One of my all-time favorite foods to prepare is a smoked and cured salmon. Every time I pull this from the cure, rinse it, dry it and slice it for that first taste, I just smile, make a slightly audible, “Mmmm” and mutter, “Man, that’s good.” Every. Single. Time.
The recipe and preparation is pretty straightforward. I smoke the salmon first using a stove top smoker, then cure it using a gravlax-styled cure for 3 days. We usually prepare extra and freeze it for consumption at a later date with almost no loss in flavor or texture. This is a great crowd pleaser as an appetizer for any dinner party or served with fresh bagels and cream cheese for a special breakfast especially around the holidays. Believe me, this will blow them away.
Start with a good cut of salmon. We have tried wild and farm-raised, and both work well - with the texture of the wild being slightly firmer. You might as well start with a full “side” (half) of a salmon since it is a long process and the extra freezes well.
Leave the skin on and remove all bones. I cut the half of salmon crosswise in half again (to make two pieces that are almost square) for ease of handling and so it fits in the smoker. Notice the head end of the filet is thicker than the tail end. If everything is done the same, the tail will be smokier and saltier because it is thinner. Always keep this in mind. Rinse and dry the filets with a paper towel.
The cure is simple – mix 2.5 parts Kosher salt to 2 parts light brown sugar. I usually use 2.5 cups Kosher salt with 2 parts light brown sugar. Keep any extra cure to use as a rub for a pork roast or ham. Since this is a gravlax cure, I also use some vodka, about 0.25 parts (or ¼ cup in this case), but DO NOT mix it in with the salt and sugar. Use dill, fresh or dried, but fresh works better, or any herb you prefer. No need to mix it in with the dry cure.
Step One – Smoke the Salmon
I smoke my salmon using a Cameron Stove Stop Smoker with alder wood chips. I plan to experiment with other smokers, and might even make my own, but this is what I use at present.
I use 2-4 tablespoons of wood chips. The key here is to infuse the salmon with smoke flavor, not cook it. Using one filet half at a time, lay it on the rack in the smoker skin side down and partially close the lid. Turn on the stove and watch for smoke. Once you have a good flow of smoke, close the lid completely taking care not to burn yourself. Briefly leave the heat on to build up smoke in the smoker then shut off the heat and let the closed smoker sit for 10 minutes.
When you open the smoker, an orangey-brown pellicle or film should have formed on the filet, giving it a lightly smoked appearance. Repeat with the second filet. The first time you do this, do each filet the same then observe how thickness impacts the flavor. You are now ready for the cure.
Step Two – Cure the Salmon
Lay out and overlap two sheets of cling wrap on the counter. Sprinkle on a little cure and lay the thickest filet on the cure, skin side down. Cover all remaining surfaces of the fish with cure and press it into the fish slightly to try and hold it in place. Sprinkle about half of the vodka on the cure. I use a spray bottle to evenly apply the vodka. Cover with dill.
Apply rub to second filet, not worrying about the skin right now, and spritz with vodka. Flip it over on to the other filet making a sandwich with the dill in the middle. Sprinkle a little rub on the exposed skin and cover any areas where the rub has fallen off. Tightly wrap the salmon, cure and dill sandwich in the plastic wrap then put in a large zip lock bag and close, removing as much air as possible.
Put the wrapped salmon package on a shallow tray (I use a quarter sheet pan) and weigh it down with something - a couple of large cans on tomatoes will work. Refrigerate for three days, taking care to flip the bundle daily.
The ”Mmmmm” Moment
Lots of liquid will be pulled out of the salmon and will be inside the plastic wrap. Do not worry and do not unwrap the fish during the cure. On day three, remove, unwrap, rinse and dry the salmon. If you go longer than three days, the fish may come out a little too salty.
The outer slices will have more intense flavor than the inner slices. Slice the meat, not the skin, thinly, cutting across the grain if possible, then taste. See, see what you did there, eyes rolled back, you muttered something profane, and thought “I may not share this with anyone.”
Photo credit, Jennifer Hudson
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