A mixture of kosher salt and brown sugar for dry curing salmon bellies
I can't say that these will be the prettiest food photos I'll ever post, but what smoked salmon bellies lack in looks, they more than make up for in deliciousness. I went dipnetting a few weeks ago and as we filleted our red salmon, I diligently saved bellies for smoking, something I was keen to do after seeing this post on the Hunter Angler Gardener Cook's facebook page (I highly recommend his blog and following him on Facebook and Instagram if you have an interest in hunting, angling, gardening, and cooking).
I have a household of two people (and one dog but she doesn't count in the eyes of the Department of Fish and Game), which means we are allowed 35 dipnetted salmon, which means I came home with alot of fish bellies for smoking. My week of fishing went like is: Monday through Thursday we were dipnetting... we drove home on Friday and my parents and I vacuum-packed all of our salmon for the freezer (leaving out a few fillets to cook up that day, of course, because there's nothing better than fresh salmon on the grill)... and on Saturday I got to work on smoking some fish. This July fishing bonanza is alot of work but it's only a week or two out of the year and I look forward to it all year round, both the dipnetting and filling my freezer with food that will last through the year. Well, almost all year long. I finished last year's salmon in June, a month before I could go and catch some more.
Plus, I get to spend my fishing days on the beach -- not too shabby:
The spoils of our labor -- more red salmon fillets than you can shake a stick at:
I know alot of people feel the same way as I do about dipnetting but there are also many vocal critics who say that dipnetters are greedy and wasteful and that they catch way more fish than they need. I try to be the exception to their sour-puss over-generalizing and I gobble up everything I catch so that I can thumb my nose at those critics.
Salmon bellies, out of the brine and drying on racks on the kitchen table
After I posted some of my fish-smoking photos on Facebook, I had several co-workers come up to me the next day to squeamishly ask which part of the belly I'd smoked. I think they had visions of guts and organs, but no... the belly is a strip of salmon meat that runs along, well, the belly of the salmon. It's fattier and oilier than the side fillets and packed with all of those awesome omega 3's. Many will tell you it's the tastiest part of the salmon and will compare smoked bellies to salmon bacon. While it might be a little tough if you were to cook it the way you would a fillet, it's fantastic when it's smoked.
If you're in need of more info on how to fillet a salmon in such a way that you get the most belly-bang for your buck, here's an excellent discussion on the Alaska Outdoors Supersite, complete with photos. The bellies I brought home still had a couple of fins attached to them. If you're squeamish about the fins, you can cut them off but I just left them on. Once you nibble off the strip of smoked salmon, you're left with a strip of skin with the fins attached.
Salmon bellies out of the brine and drying on racks with a fan pointed at them to speed up the drying process
When I posted the photo above on Facebook, my mom commented to say: "I think you would be a good fish wife." I had to sheepishly admit that I most certainly would not be a good fish wife because I'd accidentally slept till 11 o'clock that morning, something I rarely do, especially not on fish-smoking day. But I must have been exhausted from a week's worth of fishing and fish processing. When my eyes popped open and I looked at the clock, I leapt from bed and made a mad dash for the bathroom and then the kitchen to get to work. The salmon was curing in the fridge overnight and it needed to be rinsed and laid out on racks to dry for a few hours, then smoked for another 6 - 8 hours.
The day before I'd layered the salmon in a mixture of brown sugar and kosher salt and by morning much of the salt and sugar had turned into a slurry.
Some of our bellies looked a little rough around the edges, literally, because we did much of our filleting late at night, in the dark, after a long day of dipnetting, and the cutting tables at our campground had no lightposts and so we filleted by the headlights of our cars.
After letting the salmon bellies brine over night, I rinsed them with cold water.
And then laid them out on racks to dry on my kitchen table with a fan pointed at them to speed up the drying process. Before you put the salmon in the smoker they need to dry out a bit and form a very thin skin called a pellicle, which allows the salmon to soak up the smoke better.
We don't have a fancy smoker, just a Big Chief that, according to the price tag still stuck to the top of it, I got for ten bucks at a thrift store. According to the photo posted at that Big Chief link, it looks like the company has come up with a more politically-correct logo for the front of their smokers. Smoked salmon bellies come with a politically-incorrect nickname of their own: squaw candy. Thankfully, people are phasing out their use of that name.
There are disadvantages to having such a simple smoker. The recipe called for bringing the heat up very slowly and our smoker doesn't have temperature controls. I've used this smoker before but this is the first time my husband has taken an interest in it, and I could hear him out in the garage with a drill making a few modifications. He drilled a hole in the bottom flap where the tray full of woodchips slides in, and he attached a piece of wire so that we could leave that flap open when we wanted to cool the temperature a bit (there's another vent in the top). And he didn't like the oven thermometer I had hanging on an inside rack because you'd have to open the whole front panel to check the temperature and then all the heat would escape. So he drilled another hole in the center of the front panel and popped a digital meat thermometer into the hole for easy-reading.
While he was doing all of that, I was online checking out fancier smokers on Amazon. This one caught my eye. But I don't know... the Big Chief worked so well that maybe I'll stick with it for awhile longer.
While the salmon smoked, I occasionally brushed each piece with some maple syrup to add sweetness to the smokiness.
I didn't smoke my salmon bellies to the point of being jerky, as called for in the recipe. Because I overslept that morning, it was getting late when we took one last look at the bellies, and while they were not smoked to the point of being jerky, they looked and tasted pretty darn good. My husband, my parents, our two dogs, and I gathered around the smoker in my backyard and gave them a taste-test. Smoky and sweet and delicious. Well worth the effort. Ours lasted less than a week in the fridge. My husband and I both took them to work with us and shared with co-workers and they were all polished off in no time. My husband drives a dump truck in the summer and he and his fellow drivers -- messy eaters, apparently -- reported that their steering wheels and the cabs of their trucks smelled like smoked salmon. They were not complaining.
The finished product -- like I said, not the prettiest thing to ever come out of my kitchen but these were tasty enough to make all the effort worth it:
Here's the recipe. I followed the original pretty closely but cut short the smoking time and only brushed maple syrup onto the bellies a few times.
Makes about 5 pounds.
Prep Time: 12 hours curing time
Cook Time: 6 hours smoking time
5 pounds skin-on salmon bellies (you an also use salmon collars or fillets cut into strips)
10 ounces of kosher salt
1 pound brown sugar
1 cup maple syrup or birch syrup
Mix the salt and brown sugar together in a bowl. In a plastic or glass container large enough to hold the salmon, sprinkle the bottom with a quarter inch or so of the sugar/salt mixture. Add a layer of salmon with the skin side pointing up. Repeat these layers as many times as needed and make sure the salt/sugar layers are thick enough that the salmon pieces are not touching. Cover and let cure in the fridge, preferably overnight, but for at least 8 hours.
Remove the salmon from the salt/sugar cure and rinse under cold water. Pat dry and lay on a rack skin side down. Allow the salmon to dry for at least 2 hours, preferably with a fan pointed at the racks to speed up the drying process.
Place the salmon on racks in a smoker and slowly bring the temperature up over the course of an hour or so and then let it smoke at 180°F to 225°F for at between 4 - 8 hours, depending on how smoky and jerkied you want your salmon. Every 2 hours or so, paint the salmon with the maple syrup. When the salmon looks and tastes good, have some to celebrate smoking day, and then allow the rest to cool to room temperature before storing in the fridge. The bellies will last a week or so in the fridge. They also freeze well.