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How To Smoke Salmon: Mystical Alchemy From The Majestic West

Pity the poor East Coast rat racer. Look at him, pouring out of the subway with his sooty, bedraggled kin, lurching through ill-lit corridors, past dripping pipes and glaring widows just missing him with the splash of their chamberpots. There he is, spending $12 on a substandard turkey sub. Here he goes, hat brim lowered to battle a spiteful gust of wind carrying the scent of everything he could have had, everything he could have been: Roses from faraway horticulture gardens, snowmelt from virgin peaks, the ripest berries, the freshest lavender, all of it blowing through the funk of garbage and urine and human musk that surrounds his every moment.

What beckons is the West. And it is best revealed in the simplest displays of its natural bounty. So in that spirit, today, we're going to make smoked salmon.


Do you have a barbecue grill? Then you can smoke salmon. "But w-w-w-what about those specialty smokers at the depot for houses?" you ask, tugging at a sleeve, eyes wet and wide. Go for it. But it's not necessary for today's task. What is required is a slavish dedication to time and temperature, and some prep work.

If you have decided to eat smoked salmon today, I commend you for your nutritious choice. Oh, you meant from this recipe? Ha, oh, no no. You won't get to do that today. Today, you'll head to the store and buy a fresh filet of salmon.

Spread before you, on crushed ice, the bounty of the sea. Well, the rivers and the sea. Your food took an entire amazing journey on its way to your countertop, that we're going to skip over. Just skip right over it! Instead, we're going to talk about fat.

Fat, in salmon, is good. Also: expensive. Ordinarily, when shouting at strangers about shopping for seafood, as is my wont, I will order them to the nearest monger, usually a "fish-monger," who are about the last mongers left, except for I guess war-mongers. Monger is a word that is cool and good, and it should be used more. We should monger more things.


Today, rather than venturing to the fish-monger, you have permission to slink instead to your supermarket counter for some very decent fish. Some of it will previously have been frozen. This isn't a crime. Other Internet Food Persons even prefer the previously-frozen fish for smoking. I haven't noticed a difference.

As for variety, if you're in a reasonably-sized city (or any assortment of more than two people in the Pacific Northwest, even under a freeway overpass), you will be offered, in descending order of fattiness: Chinook, sockeye and coho. For today, you're okay with a good sockeye filet. Coho would work, and Chinook is expensive.


Buy what looks and smells right—not fishy, just "of fish." You'll know. The color should be bright, the flesh firm, and make sure it has skin on one side to help keep the thing together. You will ignore the Atlantic salmon on offer. Or, buy it, whatever, it's fine.

The size you can wing. Got a couple guests or a small party? Go for the larger, four-pound side filet. Just you, picking at the reddened carcass of bear food in the dark? Maybe just one pound. Today, let's pretend you are sociable and law-abiding and full of potential, just like your father and I told the judge at sentencing.


You'll also need some sugar and salt. This will be your most important step. Do this right, and the rest will fall together.

Your brine solution will have all kinds of interesting chemical interactions with your fish. The salt denatures the protein, unwinding those corkscrew-shaped protein molecules. The sugar ah you don't give a shit. Fill the biggest non-aluminum-lined pot in your house with one gallon of water. You can also do this in a plastic tub that fits in your fridge. Just get one gallon of water, and dump in one cup of kosher salt and one cup of sugar. Stir until combined. You have a brine.


(Some places will tell you to bring this mixture to a boil. If you do, sock it into the fridge or freezer awhile to cool it down. Do not shove your delicate four-pound filet into hot or warm water.)

Shove your delicate four-pound filet into the chilled brine and get it in the fridge. To make room, you may have to have some difficult conversations about the contents of the bottom shelf of your fridge. Make a fun game of it. (Make your kids chug all the milk, then when they puke, say "finders keepers" and leave. These are the fun games I imagine parents play).


Now, your fish is brining and denaturing and changing chemically, the little protein strands straightening, the sugar permeating the surface and opening the fish to better water retention. You can just kick back and let nature do the work! Just kidding. Get back in the car.

What we're doing is called "hot smoking," technically. The cold-smoking option, for which you pay a good deal more at the store, also is possible at home but requires a soldering iron and looking up what a soldering iron is and questioning why you didn't already know that, and aren't you a man, a man who fixes things and has several soldering irons at his disposal, a man who won't walk into the local hardware store and fumble to cover his mouth with a scented pocket square as he swoons at the smell of sweat and metal and work, dammit, hard work.


But, yeah, even this hot-smoking procedure will require a trip to the hardware store, which for some reason is where they sell the best variety of wood. For my money, alder wood is tops when it comes to salmon. Since this is, in part, an argument about why the West Coast is better, I will add that the tribes along the Columbia River in Oregon and Washington are believers in alder's dominance, and I will also add that people on the West Coast are insufferable pedants who use the word "actually" a lot.

You can use other wood. Make sure to get chunks of wood, here, not chips. Hickory's okay. Most fruit woods—apple, cherry, peach, peach schnapps—also are good. You will not use mesquite. Mesquite is the Donkey Sauce of smoking woods. It is new oil money at a Houston strip club. It is a 16-year-old screaming at her billionaire parents about the color of helicopter at her birthday party. It is everything horrible about this fine nation. Do not use mesquite.


Now you have the wood and the fish. Do you have a small pan you don't mind shoving in your grill? Maybe pick up one of those, or you can make it from two layers of silver foil. Crafty! I'm also going to assume you own a fan of some type. This is turning into one of those Gawker Media sponsored posts. "BUY BUY BUY YOU'RE DYING INSIDE WE TURNED THE COMMENTS OFF."

Let the salmon brine overnight.

Hello and good morning. It is early, damn early, and you are alive, and today, you will prove it. Let's cook some fish.


Ha! Can you imagine if we actually started cooking? Like, ever got this going? Shut up and get the fish out of the fridge and onto a wire rack. Take the fan you already own, perch it in front of the fish on the rack, and turn it on. Don't touch the fish. This will be your most important step. Do this right, and the rest will fall together.

We are now forming the "pellicle," which will shield the fish from some heat and make all this dumb work less dumb. You want the flesh of the fish to achieve a mild stickiness. Let the fan work on it for approximately two hours. Yes, everything about this process takes forever.


While this is happening, it's time to get your grill ready for indirect heat. Here we are aiming for 200 degrees, and nothing hotter than 225, which will leave unsightly white oozy gross splotches all over the fish from where the fat bubbled out. Just like the dead-eyed contestants on those spooky barbecue shows on back-of-the-dial Midwestern Americana channels, you too will repeat the mantra: "Low and slow. Lowwww and slowwwwww."

Soak your wood chunks (not chips) in a bucket for about half an hour. Remove the top grate from your grill and wipe it down with vegetable oil. Pull your pellicled salmon off the wire rack and leave it skin side down on the grate and have this grate close by.


Take your small pan or aluminum foil thing and fill it with water. Place this in the middle of the bottom rack of your grill. Arrange two small piles of charcoal on either side. If you are the kind of person who owns a charcoal starter, use about a half-starter's worth. If you are not that kind of person, start the charcoal burning in two piles until the briquettes begin to turn white. Add your damp wood chunks.

Smoke! Smoke is what will happen. Big, wonderful billows of smoke, pluming off the wood, climbing in tendrils ever skyward. Also, it's getting away! Lower the top grate back into place with the salmon still in the center of it, so it's positioned directly above the water pan. Close it all in there and wait.


Remember all that talk about time and temperature? Here goes. This will be your most important step. Do this right, and the rest will fall together.

You don't have a temperature probe. Nor do you own a Thermapen, or an infrared sensor, or some kind of remote-controlled heat alarm that adjusts for air pressure and wind speed. You're just a person! A person who wants to eat some gently-cooked fish.


These facts are not in opposition. But it will make your life a little harder. Smoke does most of its work early in the process. When we sit for eight to ten hours with a pork shoulder, we understand that most of the smoke flavor came in the first two hours. This is why it's permissible, if immoral, to finish smoked pork in the oven.

Something similar holds for salmon. I cannot tell you exactly how long you will have to leave your filet in the grill. This depends on the temperature outside, the size of your charcoal piles and the density and moisture of your wood chunks. But think of at least two hours, with another hour or two possible.


Without all the fancy equipment, you can still keep an eye on temperature. That oven thermometer that gets used once a year at Thanksgiving? Stab it in a potato and leave that on the grill. Periodically – every half hour – check the potato and watch the salmon for color changes and white splotches. You want to err on the lower, slower side here, so keep the charcoal piles small and replenish them sparingly. Keep the water pan close to full. Then, wait.

You are done when you decide you are done. This is the essence of smoking food and winning at two-person sex. Also, there's no "done," only "safe," or "safe enough not to sue the person who wrote this, he seems like a nice guy after all, let's send him some money."


If the center of the fish flakes with a fork, you are good. Spread some on a bagel over cream cheese. The results will shock you! No, they won't. But now you have the flavor of smoke and fish together, and it is glorious – on a cutting board next to some pungent blue cheese and salami; wrapped in thin cucumber slices; shoveled by the handful into your cavernous maw.

This, you will think was worth it. The taste of the Pacific, wild and free (or the bottom of some gross Atlantic salmon farm if you befouled this recipe with inferior fish). You started all this yesterday with a modestly-priced piece of fish. You end it today with something far better. Something that works for all three meals of the day. Something indisputably of your own creation. You might try it again, maybe with peppercorns and paprika in the brine, maybe with brown sugar or molasses or maple syrup.


Your guests will be amazed at your woodsmanliness. You marched into nature and brought back something and then turned it into something else, and you did it using the simplest tools at your disposal. Sugar, salt, wood, fire. Potato.

Smoke will gust up from your yard or the hole in your skylight. The whole neighborhood will know. You will win friendship and admiration. You have created something magical.


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Nigel Duara eats his way through the U.S. as a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. He is not the sharpest crayon in the drawer. Not even close. Skype his twitter at

Image by Sam Woolley.

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