Make your own smoked salmon!
Varmrøkt laks is a memorable gift that is surprisingly easy to make at home
CHRISTY OLSEN FIELD
Taste of Norway Editor
The Norwegian American
Making edible gifts is a beloved holiday tradition for me. I love the creative process and the intention of making them, even if I experience mid-project regret syndrome every December. Over the past few years, I’ve made homemade vanilla extract, small bottles of creamy limoncello, peppermint swirl marshmallows, crème de cassis (blackcurrant liquor), and jars of preserves made from the summer bounty of the garden. It’s one way of sharing love from my kitchen.
This year, I am excited to make varmrøkt laks, hot-smoked salmon, to share with neighbors and family. It’s a technique that I learned this summer that is surprisingly easy to do at home and makes for a memorable gift.
Smoked fish is found in regional cuisine throughout Norway. Though we no longer need smoke as a preservation technique thanks to refrigerators (and most people don’t have smokehouses at home either), the flavor is unparalleled, especially when it comes to fish with high oil content. Laks (salmon), makrell (mackerel), and ørret (brown trout) are commonly smoked in Norway.
There are two approaches to smoking fish: kaldrøyking (cold smoked, where the temperature does not go above 80°F and it is smoked for 12 hours or longer), or varmrøyking (hot smoked, where the higher temperature cooks the fish lightly in addition to adding smoke flavor and takes 30 minutes to a couple of hours).
Hot-smoked salmon also has a rich tradition where I live in the Pacific Northwest, and it commands a high price for a tiny package.
I had no idea that it could be made easily at home until this summer, when my husband, Carl, upgraded his barbeque to a Traeger wood pellet smoker grill and experimented with different recipes. He tried a cold-smoked gravlax, but the crowd favorite was the hot-smoked salmon with dill. It has a silky texture, rich flavor with a heady perfume of smoke and dill, and it flakes easily. It’s the star of a cheese board or dinner! Carl is known for his excellent grilled salmon, but this hot-smoked salmon is next level.
My interest was further piqued when I read an article about homemade hot-smoked salmon in Cook’s Illustrated May/June 2021 issue, which explained the science behind hot-smoked salmon, and also how to make it with a gas or charcoal grill. (I did not test this recipe in the oven, but there are some recipes available online!)
The hot-smoked salmon method is straightforward: Apply a sugar-salt mixture to lightly cure the fish for a few hours, rinse and refrigerate the filets uncovered, and then grill the fish with additional smoke.
When testing this recipe, I used two approaches: An unadorned salt-sugar cure that lets the salmon shine, and another with dill seeds, coriander seeds, and fresh dill added to the salt-sugar mix to add some Scandinavian flavors.
Here are a few tips for hot-smoked salmon success:
Use the freshest salmon you can find. I have used sockeye and king salmon with excellent results. If you have concerns about consuming undercooked fish, you can freeze the filet and let it defrost in the fridge overnight.
Use kosher salt: In this case, the brand of salt does matter. I use Diamond kosher salt. Morton’s kosher salt is denser, so if this is the one you have on hand, use half of the amount of salt.
Barbeque wood chips or wood pellets: These can be purchased at hardware stores and well-stocked grocery stores in the barbeque section or online.
Use a smoker tube: This 12-inch-long perforated metal tube can use barbeque wood chips or wood pellets to add extra smoke. You can also make a packet of wood chips with a piece of aluminum foil. But if you are interested in smoking, the smoker tube is a great tool that delivers big flavor for little cost.
Instant-read digital probe thermometer: With hot-smoked salmon, you will need to know the internal temperature of the salmon. There are some great barbeque probe thermometers available (ours is Bluetooth-connected!), but my standby is my Thermapen digital thermometer.
If you want to go the traditional gravlaks route (made in the fridge with no smoke needed), The Norwegian American archives have some wonderful options. Nevada Berg’s recipe includes a mustard sauce and dill-stewed potatoes (norwegianamerican.com/from-preservation-technique-to-delicacy), and Daytona Strong’s recipe is brilliantly simple (norwegianamerican.com/gravlax-cure-for-winter-gray).
Please note: Hot-smoked salmon is not cooked to the USDA recommended temperature. People who are pregnant or are immunocompromised should consider not consuming it.
Are you a fan of hot-smoked fish? What are your favorite edible gifts to give or receive? I’d love to hear from you! Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Christy Olsen Field for The Norwegian American
Makes four 8-ounce pieces for gifting
About 2 pounds (one fillet of salmon) sockeye or king salmon, skin on
1 cup Diamond kosher salt (if you use Morton kosher salt, use half the amount)
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup barbeque wood chips or wood pellets of choice
* Herb variation: Add 1 tbsp. dill seeds, 1 tbsp. coriander seeds (ground in a mortar and pestle, or a coffee grinder), and ½ cup chopped fresh dill to the sugar-salt mix.
Special equipment needed
Two rimmed baking sheets
Wire rack that fits inside the baking sheets
Gas or charcoal grill
Here’s how you make it:
The day before you want to smoke it, cure your salmon.
First, remove all pin bones from salmon fillet with tweezers. Cut the fillet into four evenly sized sections. Cut four pieces of plastic wrap that are at least 6 inches longer than each salmon piece. In a small bowl, whisk together the kosher salt and sugar. Lay one piece of the salmon on the plastic wrap. Apply the salt-sugar mix to all sides of the salmon piece, patting it gently so it adheres. Fold up the edges of the plastic and wrap tightly. Repeat with each piece of salmon.
Place the wrapped salmon pieces on the rimmed baking sheet. Top with the other rimmed baking sheet, and top with something heavy, such as a cast iron skillet or heavy pot. Put the baking sheets in the fridge for 4-6 hours.
Remove the salmon pieces from the plastic wrap, and rinse off the sugar-salt brine thoroughly under running water. Pat dry with paper towel. Place the wire rack in one of the baking sheets and place each piece of salmon skin side down on the wire rack.
Refrigerate uncovered for 4-20 hours so the salmon can dry out. This creates a tacky film on the surface of the salmon called the pellicle. Not only does this help the smoke adhere to the salmon, but it helps to lock in the moisture.
Now you’re ready to smoke! Prepare your smoke component. Place wood chips in the smoker tube. Or prepare a foil packet: Take a large piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil and fold into an 8-inch by 4-inch packet. Add wood chips to the packet and cut three evenly spaced slits on top.
If using a gas grill, preheat the grill to about 300°F with the center burner (leave off the other burners). Light the wood chips and place on the center burner. Preheat for 15 minutes or so.
If using a charcoal grill, open bottom vent halfway. Light large chimney starter half filled with charcoal briquettes. Place 6 unlit briquettes on one side of grill. When top coals are partially covered with ash, pour into steeply banked pile over unlit briquettes. Place wood chip packet on top of coals with slits facing up. Set cooking grate in place, cover, and open lid vent halfway. Heat grill until hot and wood chips are smoking, about 5 minutes.
Insert your thermometer probe into the thickest part of a salmon piece. Place the salmon pieces on the grill. Cook until the internal temperature reaches 140°F. This might take 40 minutes with small pieces, or up to a couple hours if you smoke a whole fillet. If not using a barbeque probe thermometer, check with an instant-read digital thermometer to monitor the temperature periodically.
Once it’s reached 140°F, remove the fish pieces from the grill onto a baking sheet. Serve it warm or chilled. Enjoy!
For gifting, cool the salmon to room temperature. Place each piece in a zipper bag and squeeze out all the extra air. Gift immediately or place in freezer for up to three months.
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 19, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.