A couple of weekends ago I crossed a dish off my barbecue bucket list: smoked salmon.
I was first inspired to tackle smoked salmon on a trip to Seattle. I made the best of a Monday morning deposition by flying up to Seattle Sunday morning and spending the day. The salmon looked so beautiful laid out on the ice at the famous Pike Place Market. I almost bought a whole fish then and there to be shipped down to San Francisco. The only thing keeping me from pulling the trigger was a busy schedule that week, which prevented me from giving the salmon the attention it deserved.
Smoked salmon has been on my mind since that trip. I finally got around to researching it this summer. The first thing I learned was that I needed to find alder wood chips. These are the key to a proper West Coast smoked salmon. I found some on amazon.com and bought a couple of bags. As an added bonus, I’ve found that the alder wood is absolutely delicious for vegetables and sweet corn.
The next thing I learned is that at least three different preparation styles may fairly be called “smoked salmon.” For example, the kind of salmon you have for breakfast in Sweden could be called smoked salmon. It’s usually referred to as gravalox. This is essentially a salt-cured preparation style, and it could be cold smoked or not smoked at all.
Some people refer to salmon grilled slowly (i.e., under an hour) as “smoked salmon.” To me, that’s just grilled salmon. I’ve been there, done that.
Somewhere in the middle lies the smoked salmon I wanted. I found many different recipes and techniques online, most from Alaskan fishermen. I quickly discovered that smoking salmon is just as much about the brining process as the smoking process. I settled on a dry brine preparation – mostly because I don’t have room in my refrigerator for a bucket of salt water.
I started on a Wednesday night. First, I bought about eight pounds of farm raised salmon. This was one full fillet and half of a second fillet. Readers in San Francisco may shudder at the thought of buying farm raised fish. However, this was a conscious decision on my part. Wild caught salmon is quite lean, which makes it wonderful for grilling. Farm raised salmon, on the other hand, has the fat necessary for the meat to stand up to a long smoking process.
Next I mixed a very simple dry brine of 1/4 cup salt and 3/4 cups brown sugar. I spread the rub all over the flesh side of the fish and arranged them in my tray to be covered and put into the refrigerator.
Next comes the waiting – the hardest part! By morning, the dry brine had mixed with the fish’s natural juices to create an oozy, liquid-y brine. I flipped and rotated the fish every 12 hours for 48 hours total, until Friday night. That night I drained the liquid from the pan and laid the fish out skin side down. I then let them dry for another 12 hours in the refrigerator.
I was actually a little bit worried at this point. I expected the fish to be tackier. Some of the methods called for the fish to be rinsed after drying in the refrigerator. Others did not. Since my fish didn’t seem overly brined, I decided to only rinse one of the pieces.
Saturday morning I was up nice and early to prepare the Big Green Egg for smoking. I tossed a healthy dose of alder chips on the fire. As you can see below, I used my raised grill to fit all the fish on the BGE.
Remember how I rinsed one of the cuts? Well, I stupidly put the rinsed piece on the bottom, meaning that it received the juicy drips from the top two pieces. It ended up being the best piece of them all! But not because I rinsed it; on the contrary, it was really good because it drowned in the sugary brine and fat throughout the whole smoking process. While I didn’t really get to taste a rinsed preparation, I’ve decided that I won’t rinse in the future.
My goal was to smoke the salmon for 6 to 9 hours at about 195 degrees. Now it is really difficult (for me at least) to keep the BGE going under 200 degrees. I used my Auber Instruments Pit Controller and still had a few problems. After all was said and done I smoked the salmon on the BGE for about 9 hours, most of the time at 190-195 degrees.
Here’s the final product.
OMG. I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t write with terms like OMG, but that is really the best way I can describe this salmon. Mrs. Esquire and I sampled it after it had cooled for a half hour. It was smoky, slightly sugary, slightly salty, very moist, and very delicious. The juices literally pooled in the skin as we nibbled chunk after chunk. We cooled the remaining pieces to serve to our dinner guests.
High marks all around for this smoked salmon. Mrs. Esquire couldn’t stop eating it. Any barbecue recipe that has her fighting me off for leftovers is definitely a keeper in our household. We have a bunch of salmon in the freezer right now.
(A helpful tip for freezing leftovers from some Alaskan fisherman: put the meat in a freezer bag. Fill a sink with water. Lower the bag into the water until it is almost submerged. This will force the air out. It worked great!)
I’m so glad I never let go of my dream to smoke salmon. My first time certainly won’t be my last! As always, thanks for reading!