The Art of Cold Smoking

For centuries, fishermen across the world used smoke to preserve the excess catch that could not be consumed fresh. While this was done under much more primitive conditions, the fundamental steps and formulas of the process itself remain largely unchanged even in the face of modern advancements and equipment. However, while the smokers of yore turned to this method out of necessity, today we employ this process not to preserve, but to enhance,  the texture and the flavor for our culinary pleasure.

Some may not realize distinction: cold smoking does not actually preserve the fish, nor does it cook it (as hot smoking does)– it is essentially a raw product that requires refrigeration prior to consumption – and for the unused portions. At Browne Trading, where our products are all natural and free of artificial preservatives, shelf life is generally lower than many assume. Another misconception is that smoking “improves” fish that has fallen off or is of low quality – when nothing could be farther from the truth. Smoking does not “mask” the flavor or quality of poor fish, which will be readily apparent in the taste and smell even after smoking.

Salmon remains the most popular smoked fish in modern cuisine (although mackerel, trout, sablefish and sturgeon remain favorites in most countries). Part of the appeal of the salmon for smoking stems from its wonderful fat content that gives it a rich flavor along with its flesh structure which is naturally flaky. Caution must be taken however – overly fatty salmon run risk of being too oily after smoking (this is more common with richer Wild King, or Chinook, Salmon) and ends up being more greasy than pleasant. The advent of farm raising the Atlantic salmon, fed on a stable diet and harvested at a fixed maturity, consistently produces a fish with the perfect fat structure for the smoking process.

Cold smoking salmon, fundamentally, is a simple – albeit time consuming – process: at Browne, from the preparation to the final packaging, our smoked salmon varieties take literally days to make per batch. It consists of the traditional stages: Preparing the Fish, Curing , Smoking, and of course on a commercial scale, Slicing and Packaging:

Preparing – We begin with the freshest Atlantic salmon fillets and pin bone them by hand, then wash them and prepare them to be cured. The skin is left on to hold the fillet together until the very final stages of slicing.

Curing – The most commonly used methods are a dry cure, or brining (liquid) – at Browne we apply our cure by hand in a dry rub. Curing is used to draw out the moisture and is primarily salt – although we utilize sugar as well – and other herbs & spices depending upon the recipe.  The salt of the cure draws out the moisture within the fish – firming the texture and imparting deeper flavor. The fattier the fish, the less moisture will be drawn which prevents it from drying out too much – hence salmon’s great popularity. Once the cure has been applied, the fillets are placed on racks to cure for a minimum of 18 hours in refrigeration. Prior to going into the smoker, the fillets are rinsed of the salt/sugar cure and air dried on the racks.

Smoking – “Cold smoking” occurs when the ambient temperature is LOWER than 90 degrees F. At Browne, in our professional smoker, or kiln, we keep ours at an optimal 78 degrees F. While smoking periods vary, generally we keep it to around 6 hours per batch. Key to the process is the type of wood used (actually chips, which are more of the consistency of sawdust – allowed to smolder slowly so the aromatics of the wood oils are released). Hardwoods are favored, and fruitwoods preferred – cherry in particular – and at these low temperatures create a mild “cool smoke” that naturally enhances the flavor of the cured fish. At Browne, our smoker produces only about 120 fillets per batch, making it a true artisanal production.

Slicing & Packaging – Once the fillets have gone through the smoking processes, they are cooled on racks for over 40 hours. When ready for slicing, the skin is removed, and each fillet is hand fed through our custom slicer. From there, the slices are portioned, placed on our custom packaging,  and then individually cryovaced, labeled, and ready for sale or shipment.

Cold smoking fish can be done at home for the motivated chef with the proper space and equipment, but generally is quite labor intensive and requires a home smoker, outdoor space, and plenty of trial and error. For those that enjoy the texture of smoked fish, but don’t have the resources needed to properly smoke at home or in their restaurant, consider a simple Grav Lox recipe (traditional Gravlax is the simply curing of the fish in salt and sugar for several days, without the smoking process.)

Citrus Basil Smoke SalmonIf you are buying our smoked salmon or smoked seafood items for yourself or as a gift, consider having it shipped on a date closest to anticipated consumption for optimal enjoyment. Smoked items can be frozen if necessary (leave in packaging and freeze upon receipt) – but should be consumed no later than 6 months. For best results, product should be thawed in refrigeration 1-2 days prior to use; do not thaw at room temperature or in a microwave as it will greatly diminish quality. We don’t recommend further “cooking” cold smoked seafoods.

Additional Resources:

Jim Peterson’s Fish & Shellfish cookbook outlines in excellent detail how to Cold Smoke (and Hot Smoke) Salmon at home.

~Nick Branchina, Director of Marketing