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Sunday, August 2, 2009

Smoked Salmon

Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, salmon is an important part of my food psyche. Most of the year I have to be satisfied with farm-raised Atlantic salmon, but when I come back home to visit, I like to treat myself to the real McCoy. Look at the color of this guy! So dark, deep orangy-red. Farm raised salmon has to be fed a colorant to end up with dark flesh like that. Those poor farm-raised guys just don't get to eat the krill and similar critters that produce that lovely color.

My favorite preparation for salmon is to smoke it on a grill. This is as close to the traditional Pacific Northwest style of smoked salmon you can get at home. I love it so much this way that I had to teach the caterer how to make it so she could serve it at my wedding. This is a very quick, easy, and delicious way to enjoy salmon.

The first step is to brine the salmon filets. Fill a large bowl or pot with cool water and mix in salt. A ratio of about 5 cups water to 1/3-1/2 cup salt is what you should shoot for. Mix the water until the salt is mostly dissolved. Add the salmon filets and let soak for about 45 minutes. Brining helps to ensure that you end up with a nice, moist end result.

At the same time, begin soaking a handful of alder wood chips in water. Wood chips for smoking are usually available in the same place you find briquettes. While you can use other wood types, I very much prefer the flavor of alder wood. It is important to soak the wood chips so that they end up smoking instead of outright burning.

Begin heating your briquettes so that they are ready about the time your fish is done brining. When they have gotten nice and hot, gray, and ashy, push them to one side of the grill. This type of grilling requires the use of indirect heat. The coals should be piled on one side of the grill so that the fish can cook on the other side. Sprinkle some of the drained wood chips on top of the coals. While the amount depends on how much fish you are grilling, what you see here is a set up for the filets of one whole salmon. Please note in the following pictures that we smoked only half of the fish at a time because the grill had a fairly small surface area.

Drain and pat dry the salmon. Place skin side down on a foil sheet. Drizzle a little olive oil on top and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and a little rosemary. Roll up the edges of the foil so that the juices do not fall into the fire and cause flare-ups.

Close the lid and dampen down the fire as much as you can without completely killing the fire. If you notice that there is not very much smoke, throw on a few more wood chips. Because the heat is all on one side of the grill in this method, it is not a bad plan to rotate the foil halfway through to ensure even cooking.

The salmon does not take very long to cook, usually between 15-25 minutes depending on the size and thickness. Start checking early to be sure that you do not overcook it. There are a couple of ways to test for doneness. The first test is the squish test. Use a fork and poke the thickest part of the filet. If it is fairly firm to the touch it is done. If it is not done, it will still be squishy. Another method is to prick it. If the juices run clear instead of opaque, it is done. The last, and most invasive, way is to pull the flakes apart in the thickest area and check to see if the flesh is opaque. I usually use a combination of all of these tests to determine when to pull it off of the grill.

So, what is that white stuff, you might ask? My understanding is that it is a protein called albumin that salmon can have a fair amount of. It is completely edible. However, if it grosses you out, you do have a couple of options to attempt to mitigate its formation. Supposedly, brining the fish can help, but - as you can see with the fish above - we brined and still saw a lot of albumin come out. The other factor I have seen mentioned is temperature. Also, I've read that the stuff doesn't develop unless temperatures are above 122 degrees F. Obviously, you want to cook your fish above that temperature (recommendations are to cook fish to 145 degrees F). I think, though, the idea here is higher cooking temperatures will lead to more albumin formation... just another reason to make sure you're using indirect heat to smoke your fish!

This dish is wonderful served right away, but it is also fabulous served cold. Therefore, when I prepare this dish, I always try to make more than I need so that I can have left overs!If you want a couple other great ideas of what to do with leftover smoked salmon, try my smoked salmon ravioli or smoked salmon on cucumber appetizers.

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