You can't have appetizing without whitefish, and for most of us that means creamy, smoky whitefish salad.
Imagine if tuna salad had a silky texture and a delicately smoky and oily flavor. That's whitefish salad. And one of the standard-bearers of the form, certainly the largest producer in New York City, lies just off the Bedford Avenue stop in Williamsburg. Acme Smoked Fish makes over 5,000 pounds of whitefish salad every day. Wolphram Alpha tells me that's the equivalent of 1.3 small cars of 40% of an elephant. Of fish-mayo salad. Every. Day.
Acme sells their salad retail but also supplies it to countless restaurants and shops around the city. That makes it, in our eyes, the People's Whitefish, and the People deserve to know how their salad gets made. Here's how Acme does it.
Step One: Choose Your Fish Wisely
Acme uses wild-caught whitefish from the Great Lakes. How do you know a good fish when you see one? Squeeze it, smell it, and look it in the eye. Clear eyes, a fresh and clean aroma, and firm flesh are all signs of freshness in a fish.
Acme adds some whiting to their salad to help with texture. Whiting is drier (less oily) than whitefish, which helps it absorb extra moisture for a salad that's more of a spread than a dip.
Step Two: Cleaning
Step two is pretty straightforward: descale and gut the fish. There isn't much of a science to it, but there's value in efficiency. Acme's skilled workers work through the fish lightning fast.
Step Three: The Brine
Once cleaned, the fish sit in tanks of refrigerated brine for a couple days. Brining does three things: season the fish, help them retain moisture, and firm up the texture of their flesh.
The brine itself is just salt and water, but the proportions are crucial. Too little and you risk bacterial growth. Too much and your fish will taste like salt. Acme controls the strength of their brine by starting with a fully-saturated salt water solution, then diluting it to achieve a minimum water-phase salt that reaches at least 2.5%. What is "water-phase salt," you ask? That's the amount of salt compared to the amount of moisture (water) in the flesh (as opposed to on the surface), as calculated by this handy equation.
See how the meniscus of the solution is at 100? That means that the salt solution is fully saturated. There you go, your smoked fish brining science.
Step Four: Hang 'Em
Once they're good and brined, the fish get hung on racks to be wheeled off to the smoker. Hanging lets the fish dry out a bit and ensures that the warm air and smoke can properly circulate around them.
Step 5: Dry, Then Smoke
Before the fish are smoked, they get dried at a low temperature (100°F). Drying improves the texture of fish by reducing their moisture content, which also controls spoilage. What's more, smoke particles adhere better to dry skin than wet, forming a nice pellicle on the surface of the fish, so drying first leads to more efficient smoking.
The fish dry anywhere from two to four hours, depending on size and moisture content.
Acme's smokers use a blend of maple, beech, birch wood chips from New York State hardwood. The entire smoking process generally takes six to eight hours. Fish is a very delicate meat, and raising the temperature too quickly can cause the flesh to fall apart or bubble up from the inside.
The fish must reach an internal temperature of 145°F for 30 minutes to meet safety regulations, but Shadir—Acme's smoker/fish whisperer—goes by appearance and feel to know when the fish ready. He looks for a golden color and firm texture, but not bone-dry skin. Dry skin is a sign of an overcooked fish.
The smoke gives the fish an intense golden color. The racks upon racks of finished fish hung like so many (curiously fish-shaped) bars of gold in this strangely beautiful treasure cave.
Step Six: Getting Rid of the Skin and Bones
A fancy machine does the hard work of removing the skin and bones in a matter of seconds. It forces the fish against a cylinder perforated with small holes. The fish's flesh, which is quite tender, squeezes through the holes, leaving the chunkier bones and skin behind.
In other words: whole fish goes in one end, clumps of boneless fish come out the other. (And the rest comes out an other-other end.)
Step 7: When Fish Becomes Salad
Let's take a moment to disassociate the word "salad" with "healthy." Whitefish salad has two (and only two) main ingredients: smoked fish and mayonnaise.
Needless to say, Acme goes through a LOT of mayonnaise. This is really the easy part, since the flavor of the final product chiefly depends on the quality of the fish and the smoking technique, but the proportion of mayo to fish also matters. Acme's whitefish salad is decidedly on the easy-spreading end of the spectrum, while other salad-makers opt for a coarser, less mayo-y blend.
A large paddle mixer blends the mayo into the fish to make the "salad," which is then piped into containers for packing and shipping.
And that's it. If you buy pre-smoked fish it's pretty easy to make your own salad, or you can buy Acme's product at lots of stores. Acme also sells fresh product directly to the consumer at their Williamsburg location every Friday.