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Home-smoked salmon is delicious with scrambled eggs on sourdough and garnished with fresh dill.

One of my favourite treats is smoked salmon, always a winner at parties and get-togethers and other special occasions, as is gravadlax (lox).

Smoked salmon and gravadlax both involve curing a whole salmon fillet, after which it may be thinly sliced and eaten or – as in the case of smoked salmon – hot or cold smoked over wood. Smoked salmon is relatively expensive from a supermarket being as much as £5.99 or more for 100 grams, and is therefore considered a delicacy so preparing it at home with a little know-how is usually great value for money.

An interesting fact about smoked salmon: the technique of smoking salmon was brought to the UK by Jewish immigrants from Russia and Poland who settled in the East End of London in the late-19th century. Here they smoked salmon in order to preserve it as methods of refrigeration were rather primative.

Cold smoked salmon is cured salmon that is then smoked at very low temperatures for at least 12 hours which allows it to develop a silky-smooth texture with a fresh taste and bright colour similar to that of raw salmon, whereas the higher temperature of hot-smoked salmon will give the fish a flaky texture and smokier flavour. Both types are delicious served in salads, quiches or on party canapés and are also tasty ingredients in mousses, terrines and patés.

I first tried curing and smoking my own nitrite- and nitrate-free salmon earlier last summer during the first Lockdown and bought an 800 g fillet of sashimi-grade salmon from Fruits de Mer fishmongers in Broadstairs which turned out to be a great success, so later in October I bought a 1 kg side of salmon for around £16, which yielded a generous quantity of 100-150 g packets with a total retail value of around £50 had I purchased them from the supermarket.

I researched smoking and curing methods on the internet and was surprised at the wide variations in techniques and ingredients, which might appear quite confusing to a novice as, for example, some recipes call for a large quantity of salt and a shorter curing time while others are much less salty, and the choice of salt and sugar varies too between recipes. I also referred to the ethical River Cottage Handbook No. 13 Curing and Smoking by Steven Lamb and in the end devised my own method drawing on a combination of the recipe for gravadlax (with a small amount of curing salt and a few variations) and curing times and smoking techniques gleaned from what I considered to be the best sources on the internet.

I used Cornish PDV salt and organic juniper berries from Beech Tree (beech-tree.co.uk), together with soft brown sugar and some dill – we do not use any chemicals on the produce we grow. The salt and sugar in the cure prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and, along with the other ingredients, as a seasoning for the salmon.

Ingredients for a dry cure

Once the dry rub has been applied it may be left to cure in the refrigerator between 12 hours (which will provide a milder flavour) and 48 hours, but I went for 36 hours to provide a fuller flavour that isn’t too salty. As the salmon cures in the refrigerator, massage the curing mixture into every area of the fish after 24 hours and flip it over so that no areas are missed. Generally, unless you are using a very large side of salmon, I personally do not think it is wise to leave the salmon curing for longer than 36 hours as it will become too salty. After the curing time, remove the cure under cold running water and then leave it to soak in a large bowl of cold water to cover by 3 inches for 30 minutes and then drain well in a colander.  pat the salmon dry with kitchen paper and place it skin side down on a wire rack over a food standard tray (which should have the symbol of a knife and fork on the base) or a board or baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper and refrigerate it uncovered for at least 4 hours or preferably overnight to allow the pellicle to form so it is ready to smoke. The pellicle is the surface of the salmon that is most exposed during the curing process and will become slightly ‘tacky’. It develops a smokier flavour and drier, firmer texture than the flesh underneath and is very nutritious, being rich in protein and Omega 3.

If you are cold smoking your salmon, it needs to be done at an ambient temperature not exceeding 150°F (66°C) – as low as 80°F (27°C) is fine. Assuming you are smoking your salmon outdoors you may use a normal smoker (with no fire in the firebox) with a 12 inch tube filled with wood pellets, but you don’t need a professional smoking kit or anything fancy. You can use a kettle barbecue or even a fire pit with a lid and a small foil package of wood chips, or even just a stove-top smoker or a baking tray with a rack and foil and some wood chips if the weather is not on your side and you need to do the smoking indoors. Oak, maple or beech wood chips are good, we have also tried apple wood chips for a more delicate flavour. If you are using a baking tray, make sure it is one you don’t mind getting marked by the flame of a gas hob. In all cases, make sure that you soak your wood chips for an hour before use, wrap them securely in heavy-duty tin foil pierced at intervals before lighting to allow the smoke to escape and place them to one side in the base of your smoker, place the salmon on a wire rack and position it over the smoker, ensuring that the salmon is not sitting directly over the parcel of wood chips and cover with a lid or with foil. Check the temperature of the smoker regularly to ensure that it does not rise above 66°C and if it does, remove the lid to allow it to bring it back down to temperature. This process will take at least up to 24 hours depending on which cold-smoking method you choose, outside/indoor temperatures and the weight and thickness of your fish. The salmon should have an internal temperature of 120°F (49°C) when a temperature probe is inserted into the thickest part of the flesh.

Place the wood chips to one side of the salmon.

Cold smoked salmon should last 3-4 days in the refrigerator but if you cannot eat a while side of salmon within this time frame, separate the fish into smaller portions and vacuum seal or alternatively wrap the portions in cling film and put into ziplock freezer bags. This should extend the life of your smoked salmon to 3-4 weeks in the refrigerator or 3-4 months in the freezer, but it will keep almost indefinitely in a deep freezer.

If you are hot smoking your salmon, it can be done perfectly well in your kitchen with a baking tray with a rack and wood chips. Line the tray with foil and cover the bottom with wood chips. Place the salmon skin side down on to a wire rack and position over the baking tray and either put the lid on (if there is one) or cover with foil, ensuring that the foil doesn’t touch the fish. Put the tray over a medium heat to allow the wood chips to smoke; you will see smoke come out of the edges of the foil or lid. The temperature in the smoker should reach a maximum of 225ºF (107ºC) and the fish should reach an internal finished temperature of no greater than 140ºF (60ºC) to avoid the salmon from drying out. If the temperature in the smoker begins to exceed 225ºF, you may lift the lid to bring it back down again. Remove the tray from the heat and stand, covered, for 20 minutes. Test the internal temperature of the fish by inserting a clean temperature probe and if you are satisfied, lift the salmon from the rack. The flesh of the salmon should be an opaque pink and a skewer should be easy to insert but if the fillet needs extra cooking, give it a few minutes in a hot oven. To enjoy the salmon at its best, either serve and eat it right away or leave it to cool and store in a refrigerator until the next day before either using it in hot or cold recipes or wrapping it in foil and heating in the oven until warmed through.

Hot smoked salmon can be refrigerated for two-to-three weeks or one week after opening, and can be frozen for up to three months. Store the salmon in the original packaging or wrap it tightly in cling film to prevent it from drying out and to maintain its quality and succulence.

Ingredients:

  • 1kg side of salmon
  • 100g light soft brown sugar
  • 75g PDV salt
  • 15g black peppercorns, coarsely ground
  • Bunch fresh dill, course stalks removed, finely chopped
  • 10g juniper berries, crushed.

Method:

1. Rinse salmon fillet under cold running water and pat dry with kitchen paper. Place skin side down on a clean board and your fingers along the flesh side of the salmon, checking for the sharp ends of any pin bones, and pull out any you find with sterilized tweezers or needle nose pliers.

Place the salmon side on a clean board, skin side down.

2. Prepare the cure, combining all the ingredients in a bowl.

3. Spread half the cure over the bottom of a baking dish or over the inside of an extra-large ziplock bag and lay the fillet on top of the cure. If possible the cure should extend about half an inch beyond the edges of the fish on each side. Then spread the rest of the cure on top of the fish, and massage it into the flesh to distribute it completely.

Rub the salmon all over, both flesh side and skin side, with the dry cure

4. If you are using a baking dish, cover with cling film; if you are using a ziplock bag seal it and place it on a food standard tray and if you like, weight it down with something heavy. Refrigerate for 24-48 hours.

5. After 12 hours of refrigeration, massage the cure into the fish, flip the fillet over and massage the other side. Return to the refrigerator. Do this every 12 hours.

6. At the end of your chosen curing time, carefully rinse the cure off the salmon under cold running water. Then place the salmon in a deep dish or large bowl with cold water to cover by about 3 inches and soak it for 30 minutes. Drain through a colander. This process will also help to remove some of the salinity in the fish.

7. Blot both sides of the salmon fillet with kitchen paper and place it skin side down on a wire rack over a baking tray and allow the fish to dry, uncovered, in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or overnight to allow the pellicle to form – the flesh will feel slightly tacky.

8. Smoke the salmon according to your preferred hot or cold method (as described in the narrative above this recipe).

9. When the salmon has cooled completely, transfer it to the refrigerator and chill completely before slicing or flaking (if hot-smoked) or slicing very thinly and serving with your favourite accompaniments such as cream cheese, rye bread or bagels, lemon wedges, capers, thinly sliced pink or red onions (perhaps dressed with a little white wine and tarragon vinegar) or mixed salad garnish.

Bon appetit!

COOK’S NOTES:

When slicing cold-smoked salmon use a very sharp knife preferably with plenty of length and breadth, these slicing knives are expensive but high quality and well worth the hefty price tag – Lakeland Limited sell a good one for around £63. Keep the salmon in the refrigerator until you need to slice it. If you are right-handed place the salmon in front of you so that the thinner tail end is on your right-hand side. Position the knife about a quarter of the way up the salmon (tail end) holding it almost horizontal but so that the leading edge barely cuts into the fish. Move the knife backwards and forwards along the full length of the knife as you gradually move towards the tail and slightly downwards, which should give you a slice shaped like a long D. Continue slicing towards the tail as you gradually move up the fish. The knife blade should be visible through the salmon. When you reach the skin, cut along it to remove all the salmon. Once you get to the other end of the fish, turn it and cut the other way to remove the last few slices. Don’t worry if you don’t get it right straight away, practice makes perfect, and Dan and I are not quite there yet either!