For many salmon anglers, part of the joy of landing the fish is taking it home and smoking it to share with friends. But with recent news about Listeria bacteria, a potentially deadly foodborne pathogen, detected on some smoked salmon made by well-known fish producers, the question arises: How safe is home-smoked fish? Fortunately, there’s no mysterious hocus-pocus involved in smoking your own fish. The name of the game comes down to preventing foodborne illnesses by following basic, straightforward guidelines: keeping things clean, using the right ingredients, and keeping the fish at the right temperatures, before, during and after smoking.
- Salt preserves smoked fish by reducing the moisture content, but because home-smokers don’t usually have a way to accurately analyze the salt content of the finished product, it’s important that the fish be properly cooked and refrigerated.
- Cut the pieces of fish into uniform size and thickness to reduce the chance that some pieces will be either under- or over-salted. Doing this will help prevent foodborne pathogens from contaminating the fish.
- Salt or brine fish long enough to ensure that enough salt is present throughout the entire piece of smoked fish.
- Salt the fish before smoking it in a strong salt solution — one part table salt and seven parts water by volume for one hour for most fish. (One cup salt with seven cups of water will salt about two to three pounds of fish.)
The National Center for Home Food Preservation Guide warns that only food-grade salt without additives, such as iodine, should be used. Rasco suggests using food-grade rock salt dissolved in water. “Don’t use salts with anti-caking agents because that can lead to quality problems with the fish,” she said.
- If you plan on storing the smoked fish, keep it under refrigeration at 38 degrees F or less.
- Do not let fish sit longer than two hours at room temperature after cleaning and before smoking. Rasco also said that it’s important when using frozen fish to make sure it’s thoroughly thawed out since the salt can’t penetrate into the tissue when it’s frozen. This, in turn, could lead to food-safety problems.
- Once the fish has been brined, rinse the surface of the fish and allow it to air-dry, meat side up, for at least an hour on a greased rack in a cool place until a pellicle forms. A pellicle is a shiny, slightly tacky skin that will form on the meat surface of the fish. The pellicle will give the smoke a chance to deposit evenly during smoking and also help prevent the surface from spoiling during smoking.
- You can add ingredients such as brown sugar and soy sauce, but don’t add any oil.
- Smoke the fish for up to two hours at about 90 degrees F in a smoker and then increase the heat until the fish reaches at least 150 degrees F (preferably 160 degrees F) and then cook it for at least another 30 minutes. Use a thermometer to make sure the thickest section of the fish is at a high-enough temperature.
- Since it’s difficult to reach high-enough temperatures for proper cooking when using the small metal smokers available in most hardware or sporting-goods stores, follow up the smoking process by putting the fish in a home oven to bring it up to a core temperature of 150-160 degrees F.
Rasco said that one of the small metal smokers could be used for up to two hours to complete the first part of the smoking process. After that, put the fish in a home oven to finish it up. If, after the fish has been smoked, the right outdoor cooling conditions (cool, dry air) aren’t present, Rasco said you can put the fish in a smoker with low heat (80 to 90 degrees F), no smoke, and with the doors open so the pellicle can form. She advises to cool the fish down to 110 degrees F or lower before packaging it. When packaging the fish, it has to be cool enough, Rasco said. When fish that hasn’t been cooled down enough is put into a ziplock bag or vacuum-sealed in a plastic package, the difference in temperature between the fish and the refrigerator can cause condensation.
- If you don’t plan to immediately eat the smoked fish you’ve vacuum-packed, put it in the refrigerator (preferably at 38 degrees F or less) or into the freezer. And, if you don’t vacuum-pack your fish, keep it refrigerated to ensure quality and safety.
- If you’re storing the fish for longer than two weeks, tightly wrap and freeze it. Properly frozen smoked fish can hold for up to one year.
Susan Westmoreland, food director for Good Housekeeping, offers this advice about storing smoked salmon: Put it on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator, where it’s coldest. Unopened, it will keep for two weeks; after opening, one week. Store opened salmon in the original package; over-wrap it in plastic wrap or place it in a self-sealing plastic bag to prevent dryness. (If the edges dry out, just snip them away with a pair of scissors.)
- Use only hardwood for smoking. Maple, oak, alder, hickory, birch and fruit woods are good choices. Woods from conifers such as fir, spruce, pine or cedar will leave an unpleasant taste on the fish.
What ifs What if a friend proudly offers you some salmon he or she has smoked? You can’t very well grill the person about how the fish was smoked. Rasco suggests that you graciously accept it. Then, later, heat it up to 150 to 160 degrees F and eat as is or use it to make sauces or sandwiches. When asked about statistics pertaining to food poisoning caused by home-smoked salmon, Rasco said that information like that isn’t available, in large part because there aren’t many illnesses of this sort. “Most people who consume smoked salmon are healthy,” she said. “The elderly and the very young don’t usually want it because of its strong taste and high salt content.” She also believes that, in general, there’s more paranoia about smoked salmon than is warranted. “People don’t eat a lot of it, and they usually eat only one or two ounces at a time,” she noted. When asked about the safety of fish and other meats “back in the old days,” Rasco said that the way it was done then, before refrigeration, called for a lot of salt. As a result, smoked fish (or other meats) were very salty and very dry. “But we like products that are less salty now,” she said, adding that using the right amount of salt is important when it comes to preventing Listeria and other foodborne pathogens. For more information and details about safely hot-smoking salmon, refer to the Pacific Northwest Extension’s publication on this topic.