Alaskan’s are resourceful folks, and one way they make it through the long winters of the Last Frontier by putting away some of their summer salmon harvest. Catching, processing and preserving a healthy winter pack keeps them well fed with some of the best protein on the planet. Also, it is a reminder of the wondrous bounty that Alaskan summers offer up.
I was working as a fishing guide in Cordova, Alaska. I had a rare day off and joined my friend Carlos for an afternoon of prepping salmon for the smokehouse. He had picked up a dozen Copper River Sockeye from a friend and was putting them up for winter. I was happy to help.
The Salmon Bounty of an Alaskan Summer
In Alaska, summer is the season of harvesting. Alaskan residents pick up their subsistence permits and head out to their local rivers and marine areas to bring home enough salmon to last them through the entire year. Many families make a long week of this. And boy, do they know how to catch. It doesn’t hurt that most of the state has phenomenal returns of Reds (Sockeye), Silvers (Coho) and Kings (Chinook). Hard work paves the way to a pantry full of preserved salmon. From the planning stages all the way until you pull those jars of Red Gold from the pressure canner.
Preparing Salmon for the Smokehouse
Putting away a couple dozen salmon is a real process. Carlos had filleted the catch and cut each fillet into long strips. He was looking for that perfect Alaska smokehouse weather, a little cool and rainy. But when you are nose to the grindstone busy in the summer, you sometimes need to take what you can get weather wise and get the job done.
The Salmon Strips Go Into The Brine
Alaskans don’t get too fancy with their salmon brine. Carlos grabbed a vat of cool water and slowly stirred in enough Kosher Salt to float an egg. This indicated that the brine was 100% and just what he wanted for his salmon. We stirred them in the brine for about an hour, letting the strips soak in that perfect amount of salt for flavor and preservation.
Hanging & Drying in the Smokehouse
With a ball of butcher string, we pulled the strips out of the brine and hung them from the rafters of the smokehouse. There they hung for overnight and a day. Draining off excess brine and giving them that ticky-tacky texture that we look for in a pre-smoked salmon strip.
The Long, Light Salmon Smoke
Carlos came back a day later and built a small fire in the smokehouse. This is where Carlos’ experience showed in stride. He taught me about that perfect line where you get a nice steady smoke, but not enough flame to create a hot environment that would actually cook your strips. After all, the eventual bath in the pressure canner would take care of the cooking portion. A light haze of smoke filled the smokehouse. The Alder was dry-aged and sourced from a grove down the road.
After one night and a day of tending the fire in the smokehouse, it was time. Carlos called me up to review our work. We opened the smokehouse door and the strips of Red Salmon appeared before us, perfectly smoked. Not a minute too soon or too late. We pulled them all down and took them for a road trip to my Lodge. Where we had a big kitchen to work in. And had prepped enough jars for a couple loads of canning.
Packing Jars With Smoked Salmon Strips
We cut the strips down to about two inches. The goal was about a half inch of head-space in each of the half-pint jars. All those rows of packed mason jars was a sight to behold. We tightened down the jar lids and rings, and stacked them high in the pressure canner. We pulled them out after an hour and a half cook and let them cool down on the picnic table outside the kitchen.
Enjoying Alaskan Smoked & Jarred Salmon Year Round
The process was hard work. But this was one of those experiences where hard work can also be fun work, and rewarding work. Carlos had his winter pack. I learned a new skill. Although I didn’t ask, Carlos gifted me a couple jars to sample and share. The final product was amazing, and if you could gift someone the best flavors of Alaska in a Mason Jar, it would be smoked strips of Red Salmon.