A steady and abiding rain falls over the streets of Ketchikan, Alaska; a hard mist, as the locals call it. Gray clouds smother into the tall, green, mountainsides rising at the edge of town. My lovely bride and her mother take up position in the stern of a fishing charter, one of twenty, advancing out to sea. Stalwart sailors they were, and hardened anglers, listening to the rain tap over their up-turned hoods. The guttural rumble of the outboard engine merges onto the acoustic palate, along with the lapping of chill waters against the hull, and the distant bustle of the Ketchikan shores. Whales breached the choppy surface, spouted forth a few times, and submerged again; their mighty tails slapping the water with utter authority, and great majesty. A Bald Eagle drops suddenly from the heavens with an acute splash off the starboard, snatching a salmon for to feed her family. My bride is onto a salmon too, go figure, rod hooping violently, its tip tugging downwards towards the darkened abyss. A few minutes span on bobbing waves and rocking ship, reeling and peeling, and she too procures a salmon for the family; several of them, in point of fact. And despite her bouts with motion sickness, she had the mental faculty to have them put on dry ice, and airmailed hence forth to the door step of her working husband back home. And that, by and far, made his day.
It is a few weeks later now, I tarry pit-side, in good form, whilst a bleak and steady mist dapples over the pond, like a thousand pin pricks cast from on high. It is that hard-mist sort-of rain again; tho one that is livable, by Ketchikan standards at least, and doesn’t force a soul indoors, necessarily, to stare glumly out the window. Besides, I liked the rain. And I think the silver salmon in the smoker did too. Or would have. Sort of reminiscent, you might say, from whence what soggy straights they came. If you are going to smoke a fish from Ketchikan, after all, it is only right I guess, that you do it in the rain. It’s always raining in Ketchikan they say. And I believe them.
An October breeze rustles amid the water-side grasses, long and wet, and bending in the seasonal eddies. A gray over-cast parades over-head and the light smoke of apple and peach wood curls serenely from the WSM. No finer weather, let be said, than this, this barometric symphony of low pressure and constant mist, for the pleasures of the pit are only heightened. The aromas pop, as if in olfactory 3D. The joy of rain drops pattering over a hot lid. And the contentment patron to rising wood smoke on such a cold, and dreary day. Glory!
One of the finer spoils in the smokey arts is that of fish. And few fish seem better suited for the task than salmon. Thus, and with some fanfare, it was with the greatest delight when a box of them arrived on my doorstep. Good tidings from Alaska, and a smokey destiny according to my pit. Now the first order of business, before anything else, is to brine the fish for 24 hours. We used a wet brine this time around, one that has proven effective in the past. And it’s real simple to make.
Basic Brine Recipe
2 Quarts water
1 Cup Dark Brown Sugar
1 Cup Kosher Salt
1/2 Cup Lemon Juice
1/2 Cup Soy Sauce
1 Teaspoon Black Pepper
1 Teaspoon Onion Powder
*In an old gallon ice cream bucket, mix this all up thoroughly and allow your fillets to mingle in the solution for 24 hours.
Before you go and light the pit, and after the proper brine period, go ahead and dutifully rinse thy fillets under cold water and lay them out on a rack to air dry a bit. Mind your BBQ instincts, and linger here. I know, your young, and eager, and restless, and you want nothing more than to plop thy protein upon a smokey grate and commence with the task at hand. But don’t. Your patience kindled from years at the pit will serve you well here, if you let it. What it is you’re waiting for, you see, is the pellicle, and such can take a while. I know, you’re wondering what in the heck is a pellicle. Well, a pellicle is an outer coating of proteins that form on the surface of brined fish left to air dry, and is tacky, or sticky to the touch. Many a seasoned fish smoker covets the pellicle, for it is that very stickiness which also proves most abiding for smoke. For smoke adheres feverishly to it, like moths to fly paper, or novice skiers to snow fencing. So wait for the pellicle if you can. Some folks even use an electric fan here, to hurry things along. And you can too, I suppose, if you’re in a hurry. But if you’ve learned anything at all from this blog, you won’t be in such a tomfoolery mind-set anyways.
After the pellicle has formed, and is sticky to the touch, sally forth and ignite thy smoker. For this smoke, were looking to run it at about 150 degrees for 3 or maybe 4 hours. This was accomplished in the big 22 1/2 inch Weber Smoker Mountain by a single chimney of lit charcoal dumped directly in the middle of the fire bowl, along with 2 gallons of cold water in the water pan. It may have helped also, that a lovely, cool drizzle fell from the heavens this day, keeping the pit cooler. At any rate, do your best to get around 150 degrees. A little higher is fine. The salmon won’t care.
Whence you have established a stable pit, smoke gently puffing, spray a little PAM or some such thing over your grate, and lay your betrothed salmon hunks in orderly fashion over it. Many of the Alaskan locals like to smoke their salmon with alder wood, but we didn’t have any such flavor on hand. What we did have however, was apple wood, and let it be said, because it is true, that works just fine too. Let it smoke in accord, until the fish flakes easily with a fork. Its pretty much that easy. In the mean time, there is loitering to be done.
It was with the highest and most sincere pleasure I placed the heavy enameled lid on the smoker, and henceforth got along with the very important business of being a pit keeper. Namely, I went to the refrigerator and drew myself a manly beverage there. Seeing the rain wasn’t about to let up this day, albeit a light rain, I jockeyed for the man chair anyways, residing seductively in the living room. Some times we Brethren of the Brisket need to pamper ourselves. Yes we do. Toe-pits up, left foot crossed over right, I admired how the rain drops fell this day, on and off, outside the glass patio door. The symphony in mist, and the homey curls of apple wood smoke. My eyes grew weary, heavy from the day. I listed slightly in my man chair, ensconced in warmth and dryness; two glories made only sweeter on such a cold and decidedly wet day. My eyes fell shut, and my thoughts drifted out to sea. Leisure had asserted itself. A perfect day, as days go, to smoke a salmon. And I suppose to consider for a moment, for the moment’s sake, the rain which fell in Ketchikan. Amen.
Apple Smoked Salmon. Man! So next time you’re faced with a rainy day, and maybe feeling a little fish hungry, do the only sensible thing and light the pit. For any day is a good day where the wood smoke also rises.
Of all the BBQ arts, ribs are perhaps the most ubiquitously loved and feared item on the menu. Nothing is quite so fine as the perfectly smoked rib, patiently pampered, and delicately seasoned. Tender, and complete in it’s flavor profile. While in the same breath, few things that come off a grill are as miserable as a poorly cooked rack of ribs, tougher than shoe leather, and not all that much better in taste. Ribs are a litmus test of your grilling prowess, and for that reason alone, they are a revered subject in the BBQ community. So for those who have not yet attempted a rack of ribs on the smoker, here is how to bring your game to the next level.
Remove the Membrane
Insert a butter knife between a bone and the membrane on the back side, and near the end of the rack of ribs. Pry up the membrane there enough to get a hold of it with your hand. These things are as slippery as a bar of soap in the bath tub, but if you grip it with a paper towel, you can aptly tame the beast. Grab tight and pull, peeling it off down the length of the rack. The membrane is on there tighter than a tick to a hound dog, but if you do it right, it comes off in one, easy, stroke. If you do it wrong, you’ll live I guess. Anyways,the reason you have to peel it off is two fold: firstly, it’s a son of a gun to chew on, and secondly, by removing it, you increase your ribs capacity for smoke absorption and rub penetration, as neither can breach the membrane. So do your very best to remove it. If you just can’t make it happen, the old pit master trick of scoring it in a checker board pattern will loosen things up enough to eat it. It’s not the BBQ ideal, but we can turn our heads if we must.
Next, some pit masters like to wipe it down in vinegar at this point, to open the pores of the meat. While others will slather the rack in mustard, to form sort of an adhesive agent for the rub. Rubs, like most things BBQ, are an art. There is no right or wrong thing here, just go with your grill master gut. I used to do the mustard thing for quite some time, and despite what newbies tend to think, you cannot taste the mustard. It’s job is purely to hold the rub. Lately here tho, I’ve been forgoing the mustard idea altogether, and just slapping on the rub on right away, and that works too. But the main idea here is to get your favorite rub on the ribs. Dash it all over, and don’t skimp. This is the single biggest influence of flavor for your end product. Do it right.
Before we move on to the next step in our ribs, we would be remiss if we did not tell you about the book of books concerning ribs, and everything else for that matter. Aaron Franklin makes some of the best BBQ in the country, and maybe the best brisket period. How do we know? Well just read the reviews on his book. You’ll see. We humbly bow to his expertise. Anyways, back to our story.
Warming Up The Pit
While doing all this prep, the smoker should be warming up and stabilizing. For this instructional, you should dial in your cooker for the smoking ideal, 225 to 250 degrees. This is your magic temperature range for the low and slow gospel approach to true southern BBQ. I believe in it, and sing it’s lofty praises. As for a water pan or not, I have done it both ways, and have come to the conclusion that it matters not for the moisture of the ribs in this application. The water pan may be useful however in acting as a heat sink, to help you lower the temperature in your cooker. Every smoker is different, and it’s your duty as it’s pit master to learn how to run your grill efficiently. At any rate, once you get it up to temp, go head and toss on your smoke wood of choice. Here too it is art, so follow your inklings. We love apple or hickory wood, but since maple trees are abundant around here, we tend to favor their aroma from time to time too.
Off-hand, if you’re looking for a good smoker for the money, you can’t go wrong with the Weber Smokey Mountain. It’s what we’ve been using for years and years now, and we cannot recommend it enough. Great pit! Excellent bang for the buck. If you want to get your man something for his next birthday, by golly, this is it!
Once your smoker has stabilized, or in other words holding your desired temperature, and the bellowing smoke has settled down into something of a thinner affair, it is then time to lay your rubbed up rack gently in the smoker, bone-side down. Put on the cover. The hardest part is done now. Now, and at last, you are liberated to do as you wish. These are the moments BBQ people live for. For the next 2 1/2 hours, you are free to saunter about the house, doing what ever it is you do in your house when meat is cooking quietly. I would suggest taking up residence in your big leather man chair, with a lovely beverage at hand, and a Stallone movie on play. Either that or tranquil nap pit-side, smoke wafting, with the Black Capped Chickadees flirting at your bird feeder, and the warm sunbeams melting over your rose bushes. These are the poetic moments of the smoke, and the binders of your memories whence the food is gone, and the coal is out. This is why, by choice, you go low and slow. Simply to extend the beauty of the moment, for the moment’s sake. What a joy it is to take your foot off the accelerator pedal of life, and coast amid it’s treasured ambiance. This is your time to revel in the cook, and glory in the smoke patron to the scenic path. This is why we do what we do.
A Time To Cheat
After 2 1/2 hours, then begins the Texas cheat. Say what you will about foiling your meat, it works. Yes, it’s more macho I suppose to do it without foil, but the success rate of ribs foiled is too staggering to ignore. So cheat. Then end result is quality BBQ ribs, which after all is what we are after in the first place. Wrap your ribs in foil with a good splash of apple juice for good measure, and place it back on the smoker for another 2 hours. This is where the magic happens, and where the fate of boot leather ribs is thwarted. What happens is a steam bath of sorts. It’s like sending your ribs to the spa for a good pampering. Steaming in apple juice, or what ever drink you have on hand really, will loosen the meat, moisten the meat, and flavor the meat all at once. It is your secret weapon for perfect ribs.
Finally, after a couple hours, go ahead and remove them from the foil, pouring it’s drippings back over the meat. Let them continue their journey to excellence back where they started, on the grate. For the next half hour, liberally baste them in your choice BBQ sauce. Or if your feeling daring, let your rub speak for itself. Let them firm up a little. Let them gain their composure. And then, whence your slobbers can stand no more, plate them up, and take them to your people. And watch their heads turn, and their tongues fall out. The aroma of victory will follow you. And the cheers of your people will wash over you as they sample your spoils. And you will have successfully, with out any doubt, passed your BBQ litmus test. Amen.
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