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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 process.

"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 identified.

"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, 
says Brown.

"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 smoking."

You have to draw a line somewhere, and for Brown, the 
spray salters represented a definitive moment. At MacKnight Smoke House, the salmon is salted in tubs, which results in a pressed cure.

"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."

 

Salty smoke 

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."

 

Challenging waters 

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.

 

Technological treats 

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 customers."

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," 
he says.

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 Rader.

"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 Columbia 

 

 

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