At school, the marking system worked like this. A-E for achievement (A being the highest) followed by 1-5 for effort (1 being the highest).
In my Dad’s eyes, A5 was obviously the best. It showed natural aptitude with minimal effort. Which, in his eyes, basically translates into “good genes”, thus allowing him to take some of the credit.
A1 was ok. But on the (odd) occasion this made it onto an end-of-term card, then I’d have to be prepared for my grandad to call me a “class swot” for the first couple of weeks of the holiday. He’s A5 through-and-through, and despite never prioritising work over pool, football or bridge, was always top of the class. Well, apart from the time that he came second to Beryl Bloxham. A traumatic enough event that he’s still talking about it 70 years later, and swotty old Beryl has become a household name in our household at least.
Somehow this marking system has been hard to shake off, and I can’t help looking for the A5 solution in all sorts of situations. Take cooking, for example. The cover of this months BBC Good Food magazine is A1 through and through. If anything, the effort will exceed the achievement.
Because after messing about with all of those different layers of different coloured sponge, the best scenario is that you end up with a multi-coloured sponge cake, thinking ‘was it all really worth it?’
Anyway, dear reader, I digress. But if you have kept up with me, then you will at least be rewarded by the revelation that I have discovered the ultimate A5 recipe. Home-smoked salmon. Minimal effort, and maximum impact. The dosser’s dish. Guarenteed to get you a 1:1 without so much as having to step inside the library to revise.
Aside from this recipe being remarkably easy, it’s surprisingly cost effective. For smoked salmon. Just to contextualise it, a 1kg side of unsliced, smoked salmon from Graig Organics costs £55.76. Recently, Ocado and Tescos have been alternating a deal, where a 1kg side of salmon is reduced from £20 to £10 -yes, that’s right, a tenner! With the help of a cold smoke generator (£34 - reusable) you can turn the salmon into a show stopper of a smoked salmon which will easily do a starter for 12, or lunch/brunch for around six to eight people.
To ‘cure’ the salmon in the most basic way, simply bury it in a dry salt rub. The salt draws water out of the flesh. It develops a harder, more rigid texture, and is a form of preserving the fish and killing bacteria.
It’s an important step in cold-smoking. Not just for health and hygiene reasons, but also because it’s an opportunity to introduce flavours to the soon-to-be-smoked salmon. The most basic salt cure is 100% salt. Many use 80% salt and 20% sugar - with sugar molasses being a popular option, because of its big treacle-like flavours. Other recipes suggest grinding herbs in a pestle and mortar, and adding it to the cure. I did a rather good cure which had 2 tablespoons of ground (dried) juniper berries stirred into it.
Which salt to use is a point of contention amongst seasoned smokers. Norwegian purist Ole Hansen Lydersen uses the purest of pure fleur de sels, hand-harvested from French salt marshes. Unless you buy this in big volume, it’s an impossible cost for the solo home-smoker though. Many suggest rock salt, and most say that you should avoid salts with anti caking agents. It is hard though when Tesco sells a 3kg bag of salt (including anti caking agents) for £1.10. To my shame, I have always used this for the sake of keeping costs down. I can however report that I have survived it.
So, my basic curing technique is this. I line a tray with foil or baking paper. I cover it with a 2 inch layer of the curing mixture (often 100% salt), and then lie the salmon on top. Make sure that it is laid out flat, and no flesh round the tail or sides is folded in on itself. Now cover it with a generous mound of salt. Put it in the fridge for 8-24 hours. When you dig out the salmon, you should notice that the salt feels like wet sand at the beach, and the salmon should be hard.
Nb. You may notice that the salmon in the photographs is cut into fillets. Often this is more manageable that a whole 1kg side. The salmon has a larger surface area, which is useful for both curing and smoking. Also, because fillets are lighter, they are less likely to rip through the hooks while smoking.
2. Washing and drying
Chuck the salt, and wash the salmon under a cold tap. Use your fingers to feel the surface to check that there are no areas covered with salt granules. They’re hard to see, but easy to feel. You must make sure that there’s no residual salt coating the fish, because it makes an upsetting mouthful.
Use a clean tea towel to dry the fish. Ideally, put them on a tray lined with kitchen roll, or the tea towel - or something absorbent - and return to the fridge for another 12 hours or so. This time can be shortened if needed, but the aim is to thoroughly dry the fish, to the point where the flesh has a tacky feel - like that feeling where your fingertip slightly sticks to just-drying paint. The purpose of this step is that it makes the smoke stick to the salmon flesh a little better.
There’s lots of information out there about clever trickery to do with wood chips in biscuit tins. Honestly, I figured it would be easier to buy a ProQ smoker. It uses very simple but effective technology - a bit like the insect coils, where you light one end, and they smoke for 10 hours, creating a pong which keeps mosquitoes at bay.
All you need to do is find a suitable container, which both traps the smoke, and also allows you to hang the fish above smoker. Inventive people with large gardens might use a filing cabinet or a gun cupboard or an old fridge. I recently noticed that ProQ now do some cheap smoking chambers, to add to their range of £200+ ones. We used a galvanised metal dustbin, with chicken wire strung across the top. It acts as a sort of washing line, so that when we punctured the salmon with S-shaped wire hooks, they could hang above the smoker, which sat on the bottom of the bin.
Fill the smoker with wood chips (ProQ also sells lots of different flavours of these from whiskey oak to applewood). Light a tea candle, and place it under the start of the ‘maze’ - so that the chips begin smoking. Over 8-10 hours, the lit chips will work their way round the maze, and by the end of the process, you will be rewarded with beautifully-smoked salmon.
Just a quick note on the best time of year to cold-smoke. Ideally, you want to be doing it in late autumn or early spring. It goes without saying that if you’re cold-smoking a piece of fish on a balmy summer evening, then it’s not going to do the fish any good just hanging around outside the fridge for such a long amount of time.
Another short aside to steer you in the direction of a feature I wrote on Norwegian salmon smoker, Ole Hansen Lydersen, who insists that salmon taste better if they are played honky tonk piano throughout the smoking process.
4. To Slice, or To Sliver?
Horizontally-cut, wafer thin slivers of salmon can be cut with a salmon slicer. Personally, I prefer to cut the side or fillet of salmon away from the skin, and then use an every-day cook’s knife to cut it into vertical, sushi-like slices.
My brother made the point that to feel full-up from eating wafer-thin salmon, you have to eat a guilt-inducingly large amount. And it ain’t cheap. When I took a side of salmon home, announcing the whole thing cost a tenner, he happily hacked off a big wedge from the fillet, and made a salmon sandwich that filled him up, agreeing that vertical slicing was far more satisfying than wafer-thin slivers.
5. Serving Suggestions
Finally, there’s the matter of what to serve the smoked salmon with. Firstly, there’s the classic smoked salmon, scrambled egg and bagel breakfast. This is particularly enjoyable if you manage to time things so that you can put your salmon on to smoke once you’ve come back from night out. There’s nothing more smug-making than waking up the next morning to collect a freshly-smoked fish from the smoker, and whisk up a killer breakfast without having to leave the house.
Another classic is a Scandanavian-themed lunch - rye bread, smoked salmon, creme fraiche and a red onion and cucumber pickle. Pile everything onto the rye bread, and serve it like an open sandwich, or smørrebrød. This makes an excellent starter - put the pre-sliced salmon in the middle of the table with piles of rye bread, and bowls of creme fraiche and pickle, for people to make their own.
For the pickle, put “1 part caster sugar : 3 parts cider vinegar” into a saucepan and heat until the sugar dissolves. Cool, and then submerge thinly-sliced cucumber and red onion. Marinade for a few hours - two days.
When my flat mate took some smoked salmon home, he mixed some with pasta, lemon juice, olive oil and dill, which he said was excellent. And I’ve just used the leftovers from Mother’s Day brunch in beetroot and smoked salmon tarts….but that might have to wait for my next post….
If you have been smoking salmon, please do leave a comment in the box below – I’d love to know what equipment you used, how long you cured the salmon for, and what you cured it in…