« June 2007 Table of Contents
Processing & Services: Smoking techniques
Smoking seafood is a timeless art, but new technology
By Lauren Kramer
June 01, 2007
The equipment has become more sophisticated over the past
few years, but when it comes to smoking fish, it's the secret
recipe and style of each smoker that individualizes the
"It's like your mother's cookie recipe - every smoker has
their own recipe," says Don Rader,
VP of manufacturing for
specialty at Ocean Beauty Seafoods in Seattle.
Jonathan Brown would agree with that. As president of
MacKnight Smoke House and Hickory House in Miami, Brown
started smoking salmon at the tender age of 16 with Grant's
Smoked Foods in Cumbria, England.
"Up until 1996 we were the largest exporter of smoked salmon
into America," he says.
That year, he moved to the United States, built factories in
Miami and incorporated MacKnight Smoke House, a traditional
smokehouse using authentic Scottish smoking techniques.
"We use the same smokers we used in the 1980s, the AFOS
Smoke Houses AK120," explains Brown. "But we made an adaptation
to those smoke boxes, altering them so we could burn anything
from wood chips right up to full logs."
With sawdust, the material the smoke boxes were designed
for, the authenticity of the product could not be
"You don't know how the sawdust has been treated or what
they've been cleaning the blades with," says Brown. "With logs,
we can identify the authenticity."
Talent vs. technology
There's a fine balance between technology and talent when it
comes to smoking seafood,
"There's an argument that the increased sophistication of
the technology, which enables better control of humidity and
temperature, has detracted from the art of smoking fish," he
says. "Back in the 1980s, we could tell by the weather, by
instinct and experience. Today, having everything computer
generated by robotic smokers that switch themselves off and
cool themselves down has taken away from the passion and art of
You have to draw a line somewhere, and for Brown, the
salters represented a definitive moment. At MacKnight Smoke
House, the salmon is salted in tubs, which results in a pressed
"Today they have automatic spray salters, and we refuse to
conform to that sort of technology," he says. "We've made it a
human, rather than an automated, salting process."
Brown has ownership, under the MacKnight Food Group, of the
only salmon smokehouse in North America that manufactures
smoked salmon from smoked rock salt. The idea for Hickory House
came to Brown four years ago, when he returned to Scotland.
"Twenty years ago, I was watching one of the old whiskey
distillers smoking barley, which they used to flavor the
whiskey," he recalls. "I asked, 'If I was to put salt instead
of barley out there, would the fire smoke the salt?' So we did
a test and discovered that salt takes smoke incredibly well. I
bagged the salt, shipped it back and decided we'd hand cure the
salmon with smoked salt, so that the smoke flavors go in with
the salt when we cure the fish."
Four years ago, Brown invested in a Bolivian salt mine that
produces salt with a pink blush, and has 20 tons of hickory
smoked salt shipped to Miami each month.
"Initially, people laughed and thought I was mad," Brown
confesses. "But last year we manufactured $6 million of smoked
salmon at Hickory House, and it was an incredible success."
The advantage of the Hickory House process is that it
produces a more consistent product to what emerges from the
MacKnight plant, says Brown. By using fresh smoked salt to
cure the fish, the smoking process is eliminated, thereby
saving on yield and square footage.
"Hickory House is 48 percent more efficient per pound of
product per square foot than the MacKnight plant," says Brown,
who is looking worldwide for partners with whom he could open
new Hickory Houses. "We think Hickory House will be the process
of the future because we can maintain the traditions of the
past while coping with the challenges of the smoked salmon
industry of today."
The high price of fish and raw materials are prime among the
challenges facing traditional smoked-seafood producers.
"Trying to produce product and still offer value to the
customer is difficult," says Buzz Billik, director of business
development at Acme Smoked Fish in Brooklyn, N.Y. His company
produces more than 7 million pounds a year of smoked seafood
out of its Brooklyn factory.
While Acme cold and hot smokes close to 20 species of fish,
including black cod, bluefish, whiting, chubs and herring,
smoked salmon constitutes 70 percent of its output, a number
that is set to increase, says Billik.
"A good portion of our throughput is Chilean farm-raised
salmon, and the prices there have increased in excess of 25
percent in the last 18 months," he says. "Not only is it
expensive, but it's difficult to obtain because the demand has
become so fierce. Offering our products at a reasonable and
realistic price point is important, but it's becoming difficult
for us to do."
Brown concurs with Billik.
"The past three years have been very challenging, as the
price of fish and raw materials have gone up, which means the
finished product price has had to go up, so demand has not been
the same," says Brown. "On top of that, we've seen cheaper
Chilean salmon come into the United States, so we're having to
compete with Chileans who have lower labor and raw material
costs than we do."
Brown finds the Hickory House process is the answer to
maintaining efficiency in margins and remaining profitable.
Billik has embraced much of the new technology available to
salmon smokers, particularly the automated equipment used to
smoke, slice and package salmon.
"The stoves are fully computerized, and we can set them for
time, temperature, humidity, moisture and smoke," he says. "Our
slicing equipment enables us to slice salmon and create fully
pre-sliced sides or portion-controlled retail packages. We can
do it in a manner that really resembles hand slicing, so it's a
very sophisticated and professional approach that helps us
satisfy the interests of our most discriminating
Acme's customers include Costco, Whole Foods Market and
supermarkets nationwide, where its products are sold under
three labels: Acme, Blue Hill Bay and Ruby Bay.
Carnitech is one of the companies that manufactures and
sells salmon-smoking equipment worldwide.
"Slicing equipment for cold-smoked salmon has evolved to the
point where it's done intelligently," says Jim Denning, sales
and project manager at Carnitech U.S. in Seattle. "We can
provide equipment that will measure each slice and place it on
the board. For example, if you want a 200 gram pack with four
pieces per pack, we can measure that automatically. That's the
top of the line right now."
Known as the IPS 3000, Carnitech's slicer sells for
$220,000. The company has also had an automated salting
dispenser on the market for the past two years that sells for
$50,000. But the reception for these and other sophisticated
technology products has been much warmer in Europe than in
North America, Denning says. In general, these machines are
becoming more specialized, more user-friendly, easier to use
and more flexible, says Rader of Ocean Beauty, who has used a
soft slicer for the past 14 years. "The new slicers for wild
salmon have different attachments for shingling and handling
the fish, rather than doing it by hand,"
That's important for Ocean Beauty, where wild salmon is
becoming a bigger part of the company's business. It's
challenging because the handling quality of wild salmon is not
as good as farmed, according to Rader.
"There's more variation in wild salmon, which is smaller,
and because it's caught in the wild off a boat, the handling
tends not to be as good at the source as farmed fish, which is
more controlled," he explains.
"If the fish isn't handled well, you have more breaks,
bruises and blemishes in the flesh. When it comes time for
primary slicing, the fish can break more easily and get damaged
in the process, which is where the new attachments on slicers
designed for wild fish come in handy."
But the basic process for smoking fish is time honored, says
"Though we all use new, modern equipment," he says, "the
actual process itself has not changed much over the years."
Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British