How to Make Your Own Smoked Salmon
Many years ago, there was a tradition at Food & Wine magazine, where I worked in the test kitchen. In mid-December, the magzine's art department would clean out the prop room. Things that were no longer useful for the photographers were given away. It was a great and fun Christmas gift for all of us—and one eagerly anticipated. China and linens that had been seen in too many issues, glassware that was not au courant enough, you get the idea. One year, I got something that really changed my cooking forever. There was an indoor hot/cold smoker (the Emson Indoor Pressure Cooker, to be precise) amongst the items cleared out, and even after 30 minutes, no one had taken it. So I did.
As I lugged it home on the train, I began to realize why no one else had claimed it. But I got it home and survived the trip. Now, I had tested other small smokers before. But the thing that set this apart was the “cold smoke” function. I was fascinated. So I began to smoke everything in sight… salt, paprika, cheese. Nothing was safe from me.
Soon, I started getting more adventurous. A chicken breast. A small turkey breast. Flour. Sugar. Cocoa.
But the thing that really amazed me was salmon. Could I really make my own smoked salmon? It didn’t seem possible. And yet…
Now, even without a smoker, you can easily make gravlax, a sorta-kinda second cousin to smoked salmon. It isn’t smoked, it’s cured. But smoking and curing were the two primary ways our forebears preserved food. Curing salmon involves essentially a dry brine with salt, sugar, dill, and a few other flavorings. Smoking is a more involved process.
There are many stovetop smokers that involve wood “dust,” which smokes at a fairly low temperature, in an enclosed pan containing the item to be smoked. That’s hot smoking, and the resulting salmon will be both smoked and cooked.
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But if you’re looking for the taste and texture of cold smoked salmon (which is my smoked salmon of choice), you’ll need a cold smoker like the kind I lugged home on the subway. Or, for a much greater investment, one of the barbeque behemoths that will take up most of your yard and all of your paycheck.
All I need to do is plug this crazy machine in, add some wood chips (I use hickory. I know it’s strong but I love it!), add a piece of salmon (REALLY good salmon...you’re eating it raw after all) add a pinch of salt (and just a pinch because overly-salted smoked salmon is a no-go), set the timer and let it go. I usually start with half an hour and then I check it. If I want it a little firmer and smokier, I repeat. You could eat it right away, but I love letting it rest and chill in the fridge overnight.
I love making things like this from-scratch. And once you start, virtually all foods will find their way into your smoky mad scientist lab. I’ll admit, cocoa was not great, but flour and sugar were!