The technique of smoking food is said to be one the most ancient still in use. Thousands of years ago, salmon fishermen would take their daily catch and hang it over the fire, to dry it out. One day – according to legend – they noticed the salmon had a different taste. They began to understand that they could modify the flavor of the fish by using smoke. While we can’t be sure it happened just like this, what we do know is that salmon has become the symbol and signature of smoking excellence.
In the past, smoking was used not only to impart flavor, but for conservation, so it was taken to an extreme degree – the fish would be smoked until it was entirely dried. This allowed people to keep it for long periods without chilling it, but it also rendered the taste too intense. Over time, smoking food was transformed into a special cooking technique, and today smoked food still needs to be kept cold – between 0° and 2° C. In any case, doing it at home requires very few special tools and ingredients, and with experience even the home cook can achieve great results.
From a scientific point of view, smoking is a very simple process: heat dries out a food, and the dehydration process binds together the aromatic molecules of the smoke. To do this at home, one must separate the two phases. First, we must proceed with a “chemical” drying, and then we can move ahead with the actual smoking. Let’s begin by considering the filet of fish. The skin must be kept intact on one side, and all of the bones and fat should be removed. Then the filet should be perfectly dried in layers of paper towels, and kept in the fridge for a day or two. After, prepare a solution of 400 grams of salt and 400 grams of sugar for every liter of water used, mix the solution well (the salt and sugar will not completely dissolve) and immerse the filets in the solution and leave it all in the fridge for a couple of days. Unlike other methods that require covering the fish with salt, this “wet” technique allows a more balanced drying and salting process.
Once two days is up, remove the filets, rinse them quickly under running water and dry them carefully. Now for the actual smoking part! There are several ways to generate aromatic smoke, but the important part is to do this outside in the garden: we don’t want to set any fires! Take a high metal bucket without a lid and place a grill on the open top. Place some vegetal charcoal at the bottom of the bucket along with branches of aromatic wood: apple, maple, chestnut or alder will all work well, but a blend of woods is the best option. Light the fire, and now comes the difficult part: we must ensure that, at the level of the grill, heat never rises above 30-32°C. If it does surpass this temperature, the fish will actually cook, while all we want to do is aromatize it. While the fire dies down and gives way to the smoke, brush some oil on the filets and then rub them with a rum-soaked cloth. Spread the filets out on the grill, over the bucket, and if you want to be sure to keep the heat down, throw a glass of water over the fire from time to time. Some people add another grill halfway down the bucket and place a metal bowl full of ice atop it, which will help to absorb some of the heat and should be changed often. Using this technique, smoking should take between two or three hours but keep in mind that the longer the time, the better the flavor.
While there are also “smoke boxes” available commercially, and work with both gas flame or wood fires, this rudimentary system is a great way to achieve a flavorful home-smoked fish. And remember: the better quality of the salmon, the better your delicacy will be. And now that you’ve got the grill fired up, don’t forget to heat up some bread!