From the Ocean to the Smokehouse: Preserving Salmon in Alaska

Salmon Season in Alaska

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It was raining on the day I visited Kim Moler's home in Kake, Alaska. This should not have been unusual, given that this part of Southeast Alaska gets over 100 inches of rain every year. But the sky had been dry for weeks, and residents were grateful for the muddy puddles and the chance to fill their water tanks.

Why was I in Kake that morning? I was there to watch Kim fillet a dozen wild sockeye salmon to string up in her backyard smokehouse. A dozen, you say? At least. I lost count after awhile.

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Kim and her family practice subsistence living in Alaska, which means they try to live off the land as much as possible. They catch and consume most of their food, including wild fish, game, plants, and berries, which they preserve through freezing, drying, and smoking. Smoked salmon is Kim's favorite way to preserve salmon, and she's been doing it the same way for years. (It helps when you have a smokehouse right in your backyard!)

The wild sockeye Kim had that day was as fresh as you could get: it had been caught by her husband just the day before, which is why there was a rush to preserve it at its peak. With her two daughters in tow, Kim deftly broke down the fish: she sliced it into filets and removed all the bones, then cut the filets into long strips which her daughters strung, four at a time, onto a wooden skewer.

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When all the fish was filleted and skewered (a process that probably took about 45 minutes) we trudged through the rain to the smokehouse behind her home, a small shed with wires hung beam to beam, a wooden stove in the middle, and stacks of chopped alder wood along the left side. The air smelled smoky — that wonderful firewood smoke, not the black, nostril-stinging char you get when you burn food on the stove. It lingered in the air, infused into the very structure of the shed. 

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While my companions and I stood shoulder to shoulder in the dim light of the smokehouse, heads slightly bent to avoid hitting the wires overhead, Kim pulled out a 5-gallon plastic bucket and filled it 3/4 of the way full with water. Into this she poured in a full box of kosher salt (about 1 1/2 pounds) and a large 2 pound bag of brown sugar. This was the brine. Each four-strip salmon skewer got dunked for exactly two minutes before getting hung on the line. (I say exactly because her daughter timed it with one of those flip-over timers you get with board games.)

Once hung, the deep orange flesh of the sockeye dripped brine onto the dirt floor, and gleamed slightly in the light that came through the open door. Even raw, it looked tasty. It takes a few days of smoking to get the flavor just right, Kim said, and when it's ready, she'll take everything down and can it in small jars — a perfect after-school snack for her daughters.

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Not gonna lie: I pretty much want to build a smokehouse right this second.

Thanks, Kim, for showing me how smoked salmon gets done in Alaska!

(Information for this post was gathered during a press trip sponsored by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. All views and opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author.)

(Images: Cambria Bold)

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