Fishing Reports

Brown Sugar Cured Smoked Salmon or Steelhead

Smoking salmon or steelhead is one of the most popular ways of enjoying the highly prized Oregon Coast fish. While there are dozens of great recipes for smoked fish, our favorite involves a quick and simple dry cure that is both sweet and salty, but not too much of either. Brown sugar cured salmon or steelhead is a tried and true smoked fish recipe that has regained popularity in recent years.

Chetco River steelhead smoked after being cured with brown sugar and salt.

The fish is cured with a dry cure. No brine is involved. The end result is smoked fish with all of its flavor, and the perfect texture. This recipe is especially popular for steelhead and coho salmon, which have more of a mild flavor compared to king salmon, but it works great for all species of salmon, including those caught in the ocean or river.

The dry cure is simple. Four parts brown sugar (light or dark may be used) and one part non-iodized salt. For a single coho or steelhead, two cups brown sugar and a half of cup of salt work. For multiple fish, or a large king salmon, use four cups brown sugar and one cup salt. Mix the brown sugar and salt in a plastic bag.

Steelhead fillets cut into small pieces for smoking.

Cut the salmon or steelhead fillet into smaller pieces. The smaller pieces will cure more evenly, and smoke better than larger fillets. For best results, remove the rib bones, although they can be left if desired. Leave the skin on the fillets, as they will be smoked skin-side down.

Cure the fish in a large glass baking dish. A large plastic bowl also will work, or even a bucket if you have several salmon to cure and smoke.

The brown sugar cure over the steelhead fillets.

Layer the bottom of the baking dish with the small pieces of fillets, skin-side down. Place a single layer on the dish. Apply a generous amount of the brown sugar and salt mixture over the fish. Add a second layer of fish, skin-side down, over the initial layer, and then another coat of the brown sugar cure.

The second layer of salmon fillets.

Continue to add layers of salmon or steelhead, and the brown sugar cure. After just a few minutes, the dry cure will begin to pull the moisture/liquid from the salmon or steelhead fillets. Cover with a plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator or a cool area (the garage) for three or four hours.

After just a few minutes, the sugar and salt will begin to become saturated with moisture from the fish.
The cure dissolves as it pulls the moisture from the fish.

After an hour, the sugar and salt will be completely dissolved as it pulls the moisture and liquid from the fish. After three to four hours of curing, stir the fish by hand to ensure all the fillet pieces are covered with the cure.

Stir the fillets to make sure they are completely exposed to the cure.

Cure the fish for 12 to 24 hours. Smaller pieces will cure quicker. Larger king salmon may need the total cure time of 24 hours, or longer. The fish will take on a brighter color, and the meat will be firmer once it is cured.

When its ready to smoke, remove it from the cure, shake or wipe off the remaining cure and place on the smoke trays or screens to air dry. Do not rinse.

The fillets will be bright and firm once cured.
The unrinsed fillets are allowed to air dry.

Once the fillets have air dried and are firm and tacky, season to taste with garlic powder, black pepper, dill weed and lemon pepper. Some people simply add a little black pepper and no other seasonings.

Once the fillets are tacky, season and begin to smoke.
Use apple, cherry or alder chips.

Smoke the fish for 6 to 12 hours. Use three pans fulls of chips, and then simply use the heat from the smoker. Continuing to add chips/smoke after the first 1 to 2 hours can give the fish a bitter taste.

The Big Chief Smoker doing its thing.

If you like sweeter smoked fish, add a small amount of honey to each fillet halfway through the smoking process.

During the winter months, or on the coast during cool, foggy weather, sometimes it is necessary to finish the fish off in the oven. If necessary, finish cooking the salmon at a low temperate (175-200 degrees) for 20 to 30 minutes in the oven.

The finished product.
King salmon caught on the Miss Brooke of Brookings Fishing Charters.

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