Lox is a word that gets thrown around (and into a bagel) a lot these days, but most people would be surprised to find out that, although lox is synonymous with smoked salmon, lox is not actually SMOKED at all. Lox is taken from the belly of the salmon, and cured in brine – not smoked. It’s usually very salty – VERY salty – unlike the mild flavor of regular smoked salmon, it can be quite intense.
What we all offhandedly refer to as lox and bagels is actually cold-smoked and salted salmon (and bagels). It can come from any part of the salmon – not necessarily the belly, although that is the most tender section. So how is smoked salmon, you know, smoked? It’s first cured in salt, then later taken to be smoked. The smoking process of smoked salmon can vary widely – how much smoke is used, for how long, what type of wood. There are two methods of smoking – cold and hot.
How To Smoke Salmon: Cold Smoking
Cold-smoked salmon is what we’re mostly used to – those thin, buttery and smoky slices that we like to pile onto our bagels. For cold-smoking, the salmon is slowly smoked at 70ºF to 90º F, either for a few hours or many days. This is the step that gives smoked salmon the depth of flavor and either a subtle or intense smokiness, and which makes smoked salmon taste vary so much, depending on the preference of the smoker. The process is slow and the temperatures low so that the salmon is not fully cooked, and retains moisture and tenderness.
How To Smoke Salmon: Hot Smoking
Hot smoking is a process that entirely cooks the salmon through and through, so it spends a much longer time in the smoker at more intense heats, so you’ll find hot smoked salmon drier and flakier, not as buttery, but really intensely smoky. The texture of hot-smoked salmon is very similar to a regular cooked salmon fillet, firm and dry.
How To Smoke Salmon: The Type of Wood Used For Smoking
The type of wood used for smoking salmon can vary, but it’s always a hardwood like oak, cherry, hickory and apple. Apple wood has a light, sweet aroma, which makes apple wood smoked salmon light and sweet. Cherry wood smoked salmon is light and more deeply sweet, while oak has a deeper flavor and hickory a more full-bodied richness that can be somewhat overpowering for delicate salmon.
Norwegian and Scottish Smoked Salmon
There’s a good amount of mystique to smoke salmon. Scotland has a long and rich fishing tradition, and Scottish smoked salmon is legendary, with smokehouses from the 16th century that are still in operation today. Many Scottish smokers use the wood from Scotch whiskey barrels, and they have a more artisanal tradition that is bases in hand-curing methods. On the other hand, Norway is the cradle of smoked salmon production, the pioneers in farming salmon, and they have efficient and time-tested methods of smoking. Norwegian smoked salmon tends to be milder, perhaps less deeply flavored, but all around a crowd-pleaser. In the end, the flavor profile and quality of the smoked salmon will have less to do with geography, and more with the know-how and respect for the process of the producer.
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The types of salmon that are used for smoking, be it Scottish smoked salmon or Norwegian– at least what we find predominantly today in the market – is farmed Atlantic salmon, salmo salar. Before you gasp and clutch at your pearls and demand wild salmon, keep in mind that farming fish is a much more sustainable option. Not only that, farming salmon ensures that all quality controls are in place, the feed and quality of the water is strictly supervised, which means less mercury contamination.
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Smoked Salmon Specialties
Other, more specific types of salmon include Gravlax and Balyk (also called Balik). Gravlax is a Scandinavian delicacy that is found in Norway, Denmark and Iceland, and like Lox, it's not smoked, but rubbed with special mix of dill, sugar and salt. Balik smoked salmon is a delicacy that was served to the Russian Tsars, made of the best salmon back fillet (tenderloin), hand-cured and cold-smoked in the Russian style.
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The Art of Smoked Salmon
There’s more to smoked salmon beyond the type of fish or where it comes from, and that’s the art of smoking, and the mastery of the smoker him(or her)self. One degree more or less, one day, or just a few hours in the smoker, what type of salt is used and where it comes from, all this can have major impact on the taste of smoked salmon, so it’s important to look for the best brands, with long traditions and respect for the art of fish smoking.
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