Apologies for terrible pun. For my friend Amy’s birthday celebrations we are taking part in a round-robin dinner; each of the 6 of us prepares one of the courses. This obviously means that we have to have 6 courses – something of a challenge as even with more modest banquets we never get to the cheese anyway. However, never ones to let reality get in the way of a good idea, we went about allocating who would be doing what.
The course I was randomly assigned was the fish – certainly one of my preferred options. However, as you may have inferred from my adventures in pit roasting 40kg of meat earlier this year, I’ve never been one to shirk a challenge, and enjoy doing something a bit out of the ordinary.
So it was that I decided to embark on cold smoking my own salmon. Having never smoked anything before, not owning a smoker, and having a limited budget with which to play, this seemed like an interesting proposal. After a couple of hours excercising my Google-fu I was happy that I had a good grasp of how to go about carrying out the operation; basically, there are no rules, everyone has their own way of doing it, and there’s plenty of disagreement about the best way of doing things. So I can go to town on applying a bit of common sense, cooking expertise, and some good old experimentation.
The principal of cold smoking a fish is very simple; rather than in hot smoking, where the food is cooked by the heat in a short time and the smoke is simply a flavour, in cold smoking the food is never ‘cooked’ in the classical way, but instead preserved by the smoke. Prior to cold smoking the food is briefly brined to draw out excess water (much like in any other curing process, although in a purely cured case the brining goes on for much longer), then smoked at or below room temperature for about a day or so.
With brining period dependent on a number of factors including type of food, size of food, strength of brine, temperature of brine, and whether the meat has been frozen beforehand (freezing breaks down cell walls allowiong for more rapid brining), basically it’s a suck-it-and-see approach. I got hold of a 1.6 kg side of scottish farmed salmon, froze it overnight, defrosted it, then brined it for 8 hours.
The smoking process will add bitterness, so any sweet or saltyness you need has to be added at this point. It’s also an opportunity to inject a bit of subtle flavour. My brine recipe was wonderfully inexact (I don’t really do recipes), but comprised rougly:3L water 400g (ish) sugar – a 1:3 mixture of molasses sugar and white sugar 300g (ish) salt 2 large crushed cloves of garlic a few juniper berries a good whack of crushed black pepper some crushed coriander seeds a couple of bay leaves a couple of crushed allspice berries
I basically tinkered with the salting and sugaring of the brine until it tasted OK and had enough dissolved in it that a raw egg floated.
The salmon was submerged in that (scaled, skin on, pinbones removed) and left while I went out to work. On return, it was removed from the brine, then rinsed for 20 minutes under a cold water. I took a small slice off the end to check it tasted ok and wasn’t still too salty.
Into the fridge overnight.
In order to smoke, you need a smoker, and rather than paying a couple of hundred quid for a pre-made one I decided it would be far more interesting to build one from bits and pieces we had lying around. In order to cold smoke you need enough distance between the embers and the food that the smoke has time to cool down. The best way of achieving this seemed to be to have two separate chambers connected by pipe. The two chambers I could deal with – we have an old fire-bin thing in the garden that rather conveniently has a lid which ends in a funnel chimney. That would be fine for generating smoke. Then, in the garage I found an old polystyrene box that we got a meat delivery in for the Hangi back in the spring (this has since been upgraded and swapped for an old cupboard). The only thing left was to measure the diameter of the funnel lid on the bin and get some ducting. £10 worth of ebay later, and I was the proud owner of 10m of aluminium ducting. The idea was that I could simply move the smoking box closer or further from the smoker until the smoke came out at the right temperature. As it was I needn’t have worried – 1 to 2 meters of ducting would have been plenty.
The ducting simply clamps on to the bin lid with a worm-drive fastener, while a hole is cut in the polystyrene box for the other end to be inserted into. I then cut a much smaller hole in the other side of the box so that airflow would be encouraged, without allowing the smoke to just pour straight out. I cut it small enough that I can plug it with one of the those replaceable wine-stopper things – wine never hangs around in our house long enough to worry about using them.
A couple of bricks were put inside the polystyrene box, and a metal grill put on top so that the salmon would be raised up in the middle of the chamber. More bricks were put inside the bin to form a small holder, into which were placed whitened charcoal which had previously been lit on the barbecue. Basically, I
kept the early stages of charcoal lighting and burning on the barbecue to minimise the risk of flames starting inside the smoker. It also meant there should be less of that charcoal-smoke. On top of the white coals in the smoker I then placed a handful of apple wood chippings. Then it was simply a case of topping up with another small handful of chippings every 30 minutes or so.
The salmon was smoked for about 18 hours all in – 12 hours the first day, and another 6 on the second. Overnight I simply plugged the small hole on the box and left it with the lid weighted down.
Here’s the end result, served up with a home-made mustard mayonnaise, brown bread and butter.
A very pleasingly smoky flavour – not at all like much smoked salmon you get in the shops (which actually tastes more like the brined salmon did before smoking). It’s a remarkably straightforward process, and definitely worth the effort. The added advantage is that simply finding a larger smoking box will allow us to smoke in larger quantities, which would be no more effort than this relatively small-scale smoking.