We shove plenty of foods in our face holes without thinking much about them. What’s in a Twinkie? How was the slurry that becomes a McDonald’s chicken nugget actually formed? What the hell combination of black magic and ingredients is needed to make Mountain Dew Code Red? When we decide to consume foods and drinks like these, we know we’re heading into a bit of a mystery; there are ingredients and processes involved that we will never truly understand. So it goes.
There is another class of foods we frequently eat without thinking about, but for very different reasons. These are luxury foods. They are wholesome, good, even healthy foods but, because they’re fancy, we almost never consider their creation. We assume they have to be crafted with a certain level of quality, but beyond that, do we think about how caviar is harvested? How champagne is fermented? How salmon is smoked?
Let me give you an example of how little people think about smoked salmon by providing a little quiz. If all smoked salmon is hot-smoked or cold-smoked, how is lox smoked? Answer: it’s not. Lox isn’t smoked at all — it’s simply cured in a brine that can keep it safe to eat without refrigeration for up to a year. This also means that lox isn’t simply a tasty pairing with cream cheese, you pretty much have to eat it with a good slathering of Philadelphia to not gag on the salt content.
If you didn’t know that lox wasn’t smoked, though, it’s probably not your fault — many delis have replaced their lox with less-salty smoked salmon over the years to keep up with changing tastes. It’s possible that you’ve been going to your local deli and ordering for years what you thought was lox, only to never have bitten into the real stuff.
For both lox and smoked salmon, it’s these preservation methods that bump salmon from the status of Pretty Awesome Fish to Luxury Item. And while the time and effort behind brining and smoking contribute to its image, any diamond-wearing lady can tell you that the real marks of a luxury item are how unnecessary it is and how difficult it is for people to get. Canning and refrigeration have certainly made smoking unnecessary. And cold-smoking salmon — the process by which most of what we know of as smoked salmon is created — requires keeping the salmon in 90-degree wood smoke for several hours. It’s incredibly difficult for the layperson to do, and even if John Doe Smoker could keep his smoke at 90 degrees, cold-smoked salmon is susceptible to bacteria if not handled properly.
But then…then there is the hot-smoked salmon. The texture is more like that of a grilled salmon fillet than the soft, chewy slices of cold-smoked salmon, which might cause the diamond-wearing ladies to poo-poo hot-smoked salmon as an impostor. But hot-smoked salmon is simply different. It’s juicy and smoky. It tastes as if a typical salmon fillet went up to Canada for a while, worked the land, and learned traditional crafts. When the fillet comes back home, his skin is ruddy, his muscles are strong, and his musk has changed. Now he smells like Earth, like trees, like sweat.
Basically, hot-smoked salmon is easy to make, but still unnecessary, making it a different kind of luxury to shove in your facehole…but a luxury all the same.
It can’t replace the texture of cold-smoked salmon, but hot-smoked salmon makes amazing smoked-salmon salads and sandwiches and is beautiful sitting on top of a salad or as the main course of a meal.
1 pound salmon as two skin-on fillets
½ cup kosher salt
¼ cup dark brown sugar
Alder chips (easy to find online)
Brine the salmon
Add four cups of cold water to a bowl and stir in the sugar and salt. Place an uncracked egg in the water to make sure it floats; if it does, you have enough salt. Puncture the flesh of the salmon with a fork several times, then place the salmon face-down in the brine and leave it in the fridge for 4 to 12 hours.
Cure the salmon
After you’ve brined the salmon, remove it from the bowl, rinse it with cold water, and put it on a rack. Put the rack back in the fridge, and allow the salmon to sit for approximately 12 hours, or until the pellicle — a shiny outer coating — forms. It should be tacky to the touch.
Soak the chips
At least two hours before you’re going to smoke your fish, put four handfuls of smoking chips in a bowl of water and let them sit.
You can, of course, smoke your salmon in a smoker, but I used a much more accessible gas grill. Make a little boat for your fish out of heavy duty foil. Place this boat on one side of the grill. Heat a burner on the other side of the grill (keeping the one under the fish off — smoked salmon cooks through indirect heat), and place a tin foil packet — filled with the soaked chips and with a hole at the top — directly over the burner on low. Close the grill.
Make sure the temperature stays between 160 and 200 degrees. The smoking process should take approximately two hours. If you’re fish looks done but you’re not entirely sure, try opening it with a fork — it should flake like you’ve cooked it in a traditional fashion.