Preserving Salmon Three Ways

Growing up in Maryland, I didn’t eat much salmon; we were white fish and blue crab people. I’ve been slowly learning, with help from my husband the fisherman, about when the different salmon runs happen here in Oregon and up in Alaska, how to cut up whole fish, and how to cook and preserve them. I still confuse king and chinook, silver and coho*, and could use more practice with a fillet knife, but I daresay I’m getting the preserving bit down.

Smoking

Last summer, members of our buying club bought shares in a salmon CSF (community supported fishery) from Iliamna Seafood Co. Each share included 22 pounds of sockeye salmon fillets. Sockeye assertively flavored and the second oiliest of the salmon (king/chinook is the oiliest), making it an excellent fish for smoking, which is just what we did.

Alaskan Sockeye Salmon

Smoking is a preservation technique used for centuries by people living in cold and damp climates such as northern Europe and the Pacific Northwest, where drying alone would be less effective. For the purpose of preservation, fish would be smoked until it was quite dry, preventing the growth of moisture-dependent spoilers. These days, we’re smoking for the flavor imparted by volatiles in the wood, so we cold smoke, keeping the temperature inside the smoker below 100F, and removing the fish before it loses much moisture. Cold smoked meats will not keep at room temperature and must be refrigerated. Well wrapped, this smoked salmon should keep for 7-10 days in the fridge. It can be frozen as well.

My favorite way to serve this is mixed with about equal amount of homemade cream cheese and schmeered on a bagel, but since I’m not doing bagels at the moment (sad sad me), straight up with a spoon works, too.

I adapted this recipe from Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie. His calls for sugar, but we’re avoiding all sweeteners except honey these days too (yeah, no bagels and no maple syrup…sad sad moi), so that’s what I’ve used. I’ve also tripled his recipe, making enough for friends and members of our buying club.

Ingredients for Smoke Salmon Cure: Honey, sea salt, juniper berries, cloves, saltpeter, mace, white pepper, bay leaves

Honey-Cured Smoked Sockeye Salmon
Yields approximately three pounds

1 cup honey
1 cup sea salt
1 tablespoon pink salt
1 tablespoon cloves, ground
1 tablespoon juniper berries, ground
2 teaspoons ground white pepper
1 teaspoon ground mace
2 teaspoons ground bay leaves
1 cup filtered (or boiled and cooled) water
3 sockeye salmon fillets, each about 1-1/2 pounds

Mix the honey, sea salt, pink salt, cloves, juniper berries, pepper, mace, bay leaves, and water and stir until salt is dissolved.

Cure the salmon in a flat-bottomed, non-reactive pan that’s just large enough to snugly contain the fillets. I’m using a 9-by-13-inch glass casserole dish.

Sockeye Salmon in Cure

Pour 1 cup of cure into bottom of curing vessel. Lay the two smaller fillets skin-side down on the cure and pour another cup of cure over the fillets. Lay the third fillet skin-side down between the bottom two fillets and pour the last cup of cure over the salmon.

Cover the fish with a piece of wax paper, then weigh it down with a dish or a water-filled zip-top bag. Refrigerate for 36 hours.

Rinse the fillets well, pat dry and set on a rack. Allow to air-dry in the refrigerator for 4-6 hours. Set up smoker for a cold smoke and smoke for about 4 hours.

Salt Curing

As someone who once had a 20 year bagel and cream cheese breakfast habit, it should come as no surprise that my first foray into preserving salmon was lox. Gravlax means “buried salmon” in the languages spoken throughout Scandinavia. Fisherman used to lightly salt salmon then bury it for a time, allowing it to ferment.

Making it at home requires no special equipment or ingredients. You won’t even have to dig a hole in your backyard. I used king salmon in this preparation, though any salmon should do. Notice the difference between the color of the sockeye above and the king below?

Gravlax Ingredients: honey, sea salt, bulb fennel, King salmon, juniper berries, peppercorns. What did I forget?

Fennel & Honey-Cured Gravlax (adapted from Charcuterie)
Yields approximately three pounds

1/2 cup dill seeds
2 tablespoons peppercorns
2 tablespoons juniper berries
1 cup honey
1/2 cup molasses (optional)
1 cup sea salt
1 cup filtered (or boiled and cooled) water
4 pounds salmon fillet, no thicker than 1-1/2 inches, skin on, pinbones removed
1 fennel bulb, with stalks and leaves, thinly sliced

Toast the dill, peppercorns, and juniper berries over medium-high heat in a dry pan.

Toasting

Allow the spices to cool and then crack with mortal and pestle or process briefly in a mill.

Mix spices with honey, molasses (if using), salt, and water, stirring until salt is dissolved. Pour 1 cup of cure into bottom of curing vessel. Lay the salmon fillets skin-side down on the cure and pour remaining cure over the salmon.

Salmon in cure

Cover the salmon with sliced fennel, then fennel leaves.

King salmon covered with cure, fennel bulb, and fennel leaves.

Cover the fish tightly with a piece of wax paper. Place a dish or water-filled zip-top bag on top of the salmon. Cure at 40-50F for 24 hours (fridge is fine for this, but if the weather’s cool enough, I put it in a protected area outside), then turn the fish skin-side-up, replace the weight, and cure for another 24 hours. Fish is fully cured when it is uniformly firm to the touch. If there are still some mushy spots, return the fish to the brine and cure for another 12 hours or so and check it again.

Remove from the brine, rinse thoroughly and wipe off the seeds. Pat dry, wrap tightly in wax paper or a piece of plastic, then store in the fridge. Should keep for a week.

Pickling

I tasted pickled salmon for the first time at last fall’s fermentation festival here in Portland and obsessed about it for days until I made my own batch. It has an incredibly clean, fresh flavor. Serve it with a simple green salad or lightly dressed new potatoes. Or just enjoy it as a snack.

I made this batch with the king salmon, but I liked it better with the sockeye, which has firmer flesh.

King Salmon & Fennel

Fermented Salmon (adapted from Nourishing Traditions)

1 cup filtered water
1/4 cup juice from preserved lemons or 1/4 cup of whey
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 pound salmon fillet, skinned and cut into bite sized pieces
1/4 preserved lemon
1 bunch freshly snipped fennel
2 bay leaves
8 crushed juniper berries
8 crushed black peppercorns

Stir the water, lemon juice, salt, and honey the salt is dissolved.

Ingredients for Pickled Salmon: preserved lemons, salmon and fennel, juniper berries, peppercorns, salt, honey, water

Pack the fish, preserved lemon, fennel, bay leaves, juniper berries, and peppercorns into a clean quart sized jar. Pour the liquid mixture over the top of the fish, being sure the fish is completely submerged in liquid. Add more water to cover if necessary. Be sure there is at least an inch of headspace at the top of the jar because fermented foods will bubble.

Cover the jar tightly and keep it at room temperature for 24 hours before putting it in the refrigerator. The fish will keep for 2 weeks.

Clockwise from left: gravlax, smoked salmon, pickled salmon.

The results are so worth the effort, and yes, like the book says, Better Than Store Bought.

*That’s a joke. King = chinook, silver=coho.

Shared at: Fight Back Friday

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About Chris

I am a personal chef and cooking instructor with a deep and personal interest in healing with whole foods. I started Lost Arts Kitchen so I could share what I have learned about preparing real food on a real budget while living a real life.
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13 Responses to Preserving Salmon Three Ways

  1. Pingback: Three Ways to Preserve Salmon Naturally « Cooking GAPS

  2. Jen Schwab says:

    Hey Chris! Nice post! I have a 30lb (give or take) sized whole tuna in my freezer and really need to do something with it, but am feeling fairly intimidated by how to even approach that bad boy (or girl, I have not checked) :) I love all your ideas, knowing how big my fish is and that it is whole, which of the listed styles would recommend? Thanks! :)

    • Chris says:

      Hi Jen! Thanks! With such a large whole frozen tuna, I would suggest using a little “divide and conquer” to make it easier. Let it thaw partially in the refrigerator–the meat can become mushy if it thaws at room temperature. Gut it and cut it into loins (http://www.bctfa.com/preparation.html). I would smoke at least some of the tuna (cold smoke and not for long, tuna isn’t as oily as salmon and will dry out quickly), then freeze it or better, pressure can it. I usually save the loin tips for smoking and pressure can the rest of the loin un-smoked. I assume you can pickle it, though I haven’t come across any recipes for raw pickled tuna. I bet it would be good, though.

      • Granola Girl says:

        I grew up with a Swedish grandfather and he used to eat pickled herring. SO GOOD! Pickled tuna is called Escabeche De Atum. You might try a google search for it. I know it is possible, but don’t really know how you do it.

  3. Pingback: Dried Juniper Berries Brine

  4. Pingback: Eating Local Meal Plan for Spring | Lost Arts Kitchen

  5. Debbie says:

    I have several salmon in my freezer and would love to smoke them. I have never known if it’s okay to smoke after freezing. The tuna question above makes me think I might be able to do that? Any thoughts?

    Thanks!

    • Chris says:

      Debbie, I think just about every salmon we’ve smoked was previously frozen. Works fine and even re-freezes okay.

      • Debbie says:

        Awesome! Thanks. We have salmon given to us regularly, and I have wanted to smoke it, but am often not in a spot where I can do it the day of. The kids are cleaning some as we speak. I look forward to trying your honey cure for smoking.

        Thanks for your wonderful work in the world of slow food!

  6. Pingback: Dill Pollen Gravad Lax « Edible Aria

  7. Tom says:

    Thanks for the recipes! We live in Portland too and just went to the fermentation fest. We loved the salmon and wanted to make it. I stumbled upon your blog and we just made the last two recipes. We also made this one: http://anniehill.blogspot.com/2010/10/pickling-fish.html because we are sailors and looking for a recipe you can preserve for a long period of time unrefrigerated.

  8. Duncan Kay says:

    Out of interest, does anyone have any comment on whether raw frozen salmon can be defrosted, cured, cold smoked and then refrozen? Prefreezing makes a big impact on the curing process, and I have found that if I cut shallow incisions through the skin I can achieve the same level of curing with fresh salmon. But it would be so much easier if I could use frozen raw salmon and then refreeze.

  9. Karen says:

    One of the most delicious foods I’ve ever eaten was salmon preserved in a jar of olive oil. Has anyone done this? Any recipes out there?

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