Meat and I, we have a complicated relationship. The enjoyment I derive from testing out new meat-centric recipes and learning about various techniques and processes in regard to cooking meat tends to oftentimes far outweigh any desire I might have to actually eat what I am making. Last winter I had a great time braising short ribs for four hours in a red wine and balsamic reduction, but when it came to actually eating the short ribs, I have to admit that I was decidedly lacking in enthusiasm. Slow roasting a salt-crusted pork tenderloin on the grill is a fascinating operation, so long as I will not be made to actually eat the pork when I am done fussing with it. Meats get stuffed, marinated, and rolled, and then I foist them on my husband. Not that he minds. More realistically, I do not foist them upon him so much as I generously heap them upon his willing plate.
This trend, however, might have just come to an end. Please, everyone, let me introduce you all to my new best friend: whiskey soaked applewood smoked salmon.
First of all, allow me to admit that, up until last year, I was not aware of the fact that making smoked salmon at home was even a possibility. I thought that smoking meats involved special canisters or barrels, or perhaps some sort of high-tech equipment that only very dedicated meat-eating people knew how to find. Not surprisingly, I was dead wrong. To smoke salmon at home, you need little more than an outdoor grill, some wood chips, salt, and sugar. That’s it.
If you want to get a little fancier, you can briefly marinate your salmon in a bit of whiskey or bourbon, like we did here, or perhaps a bit of rum, if you’d prefer your salmon to be a bit sweeter. No matter which you choose, after 4 hours of curing the salmon to draw out the liquid, it takes only 20 short minutes to smoke this salmon to a delicious and robust finish.
You can eat this smoked salmon on a salad, you can pile it on top of a bagel, or you can flake it into some pasta. There is no wrong way to eat this, and the only known way to stop enjoying it is to eat it until it is gone. You might want to immediately make more, but that’s all right. If nothing else, you can just use my excuse, and tell people that you are making up for meats long ago left unenjoyed.
Whiskey Soaked Applewood Smoked Salmon
Adapted only slightly from Steven Raichlen’s How to Grill
1 salmon fillet, about 1 pound
½ cup whiskey, bourbon, or rum
½ cup firmly packed brown sugar
¼ cup coarse salt*
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
2 cups wood chips, soaked in cold water for 1 hour, then drained (Raichlen recommends using alder wood chips, but we used apple wood because we had easy access to it, courtesy of a recently-felled apple tree and, man, don’t we sound all self sufficient and rustic right now?)
Skin the salmon fillet and remove any bones. Rinse the salmon under cold running water, then blot dry. Place the salmon in a baking dish just large enough to hold it, and pour the whiskey, bourbon, or rum over it. Allow to marinate for 15 minutes, then drain the salmon and blot dry once more. Wipe out the baking dish.
Combine the brown sugar, salt, and pepper in a mixing bowl and mix well with your fingers. Spread 1/3 of the mixture over the bottom of the baking dish. Lay the salmon on top of the mixture, skinned-side down. Cover salmon with remaining 2/3 of brown sugar mixture, patting it onto the fish with your fingertips. Cover the salmon with plastic wrap and allow to cure in the refrigerator for 4 hours. The salt in the cure will draw out the moisture in the salmon.
Set up your grill for indirect grilling. If you have a two burner gas grill, this will mean setting one burner on medium high heat and leaving the other burner off. If you have a three burner gas grill, it will mean setting the two outermost burners on medium high heat and leaving the middle burner off. If you have a charcoal grill, you will be raking your hot coals into two piles on opposite sides of the grill, leaving an empty space in between. After preparing whichever grill you have, place a drip pan in the portion of the grill that is not lit or covered with hot coals.
Thoroughly rinse the brown sugar mixture off of the salmon with cold running water, then blot dry once more. Discard liquid that has been extracted from the salmon.
Toss the pre-soaked wood chips onto hot coals (if using a charcoal grill), or, if using a gas grill, place wood chips in a smoker box made specifically for gas grills (such as this one), or wrap your wood chips in a tight pouch of aluminum foil with holes punched in the top (as demonstrated here), then place the box or pouch of wood chips under the grill grate, directly on top of a burner.
Brush and oil grill grate. Place the salmon in the center of the hot grate, over the drip pan that has been placed away from the heat. Completely close the lid of the grill. Smoke the fish until cooked through, about 20 minutes. To test for doneness, press the top of the salmon with your finger and test for firmness. The salmon should feel firm and break into clean flakes.
Cool the salmon, then wrap it in aluminum foil and refrigerate until cold. Serve warm or at room temperature. Tightly wrapped, the smoked salmon will keep in the refrigerator for 3-5 days.
*A note about coarse salt: Coarse salt, which is often found in the form of kosher salt, comes in varying degrees of saltiness. The two most widely found brands of kosher salt, Morton and Diamond, are no exception. Morton kosher salt is known for being exceedingly salty, while Diamond kosher salt is decidedly less salty. If using Diamond kosher salt, I recommend you go ahead and use the full amount of salt called for. If you are using Morton kosher salt, reduce the amount of salt by one heaping tablespoon, then proceed with the recipe as usual.