If you’re sick of the malls and the holiday traffic’s driving you nuts, here’s a little tip: stay home and make everybody on your Christmas list some smoked salmon jerky this year.
I’ve made a ton of smoked salmon over the years and, through much trial and a ton of error, I’ve got the process down pat. Now, I can expect a quality product each time. However, in recent years, I’ve been making little test batches of salmon jerky along with the traditional smoked variety and it’s become my most requested Christmas gift. Salmon jerky is easy to make, keeps longer than regular smoked salmon and is a great finger food/appetizer. Here’s how to do it:
Actually, before I go on, a quick word about smokers. I’ve always used a Luhr Jensen Big Chief smoker and that’s probably the brand that most folks have. If not, you can get the Big or Little Chief models at most sporting goods stores for well under $100.?? Anyway, this style of smoker is really just an aluminum box with racks inside and a heating element on the bottom.??You put a pan of wood chips on the heater and let ‘er rip. I like the Big Chief because I do jumbo batches on most occasions. For most smoking needs, however, you’d do just fine with the little guy.
Slab O’ Fish
If you’ve got a freezer full of salmon from this past summer/fall, that’s great. If not, you can buy a fillet at Costco or the supermarket for about $20 and you’re in business. You can also use large trout or hatchery steelhead for jerky.
Anyway, lay a fillet skin side down on a cutting board and make 1/16-inch thick slices beginning at the forward end (towards where the fish’s head used to be) of the fillet and work your way to the tail area. Leave the skin on, as it will help each piece hold its original shape. Then, rinse your pieces in cold water and put them in a gallon Zip-Loc. Fill with marinade (see below) and refrigerate overnight.
There are all kinds of different brines and marinades you can use with your smoked salmon. I’ve done a lot of experimenting and have found that there is one key element to pay attention to: salt content.
You need enough salt to cure the fish, but there’s a fine line between cured and cooked! You want a hint of salt flavor, but not so much that you need to drink a Gatorade after each bite. So, here are a couple of my favorites to get you started:?This one is based very closely on The Sporting Chef’s (sportingchef.com) Margarita Salmon recipe, though I’ve omitted one ingredient and changed a few things.
Mix all the following together and pour the mixture into your bag of fillets. The end result is what I call “Sweet & Tangy” jerky.
2 cups sweet & sour sauce
1 cup tequila
1/2 cup kosher salt
juice of 10 limes
juice of 2 lemons
A more basic approach to jerky is to mix these together:
1/4 cup kosher salt
1/3 cup brown sugar
2 cups teriyaki sauce (or 50-50 with soy)
1/2 cup cold water
1/3 cup pineapple juice
1 cup white wine
With this mixture, I sometimes like to add some crushed red pepper to add a little “zing” to the flavor. Either way, though, it’s tasty!
After your jerky chunks have marinated all night, rinse them in cold water and lay them out to dry on your smoker’s racks. Dry for an hour or two, depending on the weather, or until they get a tacky glaze on them. Then, you’re ready to smoke…well, the fish is, anyway.
Place the thickest chunks on the bottom racks and the thin ones up top and fill the smoker’s pan with alder or cherry wood chips. I usually smoke my jerky for 6-8 hours, but keep checking it along the way. About halfway through the process, I’ll check to see if there’s any moisture collecting on top of the fish. If there is, I’ll tilt the smoker over to allow it to drain off.
When you’re checking for doneness, think beef jerky. Do you like yours really crispy or a little more on the moist side — it’s up to you. Just as the fish is about where I want it, I’ll pull the plug on the smoker and allow the jerky to cool off inside the box. After about a half hour, it’s ready to eat. Jerky keeps well in the fridge for a few weeks in Zip Loc bags. If you’re going to wait longer than that to eat it, I suggest vacuum packing it. Once packed, it will freeze for quite a while.
Stick With It
It sounds simple enough, but making jerky and smoked salmon can be an exercise in frustration. Keep detailed notes on ingredients you used and brining/smoking times so you can adjust when necessary. Hang in there — you’ll get it. And you’ll be glad when you do.