Smoke em if you got em! That's what I say. Not really but I do think smoking salmon is one of the easiest things to do. I guess the one caveat is that you have to own a smoker. If you don't have one don't fret, you can get them relatively cheap. We bought our "Little Chief Smoker" on Amazon Prime for about $100.
Back before kids, my husband and I lived in Homer, Alaska for a Summer and had the best time learning how to catch the different types of salmon. They are such amazing fish because they all look and taste different and each travel thousands of miles over the course of years, from freshwater to saltwater and back again - just to spawn. Sometimes we would catch a salmon after fighting with it for an hour on our fishing line and when we finally brought it up to shore it would have all kinds of hooks in it and battle wounds from its survival to that point. It made me a little sad to think that we were the ones to finally catch it but it also made me realize what a remarkable species salmon really are.
We caught all types of salmon when we were there but by far our favorite and the most tasty was the Sockeye (Red) Salmon. It's red color is so vibrant and visually appealing and it's flavor seems to be more complex and rich than the others. We learned how to smoke salmon in Alaska and people thought we were crazy to smoke our Sockeye because they normally only save the less expensive (Chum or Pink) salmon for smoking. When I smoke salmon, I always use Sockeye because I think it tastes the best...but you don't need to. You can get one of those big fillets from Costco and it won't end up costing you too much.
Note: This is a two day process because you have to brine the salmon first - but it only takes 5 minutes to make the brine and stick the salmon in the refrigerator overnight!
This basic recipe is a variation from James McNair's "Salmon Cookbook" but you can add anything you want to it for more complex flavor (soy sauce, peppercorns, lemon juice, Worcestershire, bay leaf, etc.)
2 quarts water
1 cup salt
1 tsp pepper
1 1/4 cups brown sugar
3 bay leaves
2 salmon fillets (preferably skin on) and cut into 3 inch slices on the diagonal
About 10 cups of very small hickory or aromatic wood chips for smoking
Toasted bagels, tomato slices, red onion slices, cream cheese, fresh dill, lemon, capers, fresh cracked pepper, chopped chives, fresh lemon to squeeze on top
To make the brine, combine the water, salt, sugar and bay leaves in a large bowl; stir well.
Quickly rinse the salmon fillets under cold running water and pat dry with a paper towel. Place the fish in a shallow glass or ceramic container and pour the brine over it to cover. Cover the container with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 3 or up to 10 hours, depending on the thickness of the fillets. Do this overnight and you can wake up the next day to start smoking! Be prepared to have the outside of your house filled with the most delicious smell ever! Careful, all the neighborhood animals might come and see what you are up to!
Preheat the smoker and add wood chips according to the manufacturer's directions. Rub the racks with vegetable oil to prevent the fish from sticking.
Drain the salmon, rinse well in cold water, and place, skin side up and uncovered, on a wire rack until the flesh is dry, 30 minutes to 1 hour. (I actually just paper towel dry mine and stick them right onto the smoker trays while the smoker preheats).
Optional: So that you can easily remove the skin from the salmon afterwards, you can place each fillet on several layers of cheesecloth or a heavy brown paper bag so that it is cut to the shape of the fillet (otherwise if you cover the smoking tray with the cheesecloth or paper, the smoke can't get through).
After you've laid the salmon on the trays and before you put them into the smoker, brush a layer of maple syrup over the top of each one. This gives it a delicious sweetness that compliments the salt from the brine.
Cover the smoker and smoke the fish until just opaque, 10 to 12 hours. Restock the wood chips whenever necessary, usually about 3 pans of chips are needed in all. I brush another layer of maple syrup over the tops each time I change the chips out.
Remove the salmon from the smoker. Cool briefly, then peel off the cheesecloth or paper, which takes the skin with it. Serve immediately, or cool, cover and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks. Or tightly wrap in the freezer and wrap and freeze for up to 2 months.
Serves 12-16 people
Here are my tricks to making this the best smoked salmon you've ever had. ***I slice my bagels into thirds horizontally (trick I learned from Ina Garten) and then I toast them. I make sure all of my accoutrement are very thinly sliced - like paper thin. My red onion and tomatoes are sliced paper thin with the help of one of my favorite Japanese gadgets, the "Benriner". Again Amazon Prime in two days, oh yeah.
Here's how I like to layer my salmon: bagel, cream cheese, salmon, tomato slices, onion slices, capers, fresh dill sprigs, squeezed lemon juice, freshly cracked pepper. I'm telling you, I could eat this for breakfast or lunch every day! Perfect for brunch or as an elegant appetizer.