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It’s the time of year when you see drift boats heading for the river and I don’t know about you but I love smoked fish, especially salmon.

This article was prompted by my son-in-law and his brand new smoker. May he someday believe a master food preserver as much as he does his fishing buddy! Favorite fishing holes and brine recipes may be two of the most guarded secrets around. If you have created your own recipe take a look at the procedures here to make sure that delicious smoked fish is safe to eat.

Hot smoking is a safe way to preserve fish if you follow these procedures.

• The internal heat of the fish must reach 150 degrees (preferably 160) for at least 30 minutes.

You must salt or brine the fish long enough so that the salt penetrates all parts of the fish.

If you store your smoked fish you must keep it refrigerated at 38° (or less) or freeze it.

These safety precautions bring up a few myths about smoking. Lots of people think it is the smoke that preserves the fish but it’s not really an effective preservative under most conditions; it’s the combination of the brine and the heat that does the preserving.

Many people also don’t realize that you need to properly store the fish after smoking it. It’s good for up to two weeks in the refrigerator. If you want to preserve it for longer you need to freeze it. Smoked fish can be canned in a pressure canner but the smoking process is a little different if you plan to can it.

There are some preparation techniques that are the same no matter what species of fish you are smoking. The first thing is to pick out good quality fish. Like other methods of food preservation the act of preserving it won’t improve the quality; garbage in, garbage out.

If you come home with your limit of fish, you can freeze it and smoke it later, just make sure you thaw it first. The fish should be clean with no blood or slime on it and don’t let the fish sit out at room temperature for more than two hours before you smoke it.

From personal experience, never let your brother clean a huge Chinook in your bathtub! Mine looked like a chainsaw massacre had occurred and I was chipping scales off the tub for weeks. After you have the fish cleaned, cut the fish into uniform size chunks so the salt absorbs consistently and the pieces don’t get over or under salted. Uniform chunks ensure the fish heats at the same rate so it isn’t underdone or overdone.

Now comes the vital ingredient; the salt solution — aka the brine. The brine is made of one part salt (non-iodized and no anti-caking agents) to seven parts water. You can add additional seasonings to the brine according to your own preferences.

The important take away here is the amount of salt. If you have adequate salt, it’s safe to add your secret seasonings. Putting the fish chunks in the brine for one hour will do the trick for most fish but you will need to take the size and type of fish into consideration. For example, a small herring may take 30 minutes but larger pieces of salmon may take two hours. Plan on at least a half hour in the brine for each inch of fish. Low fat and skinned fish will take less time to brine.

It’s tempting to dump all the fish into a bowl of brine but you need to make sure there is space between each piece so the salt can soak in evenly. I can hear you now, “But my favorite brine recipe uses less salt and says that I should let the fish sit in the brine overnight.” The problem with that is that the lower salt and extra time increases the potential for bacterial growth, which may not all be destroyed during the smoking process.

Once you’re done brining, rinse the fish and air dry it in a cool place, meat side up on a greased rack for at least an hour. You’ll know it is air dried when the pellicle (the shiny and tacky layer that forms on the meat) forms on the surface of the fish.

Hot smoking happens in two distinct processes — smoking and cooking. The smoking portion can be as long as two hours at 90 degrees, depending on how much smoke flavor and moisture level you want. After the smoking period, turn the heat up enough so the fish gets to an internal temperature of 150-160 degrees and cooks at that temperature for at least 30 minutes. I bought a digital thermometer with a long stem so it is easier to check the temperature of the fish.

Once your fish is done, and if you don’t eat it right away, you need to store it properly. Keep it in the fridge at 38 degrees (or less) for up to two weeks or freeze it. Wrapping the fish in cloth or paper towels will help keep it from molding in the fridge but it needs airtight packaging for freezing.

This information is from PNW 238 “Smoking Fish at Home — Safely.” For instructions on how to can smoked fish, see PNW 450 “Canning Smoked Fish at Home.”

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Taraleen Elliott, who has been involved with the Master Food Preserver training program through Oregon State University Extension Service, is writing a series of columns on food preservation.

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