Schmancy Hot Smoked Salmon
"If you are going to wrestle a bear, try to stay away from all fish oil products, you know. I mean it's tough for me, because I love to rub myself with salmon oil every day - it's a great conditioner for the hair, skin." Will Ferrell
No fish is more grill or smoker friendly than salmon.
Long before Europeans set foot in North America, Native Americans and Native Canadians on the Pacific coast practically subsisted on salmon. The flesh is rich in protein, minerals, and fish oil loaded with beneficial omega 3 fatty acids, unsaturated fats thought to be very healthy.
To preserve their catch in the days before refrigeration they would cut meaty filets from these huge fish, cure them by coating them with salt, attach the filets to alder planks, and jam the planks in the ground around a smoky campfire, gently cooking and smoking them. Sometimes they would simply drape the filets over a pole above a smoldering fire. They even built smokehouses with walls of animal hides.
This recipe modernizes the ancient technique. It creates an elegant, delicate, moist piece of meat with a hint of sweet, salt, and garlic. Unlike the stuff we put on bagels, it is "hot smoked" at about 225°F.
Do not try cold smoking at home
"Cold smoked" salmon, cooked at about 90°F, makes Nova Scotia Lox, the stuff we love on bagels. But it is tricky to do this properly, either commercially and especially at home, and because the fish is cooked at low temps where there is a high risk of pathogenic bacterial growth. In fact, any smoking under 130°F is very high risk. You cannot effectively kill Clostridium botulinum (creates deadly botulism) or Listeria monocytogenes at these cooler temps, and there is even a risk of parasites like tapeworm. To properly cold smoke, you must have precise control of the air temp, the meat temp, and use a carefully measured cure with the proper kind of curing salt, and your fish must be very fresh and carefully inspected by an expert. The fish must be brought up to temp in a specified manner and cooled in a specified manner. One error and someone can die. You can get a sense for how complex this is by reading what the FDA has to say about the subject. I know there are home smoking websites that say cold smoking is easy and fun. Don't believe them. More on the subject here.
Why do we wet brine this?
If you have read much of this site you will note that I prefer dry brining to wet brining in most cases. This is an exception. Fish absorbs brines and sugar better than land animals, and in a liquid, the salt is more evenly distributed in the meat.
Fish oils get into everything
Fish oils permeate anything. They can get into the scale and greasy drippings built up inside your cooker. It is a good idea to give your smoker a thorough washing after smoking fish. Another technique is, after removing the fish, give 'er all she's got Scottie and get the inside rips snorting hot to burn off any of the oil buildup. If you do a lot of fish, it might be worthwhile having a separate smoker just for fish. This is one of the few meats that I think tastes best on an electric smoker since the smoke is less intense. Pellet grills also excel at smoking fish since they, too, produce a delicate flavor.
I serve it as an appetizer at room temp on a platter so people can help themselves and flake it on crackers, crackers, toast points, rye toast, apple slices, or cheese slices. It keeps well at room temp for a few hours because it is well salted.
Make a heady variation of bagels and lox by serving it on bagel chips with cream cheese and chives. It is also wonderful on top of small boiled potatoes, sliced in half, topped with sour cream, and then the salmon. Try it on a toast point with a dollop of horseradish cream sauce or minced hard boiled egg. Another wonderful use is to mix it in with scrambled eggs, omelets, or in risotto. It also makes a fine sandwich. Put it in a bowl and flake it with a fork, add a very tiny splash of sesame oil and some mayo. Go easy on mayo. Makes a fine sammie on rye.
Another option is to put a sweet glaze on the fish. Because it is both sweet and salty, this variation really shines if served straight on crackers or toast. Or use my pastrami rub instead and make salmon pastrami.
Occasionally I have some leftover. Only occasionally. If it is tightly packaged in plastic wrap, it can be refrigerated for up to a week or frozen for a month or so.
Yield. Makes four hunks about 1/2 pound each.
Preparation time. It takes about 20 minutes to make the brine, and up to 3 hours for brining depending on how thick the meat is. Preparing the fish for the smoker takes about 15 minutes.
Cooking time. 60 to 90 minutes.
Drinks. Crisp, high acid, dry white wine is the classic. French Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc based wines such as Chablis or white Burgundies (Chardonnay); or White Bordeaux or Pouilly Fume (both Sauvignon Blanc) are classics. Champagne is also a winner.
2 pounds of fresh salmon fillets of similar thickness, scales removed but leave the skin on, cut into strips about 3" wide
1/2 cup hot water in a 2 cup measuring cup
1/4 pound salt, any type (but you don't need a scale)
1/4 cup white sugar
2 tablespoons of garlic powder (not garlic salt)
2 tablespoons finely ground black pepper
1/2 gallon cold water 1 clean brown paper bag or a few sheets of unused paper
About the salt. As described above, any salt will do.
About the sugar. A good ratio for sugar to salt is 1/2 to 1 part of sugar to 1 part of table salt. Molasses dissolves faster in cold water, but it can color the meat. It is good with some meats, bad with others. Ditto for brown sugar which is colored with molasses. If you are diabetic, you can skip the sugar, although truth be told, very little actually gets into the meat.
About other flavorings. Herbs do not dissolve much in a brine so they do not penetrate, so don't waste your money. I have had luck with apple juice replacing some of the water, but I prefer salmon that tastes like salmon, not apple juice.
About the wood. Alder, apple, peach, or other fruitwood chips or pellets are my favorite woods. Avoid hickory or mesquite; they are too strong. As always too much smoke is worse than too little. On a charcoal grill or smoker or an electric smoker, 4 ounces of wood will probably be enough. On a gas grill, double it.
Beware. Do not leave the fish in brine longer than 3 hours. If the filets are thin, brine for less time. And do not overcook.
Glazing the salmon. Sometimes I like to put a sweet glaze on the fish, especially if it is being served straight. To make a glaze, simply crumble about 2 tablespoons of brown sugar on each chunk. It will melt in the heat. You can use more or less brown sugar on the glaze if you wish, or even try maple syrup. The picture at the top of the page is with brown sugar on the fish.
1) Really fresh fish is important to this recipe. Make sure to smell it before you plunk down your cash. It should smell like the ocean. If is smells fishy or like canned salmon, wait for the next shipment. Once you get it home try to use it within 24 hours. The oils in salmon can rancidify fast. If it starts to smell funky, soak it for at least an hour in milk. Several hours is better. The milk does a pretty impressive job of removing the fishiness.
2) Run your fingers over the flesh of the fish and make sure all the pin bones are gone. If not, drape the fish over the edge of a bowl so the bones stick out, and yank them with tweezers or needlenose pliers. Don't worry if there are a few scales left on the skin. You will be removing the skin. Sometimes the lining of the belly of the fish has a milky membrane on it. With a sharp filleting knife, remove it. It will get leathery when you cook.
3) Make the brine in a large non-reactive pot (stainless, ceramic, porcelain, or glass). You can make it days in advance and keep it chilled if you wish. Add the hot water to a one cup measuring cup. Then pour in salt, any salt, until the water line reaches 3/4 cup. The water will swallow up almost exactly 1/4 pound regardless of whether you use table salt, kosher salt, pickling salt, or sea salt. The volume of these salts may differ, but their water displacement will be the same! Pour the slurry into a very clean non-reactive container large enough to hold the meat and 1/2 gallon of water. Then add the sugar, garlic, and black pepper. Stir until most of the sugar is dissolved. The garlic and pepper will not dissolve much at first. Then add the cold water.
4) Chose your brining container carefully. It needs to be food grade, large enough to hold the meat and the brine with the meat submerged, and it cannot be made of aluminum, copper, or cast iron, all of which can react with the salt. Do not use garbage bags or a garbage can or a bucket from Home Depot. They are not food grade. Do not use a styrofoam cooler. It might give the meat an off flavor and you'll never get the cooler clean when you're done.
Zipper bags work fine. For large cuts get Reynolds Brining Bags, Ziploc XL, and XXL bags. If you brine in a zipper bag, periodically grab the bag and squish things around and flip the meat so the brine can get in from all sides. Place the bag in a roasting pan to catch leaks. You can also use bowls, pots, and Tupperware.
Submerge the fish skin side up in the brine and refrigerate. Make sure the meat part is thoroughly submerged. If you need to, hold it under with a plate with a weight on top. Cover with plastic wrap not aluminum foil. Gently stir the container occasionally to make sure all parts of the fish come into contact with the brine.
5) The length of brining will vary depending on how thick the filets are. Brine 2" thick filets for about 2 hours in the fridge, 1" filets for 1 hour. Drain the fish and discard the brine. Then rinse the fish to remove surface salt, and soak them in clear water for about an hour. This helps get rid of excess salt. Pat dry with paper towels. Some folks like to put the filets in the fridge for an up to 3 hours under the theory that a desirable shiny tacky film or pellicle will form on the surface. It is said to help retain moisture and smoke. I have tried it with and without pellicle and see no quality difference. But a few hours of resting will help the brine to distribute itself evenly through the flesh.
6) Cut pieces of paper bag or plain white paper about the same size as each hunk of fish and place the fish on the paper, skin side down. Don't use foil or parchment paper. We want the fish to stick to the paper to help us remove the skin, and it will not stick to foil or parchment. If you are glazing, sprinkle some brown sugar on top of the fillets or paint them with maple syrup. Place the fish on a rack on your grill or smoker so they are not touching each other. Insert a digital thermometer temperature probe into the thickest part of the thickest fillet.
7) Put the fish into a preheated smoker at about 225°F and place the fillet with the probe in the coolest part of the smoker. Add the wood.
8) As the meat approaches doneness, bubbles of milky liquid will often come to the surface. This is a natural protein liquid from within the muscle fibers and it's fine. It just looks ugly. You can wipe it off or brush it off with a wet brush. Remove the meat when it is at about 140°F internal. No more than 150°F. Total cooking time will be about 60 minutes depending on the actual temperature of your oven and the thickness of the meat.
9) Remove the fillets and let them cool for about 15 minutes, until you can handle them. Then peel off the paper and the skins should come right off with it. While you are looking at the skin side, if there is any dark brown flesh, scrape it off with a serrated steak knife and discard it. It can taste muddy.
10) You can serve the hunks whole, slice them, or flake them. I like to garnish with fresh chives and serve whole and let the guests just dig in with a serving fork.
This page was revised 3/25/2013
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