I’ve written before about cold smoking food and there’s even a full review of the smoker that I use – it’s simplicity itself to use. However, I realise that there can be a tendency to worry or even panic the first time you smoke something like a salmon. Questions like, should I brine or dry cure it? What brine or cure should I use? What strength should it be? How long should I cure it for? So, here’s a breakdown of what I did with the salmon I smoked for Christmas.
I bought a side of salmon, ready filleted, from the local trade wholesaler, Makro. It’s a ‘bog standard’ farmed salmon, nothing fancy, most supermarkets have similar fish on promotion around Christmas. If you can only get a whole fish you’ll need to fillet it. The filleting-fish.com website has excellent instructions and a video tutorial on how to do this. I will say, it’s a lot easier with a good filleting knife. I use a very good and very reasonably priced Victorinox. My salmon fillet weighed 1160gm. I decided to dry cure it rather than put it into a brine; it’s a lot simpler this way.
I started the salmon by covering a plastic food grade tray with salt, placing the salmon skin side down on top of it and covering the salmon with 200gm of salt. You can add all sorts of fancy things, sugar, whisky, beetroot, all sorts of stuff, but I prefer to keep mine simple.
The salt I used was medium sea salt. Ordinary table salt’s fine if you can’t get anything better but try to use one without any additives. Anyway, it shouldn’t be difficult to get some decent salt. Maldon Sea Salt’s fantastic and widely available from most supermarkets.
The salmon was put into the salt for 10 hours. Then I rinsed it and put it to dry on a cake cooling rack in the fridge with a tray below it to catch any drips. It weighed 1080gm at this stage.
14 hours later I put it into the smoker. Why 14 hours? No reason, other than that was how long it was between me putting it into the fridge and getting up the next day!
It smoked from 1 pm on 15th December ’till half past midnight on the 16th. It was getting very cold then, down to freezing, so I brought it in and put it in the fridge overnight.
The next morning, when the weather had warmed up a bit, I smoked it for 11 hours more then put it back in the fridge again.
On the 17th (are you keeping up?) I put it in to smoke at half-past eleven. Unbeknownst to me, the smoker went out. I guess from the amount of sawdust that it had used it had burned for about an hour.
I re-lit it and it smoked for 7 hours more before I returned the salmon, yet again, to the fridge. It weighed 1040gm at this time. Why am I telling you all of this? Well, it illustrates that you can smoke in stages, in fact, many would recommend it. Also, the odd setback like the smoker going out isn’t a problem.
I’ve left it to dry for 3 days in the fridge as it hadn’t lost much weight during curing and smoking. It’s now been vacuum packed ready for Christmas Day.
The target weight loss when smoking dry-cured salmon is around 15% with about half from the curing and half from the smoking. You’ll recall that the salmon started at 1160gms. It now weighs 1001gms, only 13.7% less with some 3.4% of this from the final drying period. It seems to be a common problem for home-smokers. Extra time salting or smoking leads to the salmon being too salty or too smokey. I smoked the salmon for over 30 hours! I purposely don’t let the smoke hang around in the curing chamber so that I can smoke for longer without the salmon being over-smoked. Many people using the same equipment only smoke salmon for about 12 hours; they get even less weight loss. Why worry? Well, weight loss and salting are the only protection that the salmon has. We don’t want to poison people! Why don’t we home smokers get the same losses as the ‘big boys’? I don’t know. I wonder whether it’s something to do with the age of the product we’re smoking? Some commercial boys virtually have the salmon swimming into their factories. Our’s has been gutted, travelled all over the country for days, and then sat on a fish counter. It must have lost a fair amount of weight before we even get our hands on it Or, is it because of the ambient temperature: less than 5°C? Temperatures around 20°C to 25°C would be better; perhaps someone could move Christmas to a more clement time of year!
One thing I do know though – it’s superb, and less than a quarter of the price of shop-bought.