The Best Salmon, the Best Way

As we prepare for our upcoming family trip to Alaska, I find myself thinking a lot about salmon. The beautiful filets of sockeye and king from the Copper and other pristine rivers I’m finding at the fishmarkets these days have my mind already north. I once saw a river in Sitka so choked with spawning salmon swimming upstream that it seemed as if you could’ve walked across their backs and never touched water. Another river near Juneau was littered with the skinless carcasses of salmon — in bumper years, the bears peel off and eat the skin, and discard the rest.

Spawning sockeye in Juneau.

Spawning sockeye in Juneau.

I’ve oft commented on this blog about how people tend to overcook salmon. And while it is still a delicious fish when cooked all the way through, it is so much better when left medium-rare to rare. Or, as I personally prefer, raw.

For those who are squeamish about eating raw salmon, there is its more palatable cousin — smoked salmon, or lox. I remember the first time I had lox as a kid at a Jewish pal’s house. It was a revelation, and I’ve never looked back.

Short of having an expensive cold smoker to do the job properly myself, I’ve figured out miscellaneous means of recreating lox-style smoked salmon myself — with varying degrees of success. And finally one day, it all came together. I had a beautiful cut of sashimi-grade Norwegian salmon from the Japanese market, which I had sliced thinly, spread on a plate and was in the process of vodka curing as I often do, when I had a thought. I wondered if I could heat a few coals in my smoker, sprinkle some soaked wood chips on top of, and give the salmon a quick smoking right on the plate with very little heat?

The most basic smoker, for those of you who do not have one or have not seen one, is much like a simply very tall charcoal grill. There is considerably more space between the heat and the grates where the food goes — often with a bowl of water in between to create moisture. You can control how long you are smoking something — a couple hours for a rack of ribs to half a day or more for a brisket or pork shoulder — by controlling the flame and temperature. I’ve made Pacific Northwest-style hot smoked salmon (the cooked kind) using low heat. Now, I would be trying to make lox-style salmon using no heat.

Because the fish is already thinly sliced in this instance, you only need 20 or 30 minutes in the smoker to get a great smoky flavor. I built a small paper and wood fire in the bottom pan, and added three charcoal. After the fire burned out, the coals continued burning until they were coated in white and red hot. Of course, there were only three of them and they were a long way from the grill grates. If you put your hand over the grill, you felt no heat at all.

I sprinkled a handful of woodchips soaked in water onto the chips, and they immediately began smoking. I then placed the plate of salmon on the grill, covered it, and let it smoke for about 20 minutes. When I lifted the lid, a puff of smoke wafted out and the plate was still cool.

If you don’t have a smoker, you could do the same on a basic charcoal grill, just keeping the plate of salmon as far as you can from the heat source. On a gas grill, you could put the wood chips on a piece of foil with the corners turned up and place directly over the flame. As soon as the chips began to burn and smoke, you would turn off the heat and quickly place your salmon on the grill and cover. (You might need to reheat the chips two or three times, removing the salmon each time as you repeat the process.)

If you don’t have a smoker or are nervous about trying to make smoke without heat, fear not — you can always stop at the vodka curing stage. You won’t be disappointed either way. Enjoy!

*    *    *

Vodka-cured cold smoked salmon
serves 4 – 6

1 lb. fillet very fresh wild salmon
1/2 cup vodka
1 tbsp. salt

Chill the salmon in the freezer for 2 hours before you plan to begin (this will help make it easier to slice).

Line a large plate or platter with wax paper. Remove your salmon from the freezer and place it on a cutting board. Using your sharpest knife, slice the salmon across the grain at an angle from top to bottom (think of it almost as if you are shaving slices off from the top at a diagonal). You want slices about 1/8-inch thick. (Think of lox.) Lay the slices out in a single layer next to each other on the wax paper. If you’ve covered the entire layer, lay out an additional sheet of wax paper on the counter and continue. Once you’ve sliced all salmon, drizzle with the vodka, being sure to get all slices. (Use your fingers to spread vodka around if you need to.) Sprinkle with salt, again making certain to get all the slices. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the fridge for 2 hours. After that time, holding plate over sink, drain off the vodka (the salmon will stick to the plate so you can turn it completely vertical).

The salmon can now be enjoyed as is, or smoked.

To smoke: Heat 3-5 coals in a barbecue grill. While they are heating, soak a handful of wood chips in water. Once the coals are white hot, place the wood chips on the coals. Once the chips begin to smoke, place the plate of salmon on the grill, as far from the coals as possible. Cover and let smoke for 10 – 20 minutes, depending on how warm it is inside your grill (you don’t want the salmon to cook.)

Remove and place in plastic or wax paper. Smoked, cured salmon will keep well for a week or more.

12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. russianmartini
    Jul 26, 2013 @ 16:01:34

    The chickens are hilarious they way they just congregate around! I wish I could keep some. I want that salmon right now! Salmon is actually my favorite sushi.


    • scolgin
      Jul 26, 2013 @ 16:36:22

      Salmon sushi is out of this world. It’s just so much better undercooked or uncooked, isn’t it… It should be illegal the way some people overcook it.


  2. The Rider
    Jul 26, 2013 @ 16:09:04

    Beautiful Post!


  3. pal-O
    Jul 27, 2013 @ 02:52:14

    Enjoy Alaska my friend!


  4. Jessamine in PDX
    Jul 30, 2013 @ 05:53:41

    I love raw salmon — so flavorful and fatty! I also love it tempura fried and still medium rare in the center. This looks awesome. I’m not big on smoked salmon — but your cold smoke/vodka cure version sounds amazing!


  5. coffeetablecookbook
    Aug 09, 2013 @ 17:55:24

    Love this! I rarely order salmon in restaurants because even when you ask for medium rare they almost always serve it OVERCOOKED. I bet you will find the bees knees salmon up in Alaska, enjoy!


  6. The Kat and The Falling Leaves
    Aug 12, 2013 @ 00:37:16

    Vodka-cured salmon would hit the spot right now! I must try it one day.


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