You might have noticed a difference between certain types of smoked salmon. There’s the paler pink, flakier version you get (often it’s vacuum sealed – they stuff you find in supermarkets) that you heat and eat, although it can often be eaten straight from the packet too.
Then there’s the redder version that you find perhaps in a bagel or served as a starter in a restaurant. It’s more translucent and has that sensation of being raw.
But they’re both smoked salmon… and there’s clearly a difference.
The Ways of Eating Smoked Salmon
Salmon can be eaten raw, and it’s common to find fresh raw fish in many Japanese dishes (most countries have a requirement that the salmon be frozen first to ensure it is rid of any parasites that can cause illness to humans).
But by its nature smoked salmon isn’t fresh. It’s been cured and smoked.
But what gives smoked salmon its different textures?
Smoked salmon is either hot smoked or cold smoked. Smoking and curing salmon or any other foods is about imbuing the food with a world of flavours.
And cold smoking isn’t actually cold in the classic sense, it’s just colder than the typical temperatures of hot smoking.
Creating the Smoke
The variety of flavours of smoked salmon come from the wood used in the smoker and any ingredients added to the brine before or during the smoking process.
And like a chef chooses the ingredients, so when it comes to the art of smoking it’s no different. The person doing the smoking will use a blend of different things to get the flavours they want.
Popular wood used for smoking includes alder, apple, cherry, oak or maple woods. Each brings something different to the table.
The salmon will also be coated in a salt, if it’s cold-smoked or a salty brine if it’s being hot smoked.
This cures the fish and, for cold-smoked fish, draws out the moisture. For hot-smoked salmon the brine adds moisture and salt.
The salt will help protect the salmon during the smoking process too. Curing can take up to 48 hours depending on the size and type of fish you’re using. Many people also use something sweet in the brine, such as maple syrup.
Drying your salmon properly is crucial, as is getting the heat right. Too much heat will destroy the muscle fibres too quickly and your salmon will be dry, dry, dry.
But cold-smoked salmon and hot-smoked salmon have such different tastes and textures because of these different curing and smoking processes
Cold Smoked Salmon
Cold-smoked salmon is dry-cured in salt to draw out a lot of the fish’s moisture. When this moisture is drawn out the fish also becomes more compact, and the smoke flavours can penetrate deeper. Cold-smoked salmon is then smoked at a very low temperature of roughly 90 degrees Fahrenheit or 32 degrees Celsius.
This low temperature gives the salmon a silky, smooth texture, a fresh taste and that bright reddy, pink colour that looks like raw salmon.
Hot Smoked Salmon
Hot-smoked salmon is cured in brine or salt water prior to smoking. This adds moisture and salt to the fish ready to protect it and add flavour for the higher heat. Your fish needs to develop a shiny layer on the skin, called a pellicle before it is smoked. This gives the smoke something to stick to when you’re actually doing the smoking.
Hot-smoked salmon is created at around 120 degrees Fahrenheit or 49 degrees Celsius giving it a flaky texture and smokier flavour.
The heat affects the flavour and the outcome and part of good smoking means tending to the heat with care.
Remember, It’s an Art Not a Science
Just as a chef adds ingredients to change the taste of a dish, it’s the same with smoking fish. If you are wanting to smoke your own fish, trying flavours is part of the enjoyment. If you’re buying yours already smoked, you can look out for the different styles and techniques of smoking to find ones that you love.