How to Smoke a Fish

Photos: Kyle Johnson
Photos: Kyle Johnson

Last summer I moved from New York to Lummi Island, WA, a verdant coastal community at the top of the San Juan archipelago. In the early half of the twentieth century, Lummi supported a dynamic, thriving fishing industry. Several thousand fishermen, migrant workers, and their families flocked to the island’s fish traps, canneries, and reef-net boats. In the warm summer months tourists gathered from the mainland to the island’s craggy beaches and lush forests.

I came to the island for the salmon. For six weeks out of the year, millions of salmon migrate north through the Puget Sound on their way to spawn. On Lummi Island, dedicated fisherman set out on homemade boats in a small cove at the north end. Reef-net fishing has not changed over the last hundred years, and is sustained by a small, passionate and immeasurably patient group.

There are stories on this island. Every family has one. Some inform a dark history of exploitation, of cheap labor and ostensibly limitless resources. Others convey a history through food; a cuisine informed by the landscape, the weather, the ocean and the soil. I wanted to follow those traditions. I wanted to find a closer connection to what we eat.

I learned this recipe for smoked salmon on Lummi Island. It is basic, but far from simple. It is a rustic fisherman’s recipe, preserved to keep through the winter. It is in no way definitive—the best recipes, rooted in oral traditions, don’t provide a method so much as intuit a creative process—and should be seen, instead, as a framework; a reflection of your catch, your cure, your wood, and your water.

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Start with a dead fish. If possible, make sure it died recently. Even better, kill it yourself.

Wild Sockeye salmon makes a wonderful, almost candy-like smoked fish. It has that beautiful red oil; that slightly sweet, super savory grease that glazes your fingertips and lingers on everything you touch. The oil keeps the meat moist as you smoke, oozing out of the flesh while trapping the flavor of burned wood.

Begin in July, when most Pacific Sockeye salmon begin to spawn. All Sockeye are semelparous—they are born, they spawn, they die—and live a four-year life cycle. The first two years are spent in their river of origin, soaking in freshwater and feeding on the zooplankton and tiny insects that float by. In year three they head out in the ocean, running up the West Coast from California to Alaska. Year four is the return home. For Sockeye, freshwater is the both the beginning and end of life; an incubator and a harbinger of death. The salmon stop eating, often months before they reproduce. Freshwater causes biological and morphological changes in the fish, destroying their proteins and consuming their fats as their bodies deteriorate and soften. Catch them before this happens.

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On a reef-net boat, you’re lucky when you see them swim by. The schools are easier to spot: a greenish-blue mass shimmering against the sun. On a sunny day you may see a single beautiful fish gliding lazily in an eddy, biding its time before moving north. Most of your day is spent staring at the dark water, idly watching a school of herring tease playfully in your net; the raft of sea kelp twisting itself in your lines; the seal hunting just beyond your vessel. A few hours of empty water and that glimmer of light against the waves starts to look like a salmon, but no matter how fast you pull, it never is. You’re at the mercy of the lunar tides, the shifting currents, the fickle wind and intermittent sunlight. Keep your eyes open. If you don’t see the fish you’ll never catch one.

If you can catch a fish, pull it onboard into a live tank and let it relax. Adrenaline and fear make the meat bitter and may weigh on your conscience. When you’re ready, pick up the fish and place your forefinger under its gill plate, where the frilly red tissues live. Tear at a gill until it begins to bleed. Tear two if you’re feeling merciful. Place the fish back in the net and let it bleed under rushing seawater. Does this feel wrong? Well good, it should. These are the choices we make when we eat meat. Bleeding a fish is important, as blood is the first thing to degrade in a fish, imparting flavors and bitterness. Bleeding a fish improves longevity and, most importantly, improves taste.

What can you do while your fish is going through the throes of death? Relax. Give the fish ten minutes or until it stops moving. If you can, transfer it to a mixture of ice and water that’ll keep your fish fresh while it goes through rigor. Rigor mortis is a chemical process in the body’s cells that causes a build up of lactic acid, which leads to a temporary firmness. Rigor happens slowly over the course of eight hours, toughening the meat and leaving it nearly impossible to work with. Leave the dead fish for at least a day, so that the meat relaxes and the flavor matures.

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Next, you’ll need a good smokehouse. I prefer cedar, but any wood will do. This recipe is for hot-smoking—slowly building the up the heat inside the smokehouse to gently cook the fish. Time is crucial; if you heat the fish too quickly, the proteins inside the meat will denature, unwinding like a ball of yarn, losing moisture and fat. So make sure the smokehouse has some holes to let out the heat. A small shed or outhouse will suffice—though I don’t recommend buying the latter second-hand.

After you settle the smokehouse, you’ll need wood to burn. Here is where it gets personal. Historically, smoking is a well-practiced method of preservation, used to impart flavor while killing harmful bacteria. Every region has its own tradition of smoking, using specific woods and cures for flavor. On Lummi Island, I use split young Alder wood trunks that are cut and debarked while still “green” or wet. Green woods will smolder instead of burn, which will last longer and increase the humidity in your smoker. Gather fruit wood branches—plum, cherry, or apple—to add a touch of sweetness at the end of your smoke.

With your smokehouse in order, you’ll need to cure the fish. Through osmosis, salt rids water from the fish, firming and flavoring the meat while creating an inhospitable environment for harmful bacteria.

Pick a cold morning, preferably one with a little breeze. Filet the salmon, cut it into thirds and place on greased smokehouse racks. I recommend a mixture of non-iodized sea salt and light brown sugar for your cure, but you can get creative. Unripe juniper berries and green spruce shoots? Sure, delicious. A touch of citrus zest and dill? Whatever you like. Your nuanced touch imparts subjectivity. For purists, salt and sugar will do just fine. Mix two parts salt to one part sugar. Pack the cure on the fish rather coarsely, rubbing it into the skin and the meat. Take care that it is even, eyeing approximately one hundred grams of cure per half kilogram of fish, or roughly four ounces of cure per pound of fish. Let it drip slowly with the smokehouse doors open, facing the breeze. Give it around three hours.

The author’s smokehouse. Photo: Ben Spiegel

Touch the fish. Is it tacky? It should be sticky to the touch, marking an imprint of your finger on the dried pellicle on the surface. A pellicle is a protective barrier composed of denatured proteins that readily adhere to compounds found in wood smoke. It slows the rate of moisture loss and helps to control the cooking. If you don’t see a tacky shimmer, place a fan in front of the fish and wait.

With the pellicle formed, your wood cut, and your fish cured, it is finally time to smoke. Start a very small fire in the basin of your smokehouse and wait until it burns to coals. Make sure the doors are open— you want to keep the smokehouse temperature cool, preferably lower than sixty degrees Celsius. Anything above will start to cook the proteins too quickly, losing valuable moisture. With your coals ready, place a log of alder on the fire. Pay attention to the smoke that comes off, closing the doors once the color changes to grey. Keep the air dampener open slightly as the log smolders. Wait.

Babysit that fire. Watch that smoke. You’re looking for soft, grey wisps gently flowing out from the smokehouse. Smoking a fish is a process governed by patience and intuition. Again, time is crucial; cook too quickly and you will see white droplets of albumin protein form on the surface. Not good. Slow down, chill out. Have a beer. Watch the fish. Continue to touch its surface. Is it hot? Are there beads of sweat forming? Adjust the racks to deflect the heat. Every half hour or so, open the doors, burping the smoke and letting the fish breathe. The fish will slowly transform, the sugars browning on the surface of the meat and forming a dense, sweet patina. Generally, this kind of smoked salmon should cook for twelve to eighteen hours. Sometimes more. Reflect on your day, its stillness and silence. Smell the sweet woodsmoke mingle with the salty breeze. Get drunk.

Longevity depends on water activity, temperature and salt. The more undercooked the fish, the more perishable it will be. You want this fish to last for months. Test a few pieces, keeping in mind that the tails will cook faster then the loins. If you like, you can make a glaze from brown sugar, butter and lemon juice, brushing the fish periodically in the final third of your cooking. It’s up to you; it’s your recipe now.

“Smoking a fish is a process governed by patience and intuition.”

At hour ten, or sixteen, or when the fish feels about 75 percent there, burp the smoke once more. Build the fire up and cook it down to coals. Place a new green log on the coals and cover it with fruitwood branches. I met a woman in Iceland who smoked trout year round. She would forage for arctic thyme, lavender, wild marjoram and juniper branches around her home—a combination as unique as a signature—and blend them with her birch chips in the final bit of smoking.

Let the black smoke burn off and close the smokehouse door, leaving the air dampener open to heat the chamber. This is the final cook. Stoke the fire, building the heat in the oven to just above ninety degrees Celsius. Keep an eye on the sweating and the droplets. Pull the tails out first as they firm up, eyeing the thicker pieces as they cook through. Eat a piece. Dampen the fire and open the smokehouse when the fish tastes right. Let the meat cool down.

Months later, return to New York. Layer the salmon over a toasted bagel and cream cheese. Think about the island, its smells of blood, kelp and smoke. Take a bite.

Photo: Kyle Johnson
Photo: Kyle Johnson

Ben Spiegel is a chef living and working in New York.

Kyle Johnson is a freelance photographer whose work has appeared in AFAR, The New York Times Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, Food & Wine, and elsewhere. For more photos of Lummi Island, please visit his website