Smoked SalmonHere in Washington, there’s a magical period of a few short weeks when the weather is absolutely beautiful: warm and sunny, but without the oppressive humidity that tends to camp out for the summer.  Last weekend we found our happy place, and we here at Capital Spice knew just where we wanted to be – outside firing up the Big Green Egg!

While preparing for the June Cookbook Challenge, we came upon a recipe that called for a half-pound of smoked salmon.  At Elizabeth’s mention of the word “smoked,” my ears perked up.  Murphy’s did, too, but that was probably a coincidence.

I had been looking for a new challenge to bring to the Big Green Egg, so the prospect of taking a big filet of raw salmon and turning it into something smoky, salty and delicious was too good to pass up.  A quick visit to the BGE folks’ recipes section cemented it – they don’t even have a recipe for smoked salmon on their site!  I turned to the Egg Head Forum, a message board for Big Green Egg users, and I came across a recipe from a user named thirdeye.  Armed with this guidance, I was ready to go out and get my fish.

Time, temperature and trivia after the jump.

BGE at 200While searching for the perfect recipe, I learned a few key details about smoking salmon:

  • There are two distinctly different types of smoked salmon: cold-smoked and hot-smoked.  In the cold-smoking process, thin strips of salmon are hung in a smokehouse and bathed in smoke whose temperature rarely exceeds 80 degrees Fahrenheit.  This is the process used in making lox, and it results in a softer, chewier fish that is closer in texture and appearance to salmon sashimi.  I would be hot-smoking mine.
  • Even when hot-smoking salmon, temperatures must be kept very low – recipes I read called for temperatures as low as 160 degrees, but most tended to suggest a range between 180 and 200.
  • Believe it or not, farm-raised salmon is actually preferable to wild-salmon for hot-smoking, as its higher fat content makes it more resilient to low-and-slow cooking.

Curing SalmonSo I headed out to Costco and picked up the best looking farm-raised salmon I could find.  A 2 1/2-pound filet looked perfect – thicker than many of the other options, it would be less likely to dry out in the smoker.  At $6.99 per pound it wasn’t exactly cheap, but it was far more reasonable a price than we might have found anywhere else around here.

I took the fish home and immediately prepped it using thirdeye’s dry cure solution.  I mixed 1/4 cup kosher salt, 1 chopped clove of garlic, 1/2 cup (packed) brown sugar, 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper, and 1 crumbled dried bay leaf.  I congratulated myself for successfully quartering the original recipe, since it indicated that it was enough cure for 10 pounds of salmon and I only had 2 1/2.

But then I noticed something about my salmon: it didn’t have any skin.  Even with their inexpensive prices, Costco salmon come skinned and – we were thrilled to note – with their pin bones removed.  I was unsure of what this would do to my fish…would the absence of skin lead to quick overcooking and a ruined filet?  Rather than chance it, I opted to create a second batch of the dry cure and rubbed it over the other side of the salmon.  Placing the fish into a glass baking dish, I covered it with Saran Wrap and placed it into the refrigerator overnight.

Filet Post CuringWhen I checked on the salmon the next morning, the fish had certainly taken the cure; the filet was sitting in a pool of liquid that had been released by the fish as it cured.  I removed the fish from its baking dish and set about rinsing all of the cure from the salmon.  I could tell right away that the filet had been affected by its overnight rest, as the color was a more vibrant orange and the flesh was firm (and a bit tacky) to the touch.  From there, it was onto a baking rack to air-dry in the refrigerator for a few hours before we got the smoking started.

I had recently given the Egg a thorough cleaning (more about that another time), so it was just a matter of getting the fire started and then carefully watching to ensure that the target temperature was maintained.  First I got the hardwood charcoal going in a chimney, spreading it around the bottom of the BGE one it was started.  I gave the coals about 15 minutes with both the upper and lower vents slightly open, allowing them to fully ash over before I added in my soaked applewood chips and laid the cooking grates in place.  I used a two-tiered cooking surface, with an aluminum pan full of water set up below the filet to capture any drippings (preventing flare-ups) and to humidify the air inside the Egg (preventing jerky-like salmon).

Just About ReadyBy closing both vents completely, I was able to get the Big Green Egg down just below 200 degrees, and I was fanatical about watching the thermostat for the first 30 minutes or so.  An unnoticed spike in temperature could very quickly derail all our plans.  It’s really important to know your own smoker, because it’s very easy to smother the coals if you’re not careful.  In my case, I was able to keep the vents fully closed because I knew that the seal between the lid and the base hasn’t been flush for a few years now…air could still get in and out enough to keep those fires (barely) burning.

It should come as no big surprise that salmon requires far less cooking time than brisket, pulled pork, ribs, turkey…really just about anything else you might be smoking.  Though several recipes I read indicated cooking times of four or five hours, I made it a point to check the temperature on my filet after three and a half hours.  I was looking for an internal temperature of at least 150 degrees, and I wasn’t shocked when I found out we clocked in at 144.  Fanning the flames to get the coals and the applewood smoking again, I closed the lid on the Egg and gave the salmon another 12 minutes before the thermometer let me know it was ready.

Toss And ServeThe fish looked delicious – a beautiful pale pink with some darker patches along the edges – and it slid onto a cooling rack with ease, despite my fears that the side of the filet that had been in contact with the grill would stick horribly.  It was all I could do to keep myself from tasting it right then and there, but I wanted to wait until the fish had been chilled so I could savor it as it was meant to be enjoyed.

When we did flake off a few pieces to taste, we were in heaven.  The rich, smoky flavor came through beautifully, and the cure had imparted a definite saltiness that stuck with the fish all the way through to the end.  It was a well-balanced combination of flavors that served to elevate the salmon in a way that mere grilling (with or without the cedar planks) could not.

We’ll be writing about the recipe that inspired us to smoke the salmon in the first place as part of our Cookbook Challenge, but the picture there should give you a pretty good idea.  With this combination of cost (the ingredients to make 2 1/2 pounds of smoked salmon ran us less than $25, all inclusive), flavor and ease (done from beginning to end in less than 24 hours, even after allowing the fish to cure for 10), we may have to try our hands at smoking a few more fish before the summer ends.