by Jon Beer
Fancy some smoked salmon for Christmas? Take a look on the fishmonger's slab in the supermarket. Smoked cod and haddock are a penny or so more expensive, per pound, than the fresh stuff. Fresh salmon, of the farmed variety, is the cheapest stuff on the slab - usually around £2 a pound which is less than most cheeses: we live in strange times. Smoked salmon, on the other hand, is still a luxury item at four or five times the cost of the fresh stuff. Why? I don't know and I don't care: I smoke my own. It's dead easy, it's fun and I can smoke my own bacon at the same time: I can also smoke it to my own taste.
If you fancy some of the same, here's how to do it.
Smoked salmon is not cooked: it is cold smoked. Those little tin home-smokers you can buy are usually hot smokers which cook the fish at the same time. This is pleasant enough but it is not what we are after.
First catch your salmon. Do this at the fishmonger's where the salmon is farmed: it would be sacrilege to smoke a wild fish. Get him to fillet the salmon (I haven't got time to tell you how to do that here - besides, it's free and he will probably do it better than you). If possible, get him to remove the pin bones. Sometimes the blokes on supermarket fish counters have not heard of pin bones: they are a line of bones down the centre of a fillet - you can feel the ends if you slide your finger down the flesh-side of a fillet (head to tail). Grip the end of each bone with a pair of pliers and draw it out of the fillet. Trim the fins from the fillet. It is now ready for salting.
Fillets can be dry salted or brined. Brining is probably best for a first try. It is easy and sure. Make up a strong brine using 2lb 10oz (1.2Kg) of ordinary salt in a gallon of cold water. Preserving salt is best: it comes in sacks from farm supply shops and is much cheaper than anything in a supermarket. Don't use dishwasher salt. Weigh the fillet and leave it in the brine for about 50 minutes per pound. The next time you do this you will know if you would like it a little saltier or less salty. Take the fillet out and let it dry overnight or longer in a cool room. It's a good idea to keep the cat out. Meanwhile you can prepare the smoker.
Anyone who has washed a boy-scout after a day or so in camp will know the power of wood smoke to permeate. All that home smoking requires is a source of smoke and a chamber to hold the food while the smoke passes around it.
A smoke-chamber can be made from any box or cupboard - even a small room. The temperature inside this chamber must not rise above 80°F (27°C) or the fats in the fish will melt and spoil the stuff. There is no smoke without fire: the smoke comes from a smouldering fire of wood chippings or sawdust and this can produce a surprising amount of heat - but there are several ways of keeping the smoker cool. Anyone who has lived through a winter in a Georgian house without central heating will tell you that it is quite easy to keep a big room cool even if it has a roaring fire: a large smoke-house is easier to keep cool than a small one. You can separate the smoke-house and the smouldering sawdust by leading the smoke through a channel of some sort. This will cool the smoke. The simplest trick is to confine your smoking to cool days in winter and early spring.
A splendid smokehouse can be made by smouldering some sawdust on the brick floor of an outside privy. My first smoker was an old dishwasher with the electrical bits removed from the bottom and a few holes bashed in the top to allow the smoke to escape. The fillets sat on the wire rack at the top and smoke was fed into the hole in the bottom through a trench in the lawn covered with a few pathing stones. The sawdust smouldered in a pit at the end of the trench. Nowadays my smoker is an old wardrobe with the smoke fed in from the side from an old woodburning stove. Shelves of galvanised weldmesh hold the fillets and bacon hangs from the bar intended for coathangers.
You can use any hardwood chippings - the stuff from an electric planer is best and easiest to scrounge from a local joiner's workshop. Avoid softwood: it contains too much resin and makes everything taste like retsina. Oak is traditional but beech, birch or any fruit wood is fine. Make a heap of the sawdust. Start with a biscuit-tin's worth: you can always add more to keep it going. The problem is to get it smouldering without flame. This can be tricky. For a start it will keep going out and then it will burst into flames if you try to blow it into life. Persevere: blow gently until it almost flames and keep doing this until it smoulders gently on its own. If your heap is on the floor of a brick privy, make a long heap and it will smoulder gently down the length. Add more if necessary to keep it smouldering for 12 hours or so. Abandon precision at this point. Different smokers and different woods produce different amounts of smoke in different densities. So take a leap of faith: it is not critical. I usually put a peeled, hard-boiled egg in the smoker to check all is going well. The egg will have turned a golden brown on top when the fish are smoked. In mine, that takes 8-12 hours but could take twice as long. Try it and see. Smoked eggs, incidentally, are delicious with salt and pepper.
After the smoke
Don't, whatever you do, try a slice of the smoked salmon when you take it from the smoker. The smoke tars are deposited on the surface of the fish and need time to migrate through the flesh and change from the stuff that makes a disgusting gurgle in an old man's pipe to the subtle aroma of distant woodsmoke on a frosty morning. Your salmon needs to rest at least 24 hours before you try it. You will not, of course, be able to wait this long. You will take a first slice from the thin tail end where the salting and smoking is most concentrated and your tongue will go numb. Then you will wait 24 hours. By which time the word and aroma will have spread around your neighbourhood and you will have no shortage of friends. Ever again.
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