How to Cure and Smoke Salmon


I have been blessed with a freezer full of sustainably harvested salmon. Unlike my venison, I’ve had to pay for it, but I couldn’t ask for better quality than the stuff that’s been arriving in our CSS (community supported seafood) subscription through Otolith. Being a Midwesterner, it’s taken me several months to get the hang of cooking fish. Even so, at some point in December, I decided I was ready for a new challenge: home-cured salmon.

Hence began my rapid descent into Mrs. Wheelbarrow and the Yummy Mummy‘s Charcuterie Challenge. It turns out that curing gravlax is just as easy as Mark Bittman says it is, and hot-smoking salmon isn’t much more difficult. It’s not something that you can rush, but if you have access to salt, sugar, a refrigerator, some rice or twigs, aluminum foil, and a wok, you can do this. Really you can. And, so I’ve been promised, if you can cure salmon, you can make charcuterie. We’ll see about that, but so far, so good.

Let’s start with the gravlax. For the recipe, I turned to Amanda Hesser’s new New York Times Cookbook. Her recipe is basically a repackaged version of a column Mark Bittman published in the Times in 1998. You can find many, many more variations online, but basically, it’s three steps:

1) Mix somewhere between a 1:1 and 3:2 ratio of salt and sugar.

2) Spread this all over a filet of salmon. Throw on some herbs or spices or even smoked tea, then wrap this whole thing up in plastic wrap. Transfer it to a container.

3) Place a weight on top of the fish and refrigerate for somewhere between 12 to 30 hours.

AND THAT’S IT. There’s debate online about whether the weight is really necessary; whether you should let the salmon sit at room temperature awhile before refrigerating it; whether you need Aquavit; whether you can really do it with one piece of salmon, or whether it requires two; but in all cases the basic idea is salt + sugar + salmon + time = gravlax.

I took two pieces of salmon, cut them each in half, and made two different versions. I used about 60% salt and 40% sugar (a combo of raw and regular) and skipped the counter time. One batch had cracked peppercorns; the other had lapsang souchong tea, in an attempt to achieve smokiness. Then, I took half of each batch and smoked it. Yes, really. Here’s the result of my 2 X 2 experiment:


From left to right, that’s the peppercorn gravlax, the lapsang souchong gravlax, smoked peppercorn, and smoked lapsang souchong. Technically, the gravlax is considered raw, while the smoked is considered cooked. Personally, I preferred the peppercorn gravlax, but all were very good.

Now, how do you smoke salmon without a fancy smoker? You rig up a wok, of course. Or, if you’re Alton Brown, you rig up a hot plate, a cardboard box, some sawdust, and a fan. Just watch:

You can also do this in a wok (though keep in mind that the heat may damage it beyond repair). Line an old wok with aluminum foil. Throw in some twigs or woodchips or sawdust or brown rice. Make some sort of drip pan from either more foil or a metal sheet, then put your fish on top of a rack. It should sit about an inch on top of the wood chips. Line the inside of the lid with more foil, then cover and seal up the edges. The idea is to keep the smoke inside the wok, not in your kitchen. Turn the heat onto high and watch what happens carefully. When you start to smell smoke, the salmon’s cooking. Let it cook for about 12 minutes, monitoring closely for smoke. (You can place a wet kitchen towel alongside the edge of the wok if smoke starts to escape.) When you think it’s done, turn off the heat and carefully carry the entire package outside. Open it up, and you’ll find an amazing home cooking project. The trick, of course, is to not set off the smoke detectors in the process. (Sorry about the lack of photos. I was so concerned about preventing smoke that it completely slipped my mind until it was too late.)

Would I do this again? Totally. I’ve been told that cured and smoked salmon freezes well, so next time I might even do more, just to save myself the effort later. And, of course, I’m now hooked on preserving meat. Stay tuned for duck prosciutto next week!

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