Build a cold smoker
so you can make delicious squaw candy
By Jane Duquette
Issue #148 • July/August, 2014
For delicious squaw candy, start with the freshest fish.
One fresh July evening at our summer cabin in Soldotna, Alaska, my husband, Tom, and I sat with friends around a campfire. We talked about salmon, wondered why the main run reds were late this year, and swapped fish tales. Someone began to pass around a clear plastic package of squaw candy — sticks of salmon jerky. As I was a relatively new resident of Alaska, this was a novelty to me. I took one of the amber sticks, sniffed it, and cautiously took a bite. It was smoky, salty, savory, and, well, indescribable.
“Wow! Who brought this?” I asked, taking a larger bite.
Our Alaskan friend Glenn Kooly grinned, “I did. I just finished them this afternoon. What do you think?”
“This is … wonderful!” I said.
“How did you make it?” Tom asked.
Glenn leaned back in his chair. “Well, I don’t generally share my special recipe with just anybody. It’s been sort of a family secret for centuries.” Glenn’s father is Norwegian; his mother native Alaskan Inuit.
“Aw, come on!” Tom persisted. My husband fancies himself a gourmet cook, and in fact is able to prepare any kind of fish better than anyone I know.
“Oh please, do tell him?” I begged, taking another bite.
“Well, you have to have a cold smoker,” Glenn said.
“I have a smoker,” Tom replied, pointing to an ugly black, round metal can a few feet away.
“Oh, no, that won’t work, man! You don’t want to cook it. You want to smoke it. You need a cold smoker. It takes days to make. Quite a process.” Glenn grinned.
I knew Tom would take the bait. He said matter-of-factly, “Well, I will get a cold smoker then.” Talking with his mouth full he asked, “Where did you buy yours?”
“Hmmph! Can’t buy one. Have to make it.” Glenn paused and looked intently at Tom. “You come by the house tomorrow and I’ll show you mine. If you actually go to the trouble to build one, then I’ll give you my recipe.”
The next day we stood in Glenn’s backyard craning our necks to appreciate an authentic Alaskan Inuit native-built cold smoker. It was a sight — a twelve-foot-tall wooden contraption that looked like an outhouse for Paul Bunyan.
Smoke was slowly curling from the top. The smell was heavenly. Tom walked around it, inspecting it from every angle.
“Now, see, you have to have little vents down here at the bottom and up at the top,” Glenn explained, opening the door. “Look!” he said, stepping back and inviting us to peek inside. There, hanging from horizontal poles about 10 feet in the air, were probably more than a hundred pieces of the delectable red jerky in strips about 18 inches long.
We took the smokehouse’s measurements that very afternoon, and I went to work drawing out a detailed building plan. The next morning, we went to the big box store in Kenai, bought stick lumber and plywood, and began building in earnest.
A couple of days later, we were finished and it looked smashing. We sided ours with cedar planks left over from our cabin and topped it with a little green metal roof. I was so proud!
Glenn came by to check our project, and because he was duly impressed, he shared his “secret” Inuit/Norwegian method with us. And I’ll share it with you. But first you have to build a smoker.
Glenn Kooly and his smoker
Building the cold smoker
- 2×6 lumber for framing the base
- 2×4 lumber for framing the sides, door, and rafters. If you cannot buy twelve-foot-long 2x4s, stagger the joints at the corners.
- 7 sheets of ½-inch thick plywood for the sheathing and the roof
- Nail gun (not necessary, but it helps the process go quickly)
- Door hinges and latch
- Screening to cover small vents on the lower sides, the gable ends, and a large screen at the top
Construct a flat, 4-foot-square foundation from 2×6 lumber, bracing the corners. Frame each 4×12-foot side flat on the ground. Raise the side framing into place and nail the sections together at the corners.
Sheathe the smoke house with plywood and then with planking if you wish. On the front, frame a doorway, 2 feet wide by 6 feet tall, and cover it with plywood as well. Cut two small vents in the side walls about 6 inches from the ground and cover the vents with screening. This is necessary for proper ventilation. Tack screening over the top of the house before you install the rafters and the roof to protect from bees or other insects. Build three little rafters out of 2x4s and sheathe them with plywood and shingles or metal roofing. Vent the gable ends of the rafters too.
Smoking the fish
The fish should be red salmon (also known as sockeye) and wild Alaskan is surely the best. If you can buy it very fresh, fine. Do not use frozen salmon or salmon that is more than one day out of the river. If you are able to catch it yourself, be certain to bleed the fish as soon as it is caught. Some people use silver salmon for squaw candy, but we think red is the best.
After filleting the fish carefully, cut strips lengthwise from the shoulder to the tail, about ½ inch wide, and leave on the skin. On most Kenai red salmon, your strips will be about 18 inches long.
Cut butcher’s twine into 18-inch pieces, and tie the ends together to make a circle. Then attach the tail end of each salmon strip to the twine with a slip knot.
Be sure to tie the tail end of the fillet. This is very important. If you hang the fillets by the shoulder end, the flesh may very likely fall off while smoking.
Fill a five-gallon bucket with water, then add kosher or canning salt. The amount of salt in the brine is critical, so to ensure that you add just the right amount, gently place a fresh, raw egg in the bucket of water first. It should sink to the bottom of the bucket. Begin gradually adding the salt, stirring it gently to dissolve it. As soon as the egg floats, stop adding salt.
Remove the egg and dissolve 1½ cups of brown sugar in the salt brine. The marinade is now ready for the fish. Leave the strings attached to the fish while the strips are soaking in the marinade, so they will be ready to hang immediately after brining.
Timing the marinating process:
Timing is critical. Allow the fish to marinate exactly 50 minutes. After 50 minutes, drain off the marinade and hang the fish over poles, one strip on either side. Allow strips to drip dry about 30 minutes.
The right smoke:
Soak about a pound of alder wood chips in a bucket of water overnight. Soaking the chips allows them to smoke, but not burn. While the fish strips are draining on the poles, place the alder wood chips on the cold burner element of your hot can smoker, cover the can, and turn it on.
Do not open the can smoker unless it stops smoking prematurely for some reason. If you do open the can smoker, the chips may flame up with the introduction of oxygen and you don’t want a flame, just smoke.
Drape the fish over poles suspended high in the cold smoker and leave them undisturbed for five days. Every morning fill the hot smoker with new wet chips and smoke fish for about three hours. When the strips are ready, they will begin to curl slightly, and the flesh will become a translucent, amber-red. The texture of the fish will feel like beef jerky.
Packaging and preserving options:
You may package your squaw candy in vacuum-sealed food storage bags for freezing or you may pressure can them. If you choose to can them, they taste wonderful spiced with jalapeño peppers or a little added brown sugar.
[Consult your canning manual for directions on canning fish. — Editors]
Making squaw candy is a lot of work, but is so worth the effort. Wild Alaskan red salmon is a great source of Omega-3 fatty acids, and is good for heart health, as well as being delicious, pretty, and wonderful to share with friends around a campfire on a fresh July evening.