When you’re smoking salmon or steelhead, it’s okay to get creative, but don’t overthink your brine; instead, focus on the brining process itself.
As in many recipes, the steps are as important as the ingredients. A little sea salt and a lot of brown sugar will do everything you need it to do in the smoker, but if you really want to step your game up, pay closer attention to your process.
Make sure all the exposed meat is covered with your dry rub or brine. Ideally, if you’re doing a dry brine, you’ll want to sprinkle the salt on first, then rub the brown sugar onto the meat. All exposed areas of the meat should be covered with the rub and open to the air, which will aid in the drying process. Eventually, all of the rub will turn to syrup, and most of it will run into the bottom of the pan. Be prepared for this so you don’t end up with any sticky spills. If you’re doing a wet brine, you’ll want to keep all the cuts in a sealed container.
Let it linger longer if you want the flavor to soak in, but before you put it into the smoker, air dry the meat on a drying rack. The most efficient way to do this is placing a fan by the drying rack and blowing air over the meat until the “goo” from your brine begins to get tacky. Your filet cuts should be sticky, not slimy, prior to going into the smoker.
Matching the thickness of your cuts to their placement in your smoker is another key element to getting a better quality finished product. Leave some space between all the pieces so that the smoke and heat can travel around all sides of the meat. Thinner portions like the collars or bellies should be in the colder corners or areas where the heat might be blocked by the other cuts. The thickest cuts should be closest to the heat. Finding those hotspots might take some trial and error. You can also pull the thinner or smaller cuts prior to the larger ones.
Once you’ve smoked your cuts to their desired times, let them cool before you vacuum pack them. If you want the cuts to retain their moisture, cover them with plastic wrap or aluminum foil, or put them in a sealed container.
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