I love to cook, and love to entertain. There's something about sharing a meal with friends, or even strangers, that is just so visceral. Nothing brings people together like a great dinner party and to me nothing is more communal to serve than a platter of smoked foods. It's basic, comforting, and provides a real sense of abundance. So today I'm going to show you how to prepare a smoked salmon two ways. One for the delicate palate and another for the person who's looking for something boldly sweet and spicy.
During the summer I always cook a few things in the smoker as a good reason to have an outdoor party or two. Nothing brings forth all the natural flavors of a meat like a good slow smoker — the taste is a gift for those who took the time to plan and prepare properly. I appreciate the process of it all, and always use homemade rubs and cures to make it more personal.
My wife has more of a delicate palate than I do, and for our dinners, I'm known to add an extra dash of red pepper or spice to my plate. Luckily, I can usually adapt the smoked meats I prepare to suit both our preferences in a similar manner. If you're able to get a hold of a whole salmon, simply use one fillet for the mild and the other for the "¡Ay, caramba!" You can also do this with just a single fillet, and apply the rub to only half the salmon.
Smoking salmon does require some forethought, as you'll need to allow time for the fish to cure and then dry properly. I find it works well to get a fresh fish on Saturday, allow it to cure overnight, and then smoke it Sunday morning for a relaxing afternoon lunch.
Adapted from Food Network's Alton Brown
What You Need
For the salmon cure:
2 salmon fillets, skin on and pin bones removed
1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cups brown sugar
1/3 cups kosher salt
2 tablespoons crushed black peppercorns
For the rub:
1 1/2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoons coriander
1 tablespoons paprika
1 1/2 teaspoons black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
3/4 teaspoons kosher salt
2 baking sheets
Napkins or paper towels
1. Prepare Salmon for Curing: The curing process removes water from the fish, and instead replaces it with the salt and sugar mixture. This adds flavor and also serves to preserve the fish and prevent spoilage.
Get out a baking sheet large enough to hold your salmon fillets. Lay a thin sheet of foil on the baking sheet, and then lay a thin sheet of plastic wrap on top of the foil. Sprinkle a third of the cure onto the plastic wrap, roughly the length of your fillet. Lay the fillet skin-side-down onto the cure and then sprinkle another third of the cure onto the flesh. Stack the second fillet skin-side-down onto the coated flesh of the first fillet. Sprinkle the last third of the cure on top of this fillet and then cover with another sheet of plastic wrap and more foil.
Wrap the plastic wrap and foil tightly around the fish. This will contain any oils or juices that may escape from the curing process. Set another baking sheet on top of the foil-wrapped fish and weigh it down with something heavy, like a few cookbooks or canned goods.
2. Cure the Salmon: Refrigerate the salmon for 8-10 hours to cure. If your fillet is particulary thin (less than an inch) go for 8 hours; if it's thicker you can go up to 10 hours. Try not to cure for more than 12 hours, especially if your taste buds are sensitive to salt. It helps to set a timer to go off after 8 hours.
3. Rinse the Salmon: When the salmon has cured, remove the fish from the fridge and unwrap the foil. You should be greeted to a bright, juicy red piece of fish. Thoroughly rinse off the fish under cold water, making sure to wash off any of the cure that hasn't absorbed into the fish.
4. Rub the Salmon with Dry Rub: Pat both fillets dry with napkins or paper towels. Mix together the dry rub ingredients until well combined. Pat the rub onto one of the fillets to form a thin layer. Dust off any excess. Repeat with second fillet, or leave the second fillet un-seasoned to give dinner guests an option.
5. Dry the Salmon: Allow the fillets to dry at room temperature for one to three hours to form the pellicle. This is a thin, dry, matte-like film on the surface of the fish that helps the smoke better adhere to the meat. It's hard to tell when this is done when the fish is covered with the dry rub, so just use the un-seasoned fish to judge when this process is complete or leave a small portion of one of the fillets clear of dry rub.
6. Prepare the Smoker: Prepare your smoker as the fish finishes drying. You want your smoker to maintain a temperature of 150-160°F. This low temperature can be difficult to achieve with some smokers, so make sure you dial back the fuel a bit by adding less charcoal and hardwood than you typically would for higher temperature smoking. For fish, I prefer to use apple wood to pair nicely with the cures and rubs we've already added.
7. Smoke the Salmon: Lay the salmon fillets side-by-side in your smoker, skin side down. Depending on how many pounds of fish you're cooking and the thickness of the fish, the smoking process can take anywhere from 1-3 hours. Cooking is complete when the salmon registers 140°F at its thickest point.
8. Rest the Salmon: Once the fish reaches 140°F, take it off the smoker and put it on a baking sheet. Tent with foil and allow the fish to rest for 20-30 minutes. This will allow the finish to warm up another 5 degrees and let the muscles relax and juices to redistribute.
9. Enjoy the Salmon: Finally, remove the tented foil and serve your flaky and juicy creation. The un-seasoned salmon is deliciously mild and delicate, with a clean fresh salmon taste you can only get through smoking. The spice rub has a kick of pepper that's toned down with the sweetness of the brown sugar, and finishes nicely with that herbal note of coriander. Enjoy the fish with a glass of rose wine or a cold wit beer. Have friends over to enjoy with you, or have it all to yourself — with leftovers to enjoy throughout the week.
• My Smoker: In case you're curious my smoker is a Weber Smokey Mountain. It's made well, holds enough meat for a party, and is versatile enough to smoke salmon and brisket.