How to Make: Smoking Fish 101

The first signs of fall include waterfowl on the wing, cottonwood leaves turning gold and heavy dew on the front lawn. Fall is also a celebration of harvest. Squash is picked and last potatoes are dug. To me, fall means the smell of alder wood smoke from my vintage front-loading Outers. I have re-wired the heating element four times. The bottom tray has rusted out and is patched with aluminum foil. A rich patina of a thousand smoking events encrusts the interior. So much that the door won’t close tight.

My fish smoker is like an old crippled hunting dog that I don’t have the heart to put to sleep. The latest problem is having the metal handle to the wood chip pan fall off. It cannot be riveted back to the pan. Wire in place came to mind but there is not enough good metal left in the handle to work with. I tried using an old Boy Scout aluminum frying pan from the same era, but it wouldn’t fit through the tiny door flap so I rely on an oven mitt and a pair of pliers when refilling the old pan with wood chips.

I thought of upgrading to something akin to the $500 temperature-controlled, automatic chip-feeding smoker that my one of my fishing buddies has. However, he recently had problems in the night and lost a whole batch of fish. I could buy smoked fish from the butcher for that kind of money. Not that I would.

There have been numerous hints tossed to family members that a new smoker might be a nice gift but they have not committed this need to memory. I often wonder how long it would take for them to know the difference. Conversation at holiday celebrations might go something like this:

“Hey, dad. What happened to that excellent smoked salmon you used to bring?”

“That was when I had a smoker. The old one fell apart several years ago.”

“Maybe you should get a new one. I especially liked the dry-brine version.”

So here is my dry-brine holiday recipe for posterity:

  • Layer chunks of steelhead filet in a 1-gallon or larger sealable container.
  • Cover each layer of fish liberally with a 5:1 mixture of brown sugar and salt. Refrigerate overnight.
  • Place fish chunks on a paper towel to wipe off slime and excess sugar mixture.
  • Smoke fish skin-side down for 4 to 6 hrs or until done. I move my racks around to ensure uniform cooking. The brown sugar glaze is what keeps people begging for more.

I could be fantasizing about the whole state of affairs. Too much free time as a result of retirement can do that to a person. However, I sometimes feel that others take advantage of my good nature when it comes to supplying fish for holiday meals. As an example, instructions for last year’s Thanksgiving dinner went something like this: Dennis-bring one fresh-caught steelhead to grill and a smoked one for hors d’oeuvres.

My first thought to that e-mail was, “Okay, my sister makes a pie using canned pumpkin, my brother brings a tossed green salad, and I drive hundred of miles, brave the wind, cold, and rain for as many days as it takes, then hang around the house all day shoving wood chips into my tired old smoker at 45 min intervals until the fish is cooked to FDA ingestion limits.”

Easy for them to say, but I would not be happy if my siblings no longer considered me as the designated family fisherman. We all have our cross to bear.