Smoke 'em if you got 'em: Fish Alaska's best smoked salmon contest
There is very little that is quintessentially more Alaskan than homemaking smoked salmon.
When thinking about this I also realized that nearly everyone who smokes salmon thinks theirs is the best. With that competitive spirit in mind, Fish Alaska magazine held a contest last summer with the purpose of finding Alaska's best smoked salmon.
The winner was set to receive a hefty prize package, totaling over $10,000, which included a three-day fishing trip for two to Alaska's Bear Trail Lodge on the Naknek River fishing with guide Nanci Morris for rainbows and Dollies, with roundtrip flights provided from PenAir. The winner also received a $2,000 gift certificate to Sportsman's Warehouse and a Minipack MVS-31 high-powered vacuum sealer from Alaska Butcher Supply, plus lifetime subscriptions to Fish Alaska and Hunt Alaska magazines.
We had plenty of entrants. Thirty-two finalists were selected to participate at the very first event, held last July at Rumrunners Old Towne Bar & Grill in downtown Anchorage. Each finalist was awarded a coveted Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em long-sleeved, commemorative t-shirt. (The shirts were designed by Fish Alaska graphic designer Brett Rawalt and created by Stellar Designs in Anchorage.)
Being a contest finalist became easier with help from the folks of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, who sponsored the contest by purchasing sockeye from 10th and M Seafoods in Anchorage. The fish was supplied first to the original 32 finalists, and then weekly to those who moved forward to the next two rounds.
All three events were crowded affairs, with all the contestants, their friends, sponsors and smoked salmon tasters. Finalists were asked to present a tray of smoked salmon for guests to enjoy as well as a platter for judging. The task of smoking the salmon was done at their respective homes and then brought to the restaurant for judging, and we all got to partake in the results!
The plan for selecting the winner was to pair off the finalists randomly and judge them head-to-head, with one finalist from each pair moving forward to the next round to be held in following weeks at Rumrunners. Each of the three events were emceed by radio DJs Bob and Mark from KWHL, who entertained the crowd. Judges for the first round included sponsors and participating people from the crowd. The panel of judges each selected their preferred salmon out of the pairs of finalists. We rotated the judges to get a varied opinion. (Participating in the judging was not easy. There were some amazing recipes out there, and to choose between them was a serious challenge at times. A tasty challenge, but you understand.)
After the first event we had narrowed down the finalists to 16; then in the third round we began with eight contestants, and from there whittled our way to the final four contestants: Chad Mountcastle, Frank Domokos, Wes Canfield and Doug Spellman. The best of the best! Finally, after milking every ounce of drama out of the situation, we announced the big winner...Wes Canfield of Anchorage, Alaska. Wes was exultant. Chad Mountcastle, the gracious runner-up, congratulated him. Many pictures were taken, and the people had their champion.
And Wes makes a good champion. Not only does he have a killer brine recipe, but he's a real Alaskan fisherman. He fishes all over southcentral Alaska and harvests fish for the smoker from the Russian, Kenai and Deshka rivers, Willow Creek and in the salt fishing from Seward, Deep Creek and Homer. He fishes using rod and reel, both fly and conventional, or by dipnetting. Wes will smoke kings, reds or silvers, but his favorite fish to use is kings. (For his winning recipe, check out the sidebar featuring his award-winning method.)
There was some excellent smoked salmon entered in the contest, with a wide range of textures and flavors. Some preferred a more purist method, while others likes to enhance it with sweetness or spice. All of the finalists produced a great final product, having been encouraged to enter by friends and family who have enjoyed their smoked salmon for years. We had some relative newcomers to the hobby as well as longtime veterans.
In the end, we had a good time, ate a bunch of amazing smoked salmon, and made a ton of friends. But for all those wishing for a sequel, don't hold your breath. (That was a lot of work!)
Wes Canfield's Winning Recipe
Here is how Wes makes his smoked salmon, which finishes firm on the outside but soft inside, and not at all dry. The flavor is both sweet and savory. Wes smokes salmon in a homemade wooden smoker constructed with four racks, a tray for coals and a small cast iron pan he places on top of the coals to hold wood chips. He usually uses hickory, cherry or alder chips. While the homemade smoker was a hit for Wes, it should also be noted that two of our four finalists use a Big Chief Smoker from Smokehouse Products.
To make his brine, Wes creates a dry mix with seven cups of brown sugar, two cups of salt, ¼-cup each black and red pepper, and ¼-cup garlic salt. (He admits being prone to some experimentation with his ingredients.) He'll cut salmon into approximately one-inch-wide strips, leaving the skin on. He builds layers in a large tub, covering them in the dry mix, repeating the layers several times, each time sprinkling more dry mix over the top layer. Over the final layer he pours two cups of Yoshida's Gourmet Sauce and then allows that to soak in the refrigerator for 12- to 24 hours. He then puts it in his homemade smoker for a minimum of six- to eight hours at 100- to 110 degrees. Wes says the smoking time can vary due to the temperatures and weather. His wooden smoker is not entirely airtight so he does his best to control the temperature, but he knows when the salmon is ready by touch.
We asked Wes why his smoked salmon was the best and he said, "Because kids love it, old people love it, people that don't even like fish love it. It's just the best salmon you will ever try!"
Melissa Norris is the publisher of Fish Alaska and Hunt Alaska magazines. She gets these crazy ideas for contests every now and again.