Monday, April 6, 2015

Smoked Salmon (Lox)

Last Christmas was to be our first one as a family of three waking up in our home on Christmas morning. We spent a great deal of time planning the day's menu, which starred a rabbit guazzetto upon polenta studded with taleggio for Christmas dinner. But the Christmas breakfast was to consist of homemade seeded rye bagels with smoked salmon that we would cure and smoke ourselves.

You see, last spring, Matt built a cold-smoker. I laughed at him when he explained the contraption he was rigging up using a Weber Smokey Joe and a bargain-basement domed smoker and a dryer vent tube. In fact, I laughed a lot. That was wrong of me. Very wrong. For the grand total of about $20 in parts, we had a cold smoker. Throughout the spring, summer and fall, Matt smoked cheeses, nuts, and lots of grains for brewing beer. As the weather became colder, we turned our eyes to cold smoking some salmon for our Christmas breakfast spread.

First some terminology clarification was in order when I started my research. Lox (often called Nova Lox), Gravlax, Smoked Salmon- what's the difference? Lox and Gravlax are both cured salmon. The Swedes do Gravlax with a particular spicing including juniper berries and dill and is unsmoked. Lox is cured, then cold-smoked. You can hot-smoke salmon of course, but you will get an entirely different product that way- it's cooked salmon with the wonderful smoky flavor of your hardwood of choice- but is not particularly well suited for application upon a bagel.

After researching the bejesus out of various lox recipes, some that called for ridiculous processes and precious little salt (curing is preserving here folks, you need more than a 1/4 cup of salt for a pound of salmon!)...I called my best friend and chef genius Kiran. His advice, combined with my real-life-not-a-commercial-kitchen-with-a-prep-cook-situation (I do have a drunk monkey toddler wandering through my kitchen on the regular) along with what I had already learned from my weeks of recipe scouring created the process and recipe I offer here.

Is it traditional? No, not really.

Does it take 3 days? Yes, but you're not really actively doing much to it. (Don't be deterred by the many steps listed below, I've been thorough in describing the steps, but nothing is terribly complicated)

Is it ridiculously scrumptious, silky, properly seasoned, and worthy of a holiday breakfast or brunch? You bet your bippy it is.

It should go without saying that the better quality salmon you start with, the better quality lox you will end up with. It should perhaps also go without saying, that you also want quality fish for safety reasons. Also, for food safety, you should only cold smoke fish if you can maintain an ambient temperature of below freezing. Which although it is April in New England- we're still able to achieve that by smoking at night. This will probably (hopefully?!) be the last cold smoke of fish until next fall for us.

***No cold smoker, weather already too warm even at night to cold smoke fish, or don't want to wait until next winter? Follow recipe up through rinsing and drying step and then let sit in fridge for about a day before slicing and eating. Will still be very tasty!***

  • 2 TBS fennel seed
  • 3 whole star anise
  • 1.5 TBS cumin seed
  • 1/2 TBS black peppercorns
  • 2 pounds kosher salt
  • 1 pound granulated white sugar
  • 2 pound filet of salmon (you will want to buy a filet that weighs a 1/4-1/2 pound over 2 pounds, because you will trim off the side to make a more uniform piece- see photo below- I use the trimmed piece to make salmon cakes)
  • Place fennel seed, star anise, cumin seed and peppercorns in a coffee grinder and buzz a few times into seeds are cracked and broken up, but do not grind too much. You want bits and pieces, not powder. You can also do this st with a mortar and pestle, it's just much faster with a grinder.
  • In a large bowl combine the broken/cracked spices, salt and sugar and mix well.
  • Lay out your salmon filet on the board and trim away the side piece that fans out, so you have a filet of more uniform thickness all around, a solid rectangle.
  • Prepare a half sheet pan in the following way:
    • Lay out one long piece of plastic wrap lengthwise, and two pieces of plastic wrap going the other way, making a sling.
    • Lay a rectangle of parchment paper atop plastic wrap sling.
  • Pour a bed of the salt mixture (more than a third, less than half) on parchment paper.
  • Place salmon filet, skin side down on salt mixture.
  • Pour remaining salt mixture atop salmon, covering evenly.
  • Tightly pull plastic wrap sling around the salt covered filet, first one way then the other
  • Wrap two more pieces of plastic wrap, one each way, again pulling tightly. Place salmon back onto sheet pan, skin side/parchment side down.
  • Place a second sheet pan atop the tightly wrapped salmon, placing weight atop the second sheet pan, and place whole contraption in fridge. (I used a few cans of tomatoes and a stoneware baker as weights, but anything heavy that distributes weight evenly over whole filet will do.)
  • 24 hours later, flip salmon over, replace weights
  • 24 hours later again (total 48 hours of curing), open package up over sheet pan for easy clean up and remove salmon from cure. The salmon will have shrunken some, and be very firm to the touch.
  • Under cold water, gently rinse salt mixture away from salmon's flesh and skin (there will likely be a few pieces of the cracked spices that are very much adhered to the salmon's flesh, that's ok).
  • Thoroughly dry salmon with paper towels. If ready to smoke, proceed with smoking instructions below. If you are not smoking the salmon at all or not smoking for a few hours, place salmon on a rack set into a pan, cover with plastic wrap and place in fridge for a few hours until fully dry, flesh will be a touch tacky. Then seal in a ziplock bag. Proceed with smoking instructions below or consume within a few days, or cut filet up into smaller pieces and freeze, well wrapped.
  • Prepare your cold smoker using a fruitwood, like apple or cherry. 
  • Cold smoke salmon for 90 minutes. (photo of salmon on smoker without lid for illustrative purposes only- you need the lid on through the smoking process!)
  • Place salmon in a ziplock bag or two (the smoke aroma will be intense at first, and you don't want your whole fridge to smell smoky). 
  • Allow salmon to rest for a day to let smoke mellow.
  • Slice and eat within a week, or freeze in small portions. Thaw in fridge overnight. I like to freeze in 4 ounce portions, unsliced, to maintain texture. 4 ounces is generally enough to cover two bagels.
***Slicing tips: Use a carving knife, with a very sharp edge. With knife at an angle almost parallel to salmon, slice slowly with a back and forth motion to remove paper-thin slices.

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