My attempt to brine and pickle salmon is a story of overarching ambition leading to epic failure — and I haven’t given up yet.
The idea came from a trip to Kodiak last summer. My article about that trip was in the January issue of National Fisherman, but the untold part is that I brought back an “Alaska suitcase” stuffed with more than 40 pounds of salmon, halibut, rockfish and lingcod.
The cooler and its contents made the trip to Maine intact, and with a couple weeks of summer left, the first place for that fish was on my grill. (A tip for grilling fish, which I actually got during a trip to Idaho of all places, is to cut a potato in half and rub the cut end on the grill to make it a nonstick surface.)
I was happy grilling my fish, but winter was coming, and I had an idea. While I was in Alaska I had tried pickled salmon and loved it. Kevin Adams, a Bristol Bay fisherman, told me how he first brines salmon for three to four weeks then pickles it. I was intrigued.
I had never pickled or brined before, but the timing would be perfect. If I waited until November I could brine it for a few weeks then pickle it in time to jar it up for Christmas gifts. Per Kevin’s advice, I would use colorful peppers to stretch the salmon and give the jars a festive flair. Perfect.
Kevin instructed me how to brine it, which I didn’t write down so he can’t be blamed (and I’m kind of hoping he doesn’t read this). But the gist is you need to layer your salmon with salt in a container like a plastic paint bucket you buy at a hardware store. You top it off with more salt then cover it with a tea towel so it will collect the moisture that rises to the top.
A critical factor was finding a place to put the bucket for the next few weeks. It had to be cool, dark and dry. I live in a little beach cottage converted to year-round use. There’s not a lot of storage options because it’s tiny. There’s a shed, but it gets baked with lot of sun, and I have a crawl space but that is kind of dank with many spider webs. Who knows what other insects are crawling around?
I ended up picking an unusual spot: under the bathroom sink. I know that doesn’t sound promising, but it’s dark, dry and up against the back wall, which is cool to the touch when the outside is too.
When I was ready to brine, I defrosted a couple fillets of silvers and the next day cut them into about 2-inch pieces that I layered with salt in the bucket. Lastly, I pushed it to the back of the space under the sink and hoped for the best.
I thought about that salmon a lot during the month it was in my bathroom. I never smelled anything fishy during those weeks. I thought that was a good sign at least.
We did have a couple warm spells, and while I’m not sure if temperature was the culprit, something happened. When I finally uncovered my salmon, which I was then planning to pickle, the moisture that should have risen to the top to collect on the tea towel had not. Inside the bucket, the salt and salmon were wet near the top and then partly frozen near the bottom. It did not look good.
I dug it out. I rinsed it off. I smelled it. I thought about it.
I rinsed it some more. I thought about it. I smelled it again.
I threw it out.
I’m still not really sure what went wrong, but I’m not done trying. I found another recipe with a brining process that takes hours — not weeks. I'd love to hear from anybody who has any tips for making this work.
Either way, I’m getting back my confidence back and will make another attempt soon. I’ll let you know how it turns out.