Processing season is upon us, and we’re in full juggling mode. The goal is to turn chrome-bright, fat-laden king salmon (above) into our favorite foods. I think it’s tossup for all of us between hot-smoked salmon and ikura salmon caviar. Of course, we also love it salted and fresh on the grill, and the leftovers in sandwiches. But for now, especially with these summer kings, which have less fat than the spring fish, we’re staying focused on smoking, salting and preserving.
This is the shop fridge holding a combination of pre- and post-brined salmon strips and chunks, along with two bins of brine. For our taste, we like a liquid brine made from 2/3 cup coarse Kosher salt, 1-1/2 cups dark brown sugar for every 9 cups of water. This year, in an effort to speed up our processing, I’m drying the brined salmon for 5 hours with a box fan blowing directly over the fish, then hot smoking at 205 degrees for about 7 hours. Results are delicious.
And here’s another batch of ikura, separated from the membrane using hardware cloth, and just starting to cure with 1/2 tsp Kosher salt, 1 tsp soy sauce and 1-1/2 tsp sake per 2 cups of eggs. Three days in the fridge to cure, then, if there’s any left, we put it in jars and freeze. But mostly it’s eaten up right away, on steamed rice, on crackers with cream cheese, or in Skyla’s case, by the spoonful. At the rate we’re mowing through the processed goods, we’re going to need more fish and more processing if we want any for winter. I think we’re up for it.
The big box of fish I brought home from Willapa Bay resulted in a flurry of salmon processing. Pictured above is the second smoker load of the week, just out of the brine and air drying before going into the smoker. Collars and belly strips on the left, fillet chunks on the right, and an extremely interested party in back.
The day after returning home, I filleted all the fish and cooked some prime center-cut chunks for dinner. Then Skyla and I made our smoking brine, cut the fish into serving sizes and started the first batch soaking. When that one was in the smoker, another round went into fresh brine. We also separated eggs from membrane to make ikura (salmon caviar) and started that curing in the fridge. The vac-sealer came out for more center-cut fillets going into the freezer. Meanwhile, we were already deep into salmon salad sandwiches, and when it was ready, eating smoked salmon and ikura two or three times a day. Happily, that pace has yet to let up.
Finally, I started vac-sealing and freezing smoked salmon…mostly to keep us from eating it all on the spot. Half the ikura went into jars for freezing as well. For the same reason. Whew! In all, it was about seven days of processing from two days of fishing. But all the good eating along the way–and in the future–made it more than worthwhile.
Staring at our empty freezer, smoker and fish fridge was doing little good. So in a last-ditch effort to make up for the “lost” harvesting time we spent in BC (lots of harvesting, nothing hauled home), and with our local king salmon season closed, I had to head to the Southwest Washington coast. In all reality, it was mostly just a good excuse to spend some time on the water with my great friend Sweeney, but stacking a few fish wouldn’t hurt, either.
We hit the jackpot. Absolutely crazy good fishing with hordes of nice silvers, a few fat hatchery kings, and very liberal local catch limits. Plus, calm seas, no crowds and good company, all on familiar waters…couldn’t ask for a better late-season harvest. A great couple of days. And a huge relief to have a fish box stacked to the top.
And then, the reality of processing all that fish set in. But I’m stoked to do it. The first batch already came out of the smoker, more brining now, ikura (salmon caviar) curing and a couple of fresh salmon meals under our belts. Just warmed up the new vac-sealer, too. A lot of work, but so many great meals ahead. Did I mention the relief? Whew!
This time of year, we spend almost as much time processing fish as we do fishing. Add in all the clean up–of boat and fishing gear, fish boxes, ice chests, smoker racks, brine bins, etc–and the whole enterprise nearly becomes a full-time job. But the results are more than worth it. Nothing fancy in our preparations, but it feels like a pretty luxurious diet.
The first picture above shows king salmon chunks just out of the brine, air drying before going into the smoker. Next to that is a plate of king collars, or kama, (an underutilized but delicious, fatty, part of the fish, and Skyla’s favorite) just out of the smoker. And finally, a bowl of salmon caviar just starting to marinate.
On the salmon caviar, or ikura, I’m pretty sure it’s my favorite part of a salmon to eat. The individual eggs pop in your mouth with a savory, incredibly rich flavor that’s perfect on rice or with cream cheese and crisp, rosemary crackers. Or, as the kids often prefer, by the spoonful straight out of the jar. Even people who think “Yuck! Bait” generally change their minds once they try these little jewels.
Recently, I’ve been getting requests for the recipe. So, if you’re a fisherman or have access to fresh salmon, here’s how I do it:
The best quality salmon caviar starts with, obviously enough, a fresh female salmon. I bleed and ice the fish as soon as it’s in the boat, then clean it carefully to keep the eggs clean. The eggs are removed in their skeins and blotted with a paper towel.
In the kitchen, I take a one-foot square of quarter-inch hardware cloth (galvanized screen), and push the eggs through it and into a bowl below. This separates the eggs from the membrane and leaves you with a bowl of individual eggs. Give the eggs a few rinses with salt water (I just sprinkle some kosher salt on and add cold fresh water to the bowl) and drain by pouring the eggs into a seive.
Put the clean, drained eggs into a bowl and add 1 tsp soy sauce, 1.5 tsp sake (rice wine), and 1/4 tsp kosher salt for each cup of eggs. Cover and refrigerate for two or three days. Then you can either eat them immediately or divide up into small jars and freeze. For higher food safety, the freezing process is recommended, but the texture of the thawed eggs isn’t quite as good as fresh. Still great, though. And we eat quite a bit both fresh and frozen. Enjoy!