I haven't posted here in ages, but I guess it's time to pick it back up again now that I'm doing so much salmon for my hiking group. Many ask me how to make it.
Smoking salmon is one of the easiest things to do in the smoker because it's so forgiving in terms of time and preparation. It does require a smoker, and in my case I use a water smoker, which produces a very wet smoky smoke.
This is also distinct from cold smoking, which produces yummy things like lox and gravlax. These all appear to be raw, but are in fact cooked - I love them. But hot smoking is different and nobody imagines the fish is uncooked.
When selecting salmon, I prefer steelhead filets with the skin on. I get mine from Costco — and I have found no difference between the $8/lb from Costco and $25/lb from Whole foods. There are other type of salmon available, but I'll save that for another post; you may try other fish eventually, but always start with steelhead.
- Well in advance, soak your wood chips in water. I use a cut-up milk carton as shown in the image to the right. It's free and easy. Best choice is pecan, followed by oak. I get my chips at BBQ Galore, which is not that far driving time from me, but there are plenty of online resources. Time isn't hugely critical, and though a few hours is best, in practice you can do this as your first step while you prepare the other things.
- Take the salmon from the fridge so it can start getting to room temperature; I just put the packages out on the counter. It won't sit out long enough to cause any food-safety problems.
- Fill the water pan and turn on the heat on your smoker. Mine is propane — easy! — but others use charcoal or electric.
- Once it's gotten mostly up to working temperature, maybe 220°F or so, add your water-soaked wood chips. I suppose there's no harm in adding the chips when you turn on the heat, but for whatever reason I wait until the smoker is up to heat.
- While the smoker is getting up to heat, prepare your fish. Always wash each filet well, and check for bones. Most purveyors take care of this for you, but there's often the odd pinbone behind that you really don't want your friends to enjoy. I use Kotobuki Japanese Fish Bone Tweezers, which are available on Amazon for next to nothing, but a pair of clean needlenosed pliers will work too.
If you like, sprinkle the fish with coarse koshering salt. I used to do this regularly but of late have not been: I figure that if I have to watch my sodium, everybody else has to suffer too :-) But since it's usually eaten with Triscuits and cream cheese, the crackers provide plenty of salt. Nobody was able to tell the difference when I stopped salting the fish. Note: this is just a light sprinkle, it's not brining.
- Once the chips have had a chance to start smoking — maybe 20 minutes — put the fish in, skin side down. I typically do 6 filets at a time, two per grate, because I figure it's no more work to do 6 than to do 1, and I have no trouble getting rid of the final product.
Start your timer; aim for around an hour and fifteen minutes, keeping the temperature between 200°F and 240°F or so. If the temperature remains on the lower end of the scale, or if your filets are larger, then maybe add 10 minutes, but the process is exceptionally forgiving.
Protip: — if the temperature gets too hot, then your wood chips can actually ignite into open flame, and this runs the temperature way up, so even if you initially prime the smoker at 250-260°F, don't keep it that high during actual cooking.
- When time is up, turn off the heat and remove the salmon from the smoker. You'll probably see salmon oils on the surface, they're yellow and yummy and really contribute to delicious fish. In the past I used to wipe it off, but wow was that dumb. Omega 3 for the win!
- For storage in the fridge, I've found that the 2.25L Ziploc containers can't be beat, and you can get them at any grocery store. They're just the right size to fit in the refrigerator, though you'll have to cut off part of the small end of the fish to make them fit. I can store two filets per container (along with the cut-off tails). Most of my friends know exactly what this container means.
Salmon is typically served with Triscuits and cream cheese, some add capers (excellent!), and they're a guaranteed hit at parties. I prefer whipped Philadelphia cream cheese, because it's lighter and much easier to spread.
Experienced salmon eaters know to replace the cream cheese with other fat/oil-based condiments, such as avocado/guacamole, hummus, or brie cheese. Yum.