Home Cold Smoked Salmon

by Andrew Goodman

Ever wondered how easy it is to make your own home cold smoked salmon? My darling girlfriend bought me a wonderful book, it’s called Food DIY, it’s written by Tim Hayward, and it’s right up my street. For someone like me who enjoys the art and the craft of life, it is a really fun, yet practical book, teaching you how to make your own food, from sausages to smoked salmon, sourdough to sloe gin, this book explains not only the how, but also, importantly for me the why.

I have experimented with Sourdough baking since following The Big Man, Paul Hollywood on the telly. As a fellow biker, Paul has pulled off a quite remarkable coup, and made baking manly. If you’ve never tried it, let me tell you, hand kneading rye bread dough is not for girls. I followed Paul’s recipes in his book How to Bake and I have managed to turn out sourdough loaves which have passed as artisan bakers’ ware (I brought a freshly baked loaf for lunch at a friend’s, and told them that I had made it myself that morning. They thought that I was joking, that I had bought it from a bakery).

That’s not to say that I’ve cracked sourdough by any means, like many things in life, consistent results are what separates the lucky from the skilled, but I am getting there, and it is fun. To be a sourdough baker, you need time, preferably not be required at a 9 to 5 job, and you need to be patient. Baking like much in the food world is  more art than craft; more chemistry than physics.

My own sourdough starter is being nursed back to health following a recent house move; having spent a couple of weeks in the shed in an art and craft box it has been starved. Lucky for me, my sourdough starter is tough as old boots, it has gotten used to sporadic and infrequent feeds, and doesn’t tend to complain, it just hunkers down when the times get tough. I froze a portion of the starter as a backup which is in an old Hellmann’s jar in the freezer, should anything happen to its mother.


My sourdough starter – she’s had a tough couple of weeks

I also recently made some salt beef, which was delicious, and which I will definitely try again. It took a while to cure, but the results were definitely worth it, and it fed me for a good week on leftovers and home made rye bread.

Two things which I love in Food DIY but have not yet managed to make are bacon, and smoked salmon. Bacon involves curing some pork belly and for that I need a local butcher to get the right cut. I will find him in due course, but smoked salmon I can have a pop at now.

To prepare myself for a smoking, I ordered a ProQ smoke generator. Tim recommends the ProQ as a means of easy and reliable (cool) smoke production, although you can improvise.

For those of you born in the 70’s the ProQ resembles a wood dust version of a green mosquito coil. It is shaped like a labyrinth, and you light the outside with a tea light until it is smouldering and it gradually smokes away for around 10 hours. The smoking kit I bought from amazon, had a few different bags of chips and included a book on smoking various things from fish to chicken to cheese. Beech is a popular dust to use on Salmon.

With this in mind, I was wondering around Tesco looking for some inspiration when I saw a half price half side of salmon. I’m happy to spend £6 on an experiment. Smoked salmon here were come! Reading the instructions in Food DIY, I prepared the fish.

Cold smoking salmon involves four steps, first you cure it, second you leave it dry overnight in the fridge, third you smoke it, and fourth you leave it to rest in the fridge (well wrapped up) to develop those smoky flavours.

Here’s what I did:

  • Wash the fish
  • Pat it dry with kitchen towel
  • Weigh the fish and make a note (You want the salting, smoking and drying process to remove around 20% of the weight of the fish, after which it is ready to eat). If after smoking it for the prescribed length of time, you need it to lose more weight, pop it in the fridge to dry out some more.
  • If you have a fridge and a cold smoker in which you can hang the fish, make a small hole in the narrow end of the fish and put some fibrous kitchen string through – you’re going to hang the salmon from this string in the fridge, and later in your smoker.
  • If you have a glass shelf fridge and your smoker is such that it will involve lying the salmon down to smoke, don’t worry about making a hole. Just use a cooling rack to support the fish instead.
  • Prepare a cure mix (you can use 100% salt, or 60/40 salt to sugar or even 50/50. Don’t use table salt, use granular sea salt (not Maldon or the salt will cost more than then fish). I used 50% sea salt and 50% demerara sugar, enough to cover the fish. Lay the brine rub on the base of the tray and place the dry salmon on top and cover with the remainder. Place the fish into the fridge for 1hr.
  • After curing, the fish will have released some of its water to the salt, it will feel firmer as salt has entered the cells of the fish and water has exited. Wash off the brine and pat the fish dry once more.
  • Either hang the fish in the fridge or place in the fridge on a cooling rack skin side down. Leave it overnight. This is for the pellicule to form; a layer of protein on the outside of the flesh which aids the salmon in taking up the smoky flavours during step three, smoking.
  • Next day, get your smoker up and running and introduce the salmon. I used a Weber kettle barbecue (charcoal one), but you could use any closed BBQ, and the outside temperature was around 3 degrees. If you are placing your salmon directly above the ProQ, the instructions recommend you place a little foil tent above the unit to prevent any juices which may come off the salmon from wetting the wood dust and putting out the smoker.

The ProQ only lets out very small amounts of smoke, so it can be difficult to see wether it is still smoking, especially from a distance. I kept checking it every couple of hours in the day to see that everything was going according to plan. The first smoke started at 11am, finished at 9pm, and the second smoke started after supper, and carried on through the night. By 8am the next day, the salmon was ready to be weighed. It survived the night, no wild animal attacks, though I’m sure foxes are partial to a bit of smoked salmon, but I taped the BBQ up good and proper, and weighed it down with heavy flower pots. We don’t get bears here, and foxes (although wily) are not that strong.

A little tip for you, if you don’t want to smell like a bonfire for the next week, or if your partner doesn’t want you to smell like Guy Fawkes, make sure you handle / refill your dirty smoking equipment wearing rubber gloves. Those woody tarry chemical compounds are not removed easily with a bit of soap.

So what is the smoked salmon like? It looks like this:

smoked salmon

Cold Smoked Salmon – It does actually look that scary in real life

And how does it taste?

I have to say, not bad for a first attempt. It is smokier than the shop bought stuff. Once you have removed the pellicle (the hard darker coloured outer layer which contains most of the strong smoke flavour) the flesh inside isn’t too powerfully smoky.

Here are a few pointers for next time:

  1. Cure your fish overnight. 1hr, as Tim Suggests in his book, is not enough. It hardly tastes of salt at all
  2. Smoke the fish for 12hours rather than 24 as he suggests, and let it mellow for a good week before tucking in.
  3. When slicing the flesh use a very sharp, very slender knife, and cut across the fillet (in line with the grain), it makes it much easier to slice.

Food DIY: How to Make Your Own Everything: sausages to smoked salmon, sourdough to sloe gin, bacon to buns is published by Penguin / Fig tree.

Home Cold Smoked Salmon