Keeping the Catch, Home Canning Smoked Salmon
By Mike Rogers
Canning Smoked Salmon, a How-to Article
It is springtime in Alaska and apart from the malodorous breezes of a thawing Anchorage and the early buzzing of mosquitoes; I don’t know anyone who isn’t happy for the onset of summer. Among those most glad are fishers of salmon. I know I’m looking forward to first catches and one of those magnificent Copper River reds fresh on the grill.
A friend recently sent me a note asking about preserving my annual catch of salmon for future consumption and how one freezes and stores large amounts of salmon, citing concerns of freezer burn. Freezer burn is easily avoided by vacuum sealing, but freezing isn’t my preferred method of storing salmon. I actually store relatively little salmon in the freezer. Sure, I’ll have a few filets to prepare over the winter but my favorite way to eat salmon is smoked and my valuable freezer space is usually reserved for halibut and red meats like caribou and moose. I rely on “canning” to keep my catch shelf stable. For those unfamiliar with the process, I’ll explain it below.
As a disclaimer—home canning isn’t the popular activity it once was a generation or two ago and as a result many people are completely unfamiliar with the science at work behind it. Home canning is very safe (it was good enough for your Grandma after all) when done properly and can yield excellent results. Done poorly, it can be both a hazard to your personal safety (heat, steam, pressure, etc.) and/or your food safety (botulism, food poisoning, etc…). The solution to avoid such hazards is knowledge and research. I recommend two sources without hesitation; the more or less standard, “Ball Blue Book,” and the late, wonderful, Carla Emery’s, “Encyclopedia of Country Living.”
You can start with fresh, smoked, or cooked salmon but, since I greatly prefer the flavor of smoked salmon, I’ll start there.
No respectable household is complete without either of these references whether you live in the country or not. Recipes and techniques found on the nebulous ether of the internet (including mine) should be regarded as suspect until you see it in print from a recognized authority on the subject. As a safety note, please use care in performing any of the following I’m describing. We are dealing with heat, hot surfaces, hot materials and steam. Safety glasses and a clean pair of gloves are a great idea. Be safe and when in doubt stop and figure out what’s going on.
Canning is all about sterilization and killing the wee beasties that live on nearly everything. So, take your empty jars and wash them in hot water and dish soap or an automatic dishwasher. If you use a dishwasher the “heat dry” feature is great since it leaves you with a hot, dry, clean jar. Once your jars are clean put them in the oven on “low”—about 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Take the lids and put them in a small pot on the stovetop and simmer them in water. As a practice, never reuse lids—always use brand new ones. You’re looking to do several things here, the heat in the oven will keep the jars relatively sterile and the near boiling water will sterilize the lids and soften the seal on the underside. Remember, we’re killing bacteria here so cleanliness is next to Godliness. Once you’re done, we have clean jars and sterile lids … on to the fish.
You can start with fresh, smoked, or cooked salmon but, since I greatly prefer the flavor of smoked salmon, I’ll start there. If you want to can raw fish, just skip to the smoking step. Smoking salmon is practically an Alaskan obsession and the possibilities of cures, brines and additions to the basic recipe are limited only by your imagination and Google-Fu. I prefer a very simple cure made of 2/3 brown sugar, 1/3 kosher salt and a reasonable dash of red pepper. The star of the show is salmon and too much exotica in the recipe just covers up the flavors.
Commercial salmon packing doesn’t address pin bones and I don’t either, although, if you want to be OCD about it, whip out your pliers and pull them out.
Most folks doing this at home are going to be hot smoking their fish. You see these small smokers all over the place with names like “Big Chief” and “Master Forge.” Cold smoking is a somewhat different process that I won’t confuse folks with here. Follow your favorite recipe and put the fish in the smoke box—generally a day or two before you want to run a canner. Running the smoker is a pretty hands-off activity, running a canner is not. As a note, since we’re going to can this fish, you likely want to stop the smoking process a little early. If you let your fish get too done in the smoker, once you put it through the canning process it can turn out too dry. You’re looking for smoked flavor and that’s about it. Hot smoking is really a cooking process so the salmon is pretty much ready to eat before you can it.
There is no good way to put an entire fillet into a jar. To start, take your fillet and remove the skin (which will separate easily from the flesh at this point) and remove any of the larger bones, such as those from the rib cage. The smaller “pin bones” that are difficult to remove can simply be left in there … I know what you’re thinking—trust me, the heat and pressure of the canning process softens and dissolves the small bones almost entirely. Leaving in the bones also makes canned salmon a great source of calcium. Commercial salmon packing doesn’t address pin bones and I don’t either, although, if you want to be OCD about it, whip out your pliers and pull them out.
Put all of the flesh into a large mixing bowl and break up the larger pieces into smaller chunks with a stout wooden spoon.
Now you’re ready to jar up all that salmon. Pull a hot jar from the oven using care and a potholder or glove and set it on the counter or work surface. I like to use a canning funnel made specifically for canning and its purpose is two-fold—one is that it makes the filling of a jar much easier but more importantly it keeps the food off the rim of the jar. Any food (or other contaminant) that breaches the rim to seal interface will jeopardize the whole works. Simply spoon in the flaked salmon into the jar and pack down slightly leaving what the canning gurus refer to as “headspace.” The best way to have a disaster in a canner is to pack or fill a jar completely full. The Ball Blue Book will explain the amount of headspace needed in detail.
Now you need to place the lid on the jar and the handiest item ever made is a magnet on a stick—buy one, make one—you should have one if you plan to do any canning at all. Take the magnet and fish out a single lid and let the water drip a bit from it and without touching the lid or seal or letting it touch anything else. Maneuver the lid to the jar and with a deft little motion—place it on the jar. You can dislodge the magnet by placing your index finger lightly on the lid if you have tough old hands like mine—if you don’t, use a clean spoon or other instrument.
Now take your clean threaded ring and spin it on, holding the lid securely to the jar. As a word of caution, do not tighten the ring at this point; all you want to do is tighten it until it makes contact. Take the jar and set it aside until you’ve finished jarring up the rest of your fish. I like to use the boxes the jars come in to corral all those jars in the kitchen.
Now you’re ready to apply pressure. Place all your jars into the pressure canner according to the instructions, but pay attention to the capacity from the canner maker—with most it is entirely possible to place more jars in the canner than the instructions indicate—don’t do it. Read the instructions, since the air/steam volume is pretty important to what is going to happen next. When loaded, take a pitcher of warm water and pour it into the canner to just about the ring on the bottom layer of jars. Take the lid and inspect the seal and then place it on the canner. I have no idea what sort of canner you’re using but I’ll describe mine. You will have to break out the instruction manual for your particular model and read the directions but most will be similar to the following.
Place your canner on your heat source—be it range top, camp stove or gas burner. As a note, in rural areas it is not unusual to find folks with outdoor kitchen areas—these are referred to as “canning kitchens” where folks prior to air conditioning could can in the late summer without heating up the house. A sensible idea when you look at the amount of processing folks in that bygone era actually did, which some continue to do today. During harvest times a family might process food for several days or a couple of weeks on a near continuous basis. Also as a note, you should be using a pressure canner for any kind of meat, including fish. There is a process for canning “high acid” foods that only uses a hot water bath but that is NOT appropriate for meat and we’re NOT talking about it here.
As another caution, you are now dealing with a pressure vessel so use appropriate care and keep your eye on the gauge. This isn’t an activity where you can really walk off and leave it for any prolonged period of time unless you want a disaster.
For smoked salmon in half pint jars (my preferred size), my reference calls out 110 minutes at 10PSI.
Fire up the burner or range and apply heat to the canner. You are dealing with a pretty large volume and mass so don’t expect instant results. Watch the steam vent carefully—it will start to hiss at first as the steam displaces the air inside and after a few minutes you’ll see steam start to flash out. When you have a pretty steady spout of steam from the vent—start a timer. My reference states 10 minutes from the time you see a steady spout of steam (yours may vary) until all the air is purged from the canner and then drop on the weight.
As a word on processing times… every reference I’ve ever seen varies on processing time and pressure. Pick one and use it, but make sure you are using the time and pressure from the same reference. Some will use lower pressure and longer process times while others use higher pressure and shorter process times and it will vary considerably based on what type of food you’re canning and the size of the jar you’re using. For smoked salmon in half pint jars (my preferred size), my reference calls out 110 minutes at 10PSI. The timer doesn’t start until the gauge hits the pressure specified—not when you drop on the weight.
As another caution, you are now dealing with a pressure vessel so use appropriate care and keep your eye on the gauge. This isn’t an activity where you can really walk off and leave it for any prolonged period of time unless you want a disaster. All modern canners have a pressure relief that will keep it from bursting but the safety valve is just like a safety on a rifle; it is no replacement for care and good judgment! As you’re watching the pressure you will see the gauge attempt to overshoot your desired setting so back off on the heat. If it drops below, give it a little more. Try to avoid big swings in temperature or pressure but do expect that you will need to make frequent adjustments to the heat, particularly during the first thirty minutes until things settle down.
Once the timer indicates you’ve processed for the desired time, and you’ve made sure the pressure was at the desired level … you’re done. Cooling a canner down is as important as heating one up so read your manual. First thing is to turn off the heat source and let the pressure come down without removing the weight. You will continue to hear boiling noises from within the canner for some time, but don’t rush it. Now that the heat is off and the pressure is decreasing, you can wander off to attend to errands, other chores or whatever. Mine takes about a half hour to cool down once the burner is turned off. Once the pressure gauge is back to zero you can remove the weight. You should see a bit of residual steam at this point and now the canner is safe to open. Be aware that there is a lot of hot water and vapor in the canner so use some gloves or a potholder to protect your arms and hands when you open it up.
Now you need to lift the jars, which are scorching hot, so another canning specific implement is in order—a jar lifter. It’s a metal sort of clamp made to lift jars from boiling liquid. You need one. Don’t try to “make do” with channel locks or pliers or some other apparatus. You’re lifting a glass jar full of boiling liquid under pressure, the right tool and appropriate level of caution is required. Once your jar is out, set it aside to cool (I like to use the jar carton again) and cover with a kitchen towel to dry up a little of the water on the jars and to prevent folks from just grabbing a scorching hot jar on instinct. As the jars cool you’ll hear the lids make a distinct “snapping” noise, which means you’ve done it right. Let the jars cool completely, usually overnight, and inspect them.
You want to make sure the contents of the jar are under vacuum. Some of the lids have a safety button that you’ll visually see is pulled downward, all will have a distinct feel of tension with no flex when pushed on with slight pressure and all should sound pretty much similar when tapped with a small object. IMPORTANT—any jar that has a different sound or feel should be discarded or refrigerated and eaten immediately. Don’t take chances in this regard. I give the jars a quick wipe down with a kitchen towel, finish tightening the bands and write the contents and date on the lid with a marker and move them to long-term storage in the cupboard … not the freezer!
So there you have it—a brief narrative on canning smoked salmon. As a final note, if you decide to attempt this then use your reference book and canner instructions. Home canning is a great way to preserve food that doesn’t rely on freezer space. I like to think of it as a rigorous science experiment in the kitchen rather than a recipe with room for interpretation on the process. Happy canning!
Mike Rogers is an Alaskan fisherman, smoked salmon fiend, and a relentless experimenter with all things he can stuff into jars and eat later.
If you enjoyed “Home Canning Smoked Salmon,” check out “Grilled Salmon with a Zesty Mustard Sauce – The Perfect Combination.” Keep an eye on The Alaska Life, as more smoked salmon recipes are on the way!