must employ technology. In this case, two probe thermometers. Now I like these thermometers because they have alarms that you can set so they'll tell you when they hit certain temperatures.

    So, let's take thermometer number one and take your probe and just punch it right through the side of the box like that. And put it kind of at an angle into the deepest part of the fish. There you go. Now we will set this for 150 degrees. That's going to be the finished target temperature of this fish. There we go.


    How long it's going to get to that temperature, of course, depends on the temperature inside the box and that's where thermometer number two comes in. This one we're also going to set for a 150 degrees but we're going to punch this one and let it hang—just like that—so that it tells us the air temperature. Now I want really to keep the air in here as close to 150 as I can. So, when ever the alarm goes off I'll probably crank back on that hot plate just a little bit and then sneak it back up again. What we're looking for is a target of between 140 and 150 degrees. Let's smoke.

[Alton is reading the McGraw-Hill Concise Encyclopedia of Science & Technology, Sybil P. Parker Editor, 2,450 pages]

    You know, the thing I think I like best about smoking is how it makes you kind of take a little time out. Just take a few hours and chill: catch up on some light reading, enjoy a lovely beverage, because there's not a whole lot of work to do. Of course this doesn't mean you can go on vacation. You can't go off and see a movie, you can't go off to that mall because there is a little bit of maintenance still left to do. And that is the smoke itself. Notice how the smoke has dissipated. This is what let's you know that you have dead soldiers inside.
    So, open up your trap door, reach in with some pliers and remove the perforated pie pan. Then very carefully remove your skillet and you'll find charcoal. That's pretty much used up carbon. Dump this into a flame proof container. It is very, very, very hot. There may be some sparks. There. Now rearm with more sawdust. It will start smoking right away so don't hold it close to your face. There. Now right back onto the heat and of course we must replace the perfectly perforated pie pan. There. And back to your lovely beverage.
    Now, how many times you do this depends on your taste. For one salmon I'll generally replace the saw dust six times but then of course I'm using a small pan and that's my taste. You could replace it as many as 10 times as few as 4. It's completely up to you. Either way, as long as you maintain the heat the salmon is going to cook. Seem like you're going through a lot of trouble? Nah. Besides, it's worth it.

Although wood smoke contains traces of carcinogens, traditionally
smoked foods contain less of these substances than charcoal broiled foods.

Twin Rods Inn - approximately 4.5 hours later

    Ah. There we go. Ah. Now I hope that will inspire you to get a little smoke into your life. You know, you don't have to wait for your vacation. Come to think of it, you don't have to smoke a whole fish. Truth is, small fillets smoke just as well and they do it in a lot less time. Of course, you don't have to use salmon either. Any fatty fish, uh, bluefish, mackerel, trout all do very well in the box.


    Just remember to play by the rules. You always want to use the freshest, highest quality fish you can get your hands on. If you catch it yourself, obviously you're okay there. You want to cure it for 12 to 24 hours. More for really thick pieces, less for little bitty skinny pieces. Now wash that cure off and allow the fish to dry thoroughly and that could take anywhere from 3 to 4 hours under a fan. But don't skimp on that. Then of course, you want to smoke with hard wood saw dust. Don't waste money on chips. They'll only cause you pain.
  • Fresh fish

  • Cure for 12-24 hours

  • Wash

  • Dry thoroughly

  • Hardwood smoke

    And don't let it cook too fast, either. If the fish hits an internal temperature of 150 in an hour, obviously it's not going to have much smoky flavor. So keep your box just at the finished temperature for the fish and all will go well.
    Of course, this is not like cold smoked food. In other words, it's not preserved. So you've got to treat this just as you would any other cooked meat. Which means that after you eat it you need to refrigerate your leftovers, tightly wrapped, for up to 3 or 4 days in the refrigerator. You can freeze leftovers, too, for up to a month. Of course, with the fish this size and a fork this size I still don't think there's going to be many leftovers. See you next time on Good Eats. [takes a bite] Mmmm. Catch your own fish.

Proof Reading help from Jon Loonin.

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Last Edited on 08/27/2010