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How we Smoke Salmon

When you spend your summers fishing for salmon day in and day out, you learn a few things. One – salmon is money. Every salmon we pick from our net, bleed, slush ice, and process is money and a better quality reputation we are earning for Wild-Caught Alaska Salmon everywhere. Two – you start to wonder where restaurants’ salmon comes from. We can’t tell you how many times each fisher has eaten out – whether in Oregon, or Missouri, or Florida, or Kentucky – and looked at a menu to see salmon offered. Is it pacific-caught or farmed? Or is wild-caught Alaskan? Better yet, was it bled, cared for to avoid bruising, and iced? Because that’s Popsie’s guarantee. Which leads me to three: fishing for Popsie, we have high expectations for the fish we catch and the fish we consume, and even higher expectations for the fish we share.

Smoking sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay, drying racks

Naturally, as commercial fisherman, we love the idea of bringing home what we’ve caught to our friends and family to share and show off. It’s well-known to bring an extra bag or make sure you have plenty of space left in the one you brought up so you’re able to pack it full with salmon when it comes time to head home from the Bristol Bay. Some of us decide to bring frozen salmon fillets with us, learning Tony’s favorite marinade recipes, and cooking these fillets for family dinners when we get home. Most of us, however, look forward to bringing home our smoked salmon. This recipe is to DIE for – while it is a lot of work, our family and friends always love it. It’s delicious – just thinking about it now has my mouth watering (thank goodness I have some in the fridge thawing as we speak!).

Our smoked salmon process is long. Lord knows we’ve had a lot of trial and error in the past, but we started honing in on this perfect recipe about eight years ago and have stuck to it religiously ever since.
After our tide, we pick a few fish out of our slush ice totes before sending the rest to the processor. We usually try to pick five or six medium salmon. Once we’re done cleaning up from our tide, we fillet the chosen salmon on our fillet table using a sharp knife, a gut bucket, and a tray on standby waiting for the meat pieces. Some crew are better than others at filleting, so this task is usually bestowed on one or two of our best for the season.
Filleting king salmon at Popsie fish camp in Bristol Bay Alaska

After they’re all filleted and sliced into long pieces (about 2-4 inches long), we take the trays of salmon upstairs to the main cabin where we start mixing the brine. Once mixed well, we toss the salmon in the bowl and let it sit and marinade for 24 hours in the fridge – mixing it all together again and again every few hours so the brown sugar doesn’t colligate at the bottom.

After the 24 hours of marinating, we set out our stacked trays from the smoker outside and place our salmon pieces at least one inch apart from each other. This is when we allow the salmon to dry and the wind keeps buzzing bugs away. Keeping an eye and checking on the salmon every few hours is expected, as when the salmon is dry, the marinade will be sticky to the touch – instead of dripping on the table beneath.

Smoking sockeye salmon
Smoked sockeye salmon homemade in Bristol Bay Alaska

Once dry, we take these trays to our trusted smoker below in the garage. At this point the generator must stay on because we require power to keep our smokers at the right temperatures. Keeping an eye on the temperature is just as important as keeping an eye on the time. A low temperature or not enough time means uncooked fish, and uncooked fish could mean potentially dangerous food poisoning. After the smoker is ready to go and the stacked trays of salmon have been placed, we set timers for every two to three hours to check. It usually takes about six to eight hours depending on the thickness of the salmon pieces, how close together they are, how much salmon we have, and what the temperature is set at.

Think we’re done? Not quite. Once the salmon is smoked, it’s time to package! To package, we take our trays of now smoked salmon upstairs to the kitchen, where we have kitchen vacuum bags ready to go. We pre-cut each bag, sealing at least one side. We portion out the salmon into each bag and vacuum the extra air out of it before sealing the other. We then place our Popsie stickers on each bag labeling it “smoked” and with the year. Then each portion bag is placed in a USPS box, where they are stored in our freezers for the rest of the season until crew begin to go home. Keeping tally of every portion is important, as this is the way we determine how much each crew member gets to bring home with them. The more we smoke, the more each person gets to bring home.

Packaged smoked sockeye salmon homemade hot smoke

When the season is ending and crew is heading home, we pack our frozen smoked salmon in bubble wrap and packing paper, duct taping each package closely together so all stay frozen on the journey home. Once we arrive home, we store our beloved salmon in our freezer until we’re ready to enjoy. Whether it’s as an appetizer, a fun game night snack, a gift to a coworker or neighbor, or a great talking point – all you’ll need to do is thaw the portion bag under some warm water for a few minutes and you’ll be ready to go!

Ask any Popsie fisher and we are proud of the salmon we bring home with us. The same way we are proud of the salmon you decide to purchase. Watching our families and friends enjoy the very salmon we remember catching from the net and were with all the way home is truly satisfying. When we say “Fisher to Fork,” we mean fisher to fork – with our salmon at every step of the way making sure it’s the best quality to share with those we care about. The process is long, the work is hard, but the payoff sure is worth it.

Written by: Erin Washer

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