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Cook-Off 59: Cured, Brined, Smoked and Salted Fish

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#1 David Ross

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Posted 13 April 2012 - 04:05 PM

Welcome back to our popular eGullet Cook-Off Series. Our last Cook-Off, Hash, took us into a heated discussion of the meat of the matter--should it be chopped, hashed, sliced, diced, or chunked.

Click here, for our Hash discussion, and the answers to all of your questions about this beloved diner staple. The complete eG Cook-Off Index can be found here. Today we’re launching eGullet Cook-Off 59: Cured, Brined, Smoked and Salted Fish.

Drying fish is a method of preservation that dates back to Ancient times, but more recently, (let’s say a mere 500 years ago or so), salt mining became a major industry in Europe and salt was a fast and economical way of preserving fish. Curing agents like nitrates were introduced in the 19th century, furthering the safety and taste of preserved fish.

Where I live in the Pacific Northwest, Native Americans have been preserving fish and seafood for millennia. While we are best known for our ruby-red, oily-rich, smoked salmon, other species of fish found in the Pacific and in our streams are delicious when cured and smoked including Halibut, Sablefish and Idaho Rainbow Trout. And don’t think that you can’t smoke shellfish, alder-smoked Dungeness Crab is a wondrous Pacific Northwest delicacy that evokes memories of crab roasting over a driftwood fire on the beach.

Another method of preserving fish is to bath the beauties in a brine—a combination of water, sugar, salt and spices that adds flavor and moisture to fish before it is dried or smoked. And speaking of smoked fish, you can do it in a small pan on top of the stove, in a cast iron drum, a barbecue pit, an old woodshed or a fancy digital smoker. The methods and flavors produced by smoking fish are endless.

Old-fashioned ways of preserving fish, (while adequate at the time), aren't always the best method today. Today's technology provides us with the tools to create cured fish that is moist, succulent, tender and with a hint of smoke. The Modernist movement has certainly played a role in bringing this age-old craft into the 21st century, so for the avant-garde in the crowd, show us your creative wizardry for preserving fish the "modern" way.

Cured, Brined, Smoked or Salted, the art of preserving fish opens us up to limitless possibilities that transcend the boundaries of cuisine and culture. So let’s sew-up the holes in our fishnets, scrub the barnacles off the rowboat and set out to sea in search of some delectable fish to cure, brine, smoke and salt.

#2 Prawncrackers

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Posted 13 April 2012 - 04:30 PM

Best smoked fish, no best smoked food ever, is eel. If I see any at the market then I'll be brining, salting and smoking these oily beauties sooner than you can say slimy!

#3 David Ross

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Posted 13 April 2012 - 04:35 PM

Best smoked fish, no best smoked food ever, is eel. If I see any at the market then I'll be brining, salting and smoking these oily beauties sooner than you can say slimy!

Fantastic, can't wait! On my menu so far is "Indian Candy" and Smoked Halibut Cheeks.

#4 TheTInCook

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Posted 13 April 2012 - 05:11 PM

Best smoked fish, no best smoked food ever, is eel. If I see any at the market then I'll be brining, salting and smoking these oily beauties sooner than you can say slimy!


I had a philipina friend that would bring smoked eel when we drank beer. They were kinda crispy. I think she finished them off by frying them.

#5 adey73

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Posted 14 April 2012 - 08:51 AM

Prawn how much is Eel a KG, what's the yield and er what's the procedure?

I've only ever seen one recipe for it, somewhere.
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#6 rlibkind

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Posted 14 April 2012 - 11:19 AM

It's not preservation/curing for the long-term, but whenever I pick up a classic East Coast oily fish (bluefish, mackerel, herring, etc.), I''ll be sure to cook extra fillets (sauté meunière), cover them with thinly sliced onions, and douse in a vinegar-base pickle brine (adding whatever pickling spices that might be handy as the spirit moves me). It holds up nicely for a least three or four days, which is significant given how oily these fishes are.
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#7 Prawncrackers

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Posted 14 April 2012 - 01:49 PM

Prawn how much is Eel a KG, what's the yield and er what's the procedure?

I've only ever seen one recipe for it, somewhere.


Last one I bought around the new year was £22 per kg, and it was dead on about kilo too. I didn't weigh the smoked fillets, but if I had to guess then I got about 200g from it. So not cheap at all, but so worth it. I'll give you a procedure in this very thread if I can get my hands on one or two soon. Watch this space!

#8 David Ross

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Posted 14 April 2012 - 02:33 PM

Adding to my slate of recipes will be some nice Smoked Rainbow Trout that I bought today. They're farm-raised and come from one of the world's largest trout farms located on the Snake River in Twin Falls, Idaho. I'll brine them tonight, then hot-smoke tommorrow and craft them into a Smoked Trout Salad.

#9 David Ross

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Posted 14 April 2012 - 04:56 PM

Since this is such a deep topic, I thought I'd make a list of some of my questions for our discussion.

If we're curing fish in the style of Gravlax, what ratio of salt and sugar produces the best results?

Now if we're brining fish, what ratio of salt and sugar should we add to the water? And do different types of fish benefit from a longer cure in the brine?

Can we use iodized table salt? Or should we use Kosher salt? What about pure sea salt?

Speaking to the sweet element, should we use brown sugar or white cane sugar? Does honey add more sweetness? And what about molasses or maple syrup?

Some recipes call for air-drying the fish before smoking so that the surface of the protein forms a "pellicle," allowing the smoke to adhere to the fish without drying it out and giving the finished product an acrid, over-smoked taste. Have you ever smoked fish straight out of the cure or brine without drying it?

And speaking of smoke, it's of course a matter of both temperature and the type of wood you use. What types of fish work best with a cold-smoke technique? What about hot-smoking? Salmon adapts to both techniques, but the preparations that take place before it goes in the smoker are different.

In my neck of the woods we traditionally use Alder as the wood for smoking fish. Mesquite and hickory are fine for meats, but they seemingly would overpower the delicate taste of fish. Sometimes I'll use apple, cherry, or pear wood for smoking fish to give it a hint of the sweetness of a fruit orchard. What are the subtle differences that you taste in fish that has been smoked with different types of woods?

All points to consider as we prep for our Cook-Off.

#10 David Ross

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Posted 14 April 2012 - 06:43 PM

I'm not at all familiar with salting fish other than the salt cod I get out of a little wooden box from my fishmonger. I absolutely adore salt cod in all its culinary guises-bacalao, salt cod fritters and potato puree with salt cod. It's salty, rich and satisfying whatever way you cook it. But can I preserve salted cod at home? What are the temperature and humidity constraints we have to follow? While the commerical products are probably far better than what I could ever attempt to create at home, I'm curious if homemade salt cod is worth the effort?

#11 Panaderia Canadiense

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Posted 14 April 2012 - 08:46 PM

David, would you consider Ceviches to fall under the brined/preserved category? Or are they a thing all to themselves?
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#12 David Ross

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Posted 15 April 2012 - 05:47 AM

David, would you consider Ceviches to fall under the brined/preserved category? Or are they a thing all to themselves?

Hmmm. That's a good question. My thought would be that Ceviche is a separate category. It's basically a raw fish dish, but the acids-lemon or lime juice-have the effect of quickly breaking down the proteins, or "cooking" the fish. I suppose you could say that it is "quick-cured," but it seems as though the basic goal of Ceviche is to take very fresh fish and add some additional ingredients and then quickly eat it. In my mind that takes it out of our realm of Cured, Brined, Smoked and Salted Fish.

#13 Panaderia Canadiense

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Posted 15 April 2012 - 06:54 AM


David, would you consider Ceviches to fall under the brined/preserved category? Or are they a thing all to themselves?

Hmmm. That's a good question. My thought would be that Ceviche is a separate category. It's basically a raw fish dish, but the acids-lemon or lime juice-have the effect of quickly breaking down the proteins, or "cooking" the fish. I suppose you could say that it is "quick-cured," but it seems as though the basic goal of Ceviche is to take very fresh fish and add some additional ingredients and then quickly eat it. In my mind that takes it out of our realm of Cured, Brined, Smoked and Salted Fish.


I'd actually contest that, since good Ceviche de Pulpo, for example, is a 5-day preparation (anything less and it's horrid and rubbery). However since most Ceviches are quick-cures, you're probably right in the broadest sense...

I'll have to rehabilitate my friend's antique smoker, then, and go catch some trout!
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#14 David Ross

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Posted 15 April 2012 - 07:34 AM



David, would you consider Ceviches to fall under the brined/preserved category? Or are they a thing all to themselves?

Hmmm. That's a good question. My thought would be that Ceviche is a separate category. It's basically a raw fish dish, but the acids-lemon or lime juice-have the effect of quickly breaking down the proteins, or "cooking" the fish. I suppose you could say that it is "quick-cured," but it seems as though the basic goal of Ceviche is to take very fresh fish and add some additional ingredients and then quickly eat it. In my mind that takes it out of our realm of Cured, Brined, Smoked and Salted Fish.


I'd actually contest that, since good Ceviche de Pulpo, for example, is a 5-day preparation (anything less and it's horrid and rubbery). However since most Ceviches are quick-cures, you're probably right in the broadest sense...

I'll have to rehabilitate my friend's antique smoker, then, and go catch some trout!

After looking at some recipes online for Ceviche de Pulpo, I think it would certainly qualify for our Cook-Off. My assumptions about Ceviche being a "quick-cure," (in the moment when you are putting the dish together), aren't totally correct. I see that some of the recipes call for the fish to be "cured," or "brined," in lime juice for over 24 hours. That certainly brings the dish into the realm of our Cook-Off. I'm brining trout today, but only for about 6 hours, far less than some Ceviches.

While I'm also going to smoke the trout, that isn't a requirement under our banner of "Cured, Brined, Smoked or Salted fish." We're only saying that we can use one of these techniques or all of them in combination. In some cultures, we know that combining fish with citrus juice is a method of "curing."

Thanks for bringing the question forward.

#15 Belgian Blue

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Posted 15 April 2012 - 09:58 AM

After reading this blog entry: http://alexrushmer.c...d-dill-gravlax/ I started making my own Gravadlax a few weeks ago and I'm totally hooked, as is anyone who's tasted it.

The cure I use is much like the one above: equal quantities of salt (I use 'sel de Guerande') and sugar (50/50 mix demerera/white), a few twists of white pepper, some juniper berries, a glug of gin and lots of fresh dill (today I used 40g). Then 3-4 days in the fridge depending on the thickness of the salmon fillets. So simple and yet so delicious :wub:

What I find strange is that I keep reading that the cured salmon only keeps for about 4-5 days in the fridge whereas I thought the whole point of the process was to preserve the fish. If anyone has any ideas on this, I'd be happy to read them. That said, it has never lasted that long, but it would be good to know nevertheless.

Edited by Belgian Blue, 15 April 2012 - 10:03 AM.

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#16 David Ross

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Posted 15 April 2012 - 03:19 PM

I've added a fourth dish to my lineup, Earl Grey Smoked Salmon based on a recipe by Chef Laurent Gras. The fuel for the smoke isn't always wood.

I've made tea-smoked duck and chicken before, but I've never used tea for smoking fish. I think the herbal notes of the bergamot in the tea will be a nice accent for the rich salmon. I'm also considering using some lapsang souchong tea. It's got a deep, earthy, smokey flavor that I think would work well on fish.

#17 Belgian Blue

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Posted 15 April 2012 - 04:25 PM

I'm currently reading and have cooked some of the recipes in 'Heston Blumenthal at Home' and in it he has a recipe for tea smoked salmon using jasmin tea but he also writes that Earl Grey, Lapsang Souchong and Darjeeling would be good to use for cold smoking salmon. Personally I too think the bergamot notes in Earl Grey would be great for cold smoking salmon.
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#18 ChefCrash

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Posted 15 April 2012 - 06:29 PM

My fish curing/smoking experience has been limited to dry curing and hot smoking. Always came out ok, but never could nail down the saltiness.

This is the last smoked trout I made two weeks ago. I was in a rush and slit the fish down to the bone to speed things up. Then I decided to debone and butterfly it.
The fish was covered thoroughly in a mixture of:

1/2 c Diamond Crystal kosher salt
1/4 c dark brown sugar
1 tsp black pepper.

It sat in the cure exactly one hour then rinsed, dried with paper towels and went on my smoker, so no drying.
It was smoked for about 1.5 hours. It came out great.

I have tried several cure ratios and curing times, sometimes twice with seemingly same weight and thickness of fish, and yet came out with different results.
Perhaps if I knew what a final (acceptable) salt content in the fish before smoking, I could calculate a brine saturation based on weight and let brine to equilibrium.

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#19 David Ross

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Posted 15 April 2012 - 06:33 PM

For the trout I did today my ratio was:

10 cups water
1/4 cup salt
1/3 cup brown sugar

That's 1/4 the salt called for in the recipes I looked at, including the recipe booklet that came with my new digital smoker. I've had some bad luck lately with overly salted salmon that I brined or cured, so I've been gradually cutting down on the ratio until I got it to the point where it fits within my own personal tastes.

I also added some black peppercorns, 1 bay leaf and a slice of lemon to the brine. Photos are on the way over the next few days of my curing/brining processes, smoking techniques and the finished dishes.

#20 David Ross

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Posted 15 April 2012 - 07:12 PM

My fish curing/smoking experience has been limited to dry curing and hot smoking. Always came out ok, but never could nail down the saltiness.

This is the last smoked trout I made two weeks ago. I was in a rush and slit the fish down to the bone to speed things up. Then I decided to debone and butterfly it.
The fish was covered thoroughly in a mixture of:

1/2 c Diamond Crystal kosher salt
1/4 c dark brown sugar
1 tsp black pepper.

It sat in the cure exactly one hour then rinsed, dried with paper towels and went on my smoker, so no drying.
It was smoked for about 1.5 hours. It came out great.

I have tried several cure ratios and curing times, sometimes twice with seemingly same weight and thickness of fish, and yet came out with different results.
Perhaps if I knew what a final (acceptable) salt content in the fish before smoking, I could calculate a brine saturation based on weight and let brine to equilibrium.

Looks fantastic. I like how you butterflied the trout so that the smoke would permeate the meat. When I saw your delicious photo I realized I should have butterflied the trout I smoked today. But I figure that since I'm putting it into a cold salad with other mild ingredients, I think my "closed" trout with a hint of smoke will work just fine.

This is a good lesson--think about how you're going to use the fish in a final dish, (which I forgot to do but hopefully will get lucky). I think for a cold, delicate salad, letting the whole trout sit on the smoker rack is a good application. If I was going to do a stronger dish, like smoked trout in a pate, spread or just chunks of smoked trout on bread I'd probably butterfly it.

Trout is the perfect fish for smoking, in part because the bone structure is so forgiving. Leave the bones attached and once the meat is cooked through, you can easily pull out the back bone with the rib bones attached. Too bad all fish aren't that easy to debone.

#21 jmolinari

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Posted 16 April 2012 - 11:28 AM

I made lox following Modernist Cuisine's parametric recipe.
I used a copper river salmon fillet (from last season, vac packed and frozen waiting for cooler weather). 3% salt, 1.5% sugar, vacuum packed it for a couple days to equilibrate.

Took it out of the bag, quick rinse, pat dry with paper towel and cold smoked with mixed hardwood for 4 hours. It's fantastic.

Next time i'll add some spices to it, but i wanted to keep the flavors clean with the copper river fillet.

#22 Belgian Blue

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Posted 16 April 2012 - 02:24 PM

I made lox following Modernist Cuisine's parametric recipe.
I used a copper river salmon fillet (from last season, vac packed and frozen waiting for cooler weather). 3% salt, 1.5% sugar, vacuum packed it for a couple days to equilibrate.


I'm afraid my budget hasn't got as far as 'Modernist Cuisine' yet :sad: and I've a huge learning curve in front of me (hopefully) but can you tell me what 'to equilibrate' means in the context of the cure ?
Belgian Blue

#23 bmdaniel

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Posted 16 April 2012 - 02:35 PM


I made lox following Modernist Cuisine's parametric recipe.
I used a copper river salmon fillet (from last season, vac packed and frozen waiting for cooler weather). 3% salt, 1.5% sugar, vacuum packed it for a couple days to equilibrate.


I'm afraid my budget hasn't got as far as 'Modernist Cuisine' yet :sad: and I've a huge learning curve in front of me (hopefully) but can you tell me what 'to equilibrate' means in the context of the cure ?



He just means for the salt to stabilize across the fish (i.e., achieve even 3% everywhere). The idea is you can put in just the right amount of salt such that you don't have to worry about over or under curing.

#24 Belgian Blue

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Posted 16 April 2012 - 04:15 PM

Aha - yep - you've just confirmed that I haven't a clue what I'm doing when I cure sides of salmon.
Roll on the day when I can afford the book(s).

I appreciate you taking the time to answer - thank you.

Edited by Belgian Blue, 16 April 2012 - 04:15 PM.

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#25 David Ross

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Posted 16 April 2012 - 06:48 PM

I started my adventure with brining and smoking some Rainbow Trout. These trout came from Clear Springs Foods, a trout farm located on the Snake River in Southern, Idaho. The ponds are fed with pure spring water, growing trout that have a clean, fresh taste.

These beauties weighed just under a pound each and sold for $4.99 per pound-

Smoked Trout 013.JPG

Smoked Trout 016.JPG

I didn't want to overpower the delicate texture and mild flavor of the trout, so I used a simple brine composed of-
10 cups water
1/4 cup Kosher salt
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 tbsp. peppercorns
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 bay leaf
1 tbsp. Calvados, (apple brandy)

I wasn't sure the Calvados would add any flavor to the trout, but I was going to be using applewood for the smoke so I thought the apple flavor of the Calvados would accent the flavor from the wood.

This was a "cold" brine as opposed to a "hot brine." With a hot brine you bring the water to a boil and then add the salt and sugar so it melts into the liquid. A hot brine is cooled and then the fish is added and refrigerated to cure. In all honesty, making a cold brine is much easier, (just stir the ingredients together). I haven't been able to taste any difference in fish that is cured in a cold brine compared to a hot brine.

Here are the trout in the brine. Note that I left the trout whole, I didn't think to butterfly them like ChefCrash did with his trout. Looking back on it, if I would have butterflied the trout they would have picked-up more smoke. After the fact, I figured that it was o.k. to leave the trout untouched so the meat would only pick up a hint of smoke, yet stay moist within it's natural blanket. I was going to be using the trout in a salad, so I thought it wouldn't need a heavy dose of smoke. At least that was my reasoning-

Smoked Trout 023.JPG

The trout cured in the brine for 7 hours, then went directly into the smoker without sitting out to air-dry. (I'll be providing photos and more information on my smoker in my upcoming posts). Since trout is a delicate fish without any oil, I thought it didn't need to dry-out before smoking like I would do with salmon. So in the smoker they go, head on, skin on, bones and fins.

The trout ready for the smoker-

Smoked Trout 034.JPG

You'll note the trout are sitting on a screen that I put on top of the smoker rack. The spaces of the smoker rack are pretty large, so small items like whole fish or fish filets can fall through the holes in the rack. I use screen from Home Depot, (actual screen used for doors), cut to the size of the rack and use it as a resting spot for the fish. You need to spray it with non-stick coating so the fish won't stick to the screen, but other than that, it's a cheap and easy way to hold the fish flat on the rack. It's sort of like the non-stick metal sheets with air holes that people use for baking pizza.

I hot-smoked the trout for 2 hours at 150 degrees using applewood, then turned the smoke off, increased the temperature to 170, and continued to cook the trout for another 3 hours until the flesh was firm to the touch. Then into a covered container to cool overnight-

After cooling overnight, I pulled the meat off the bones. It probably would have been easier to pull the bones out when the trout was still warm, but trout are incredibly easy to clean and debone whether cold or hot. I left the meat in fairly good size chunks for both texture and the type of salad I was going to be making. It came out incredibly juicy-

Smoked Trout 044.JPG

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The trout was then crafted into a salad composed of-
Red Grapes
Celery
Toasted Almonds
Mayonnaise
Lemon Juice
Tarragon
Chives
Salt
Pepper
Calvados

The garnishes were little garlic dill pickles and red grapes and some toasted bread slices. My meat slicer has been a gift from above when it comes to cutting anything very, very thin. I think I bought it with the intention of cutting lunch meat, but it's a marvel for cutting baguettes lengthwise into thin, little crisps.

Applewood Smoked Trout Salad-
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#26 ChefCrash

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Posted 16 April 2012 - 07:22 PM

The fish and salad look great.

#27 David Ross

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Posted 16 April 2012 - 07:23 PM

The fish and salad look great.

Thanks. It tasted pretty great too.

#28 David Ross

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Posted 16 April 2012 - 07:25 PM



I made lox following Modernist Cuisine's parametric recipe.
I used a copper river salmon fillet (from last season, vac packed and frozen waiting for cooler weather). 3% salt, 1.5% sugar, vacuum packed it for a couple days to equilibrate.


I'm afraid my budget hasn't got as far as 'Modernist Cuisine' yet :sad: and I've a huge learning curve in front of me (hopefully) but can you tell me what 'to equilibrate' means in the context of the cure ?



He just means for the salt to stabilize across the fish (i.e., achieve even 3% everywhere). The idea is you can put in just the right amount of salt such that you don't have to worry about over or under curing.


I'm also naive when it comes to the Modernist methods. Explain a little more about the ratios. So is the 3% ratio of salt related to 3% of the weight of the fish? Or is it a ratio of 3% salt in the amount of water you are using?

#29 ChefCrash

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Posted 16 April 2012 - 07:28 PM

So that was a 3% salt and 1.5% sugar water solution? Does fish weight to brine weight matter? Seems that it would.
Thanks

I made lox following Modernist Cuisine's parametric recipe.
I used a copper river salmon fillet (from last season, vac packed and frozen waiting for cooler weather). 3% salt, 1.5% sugar, vacuum packed it for a couple days to equilibrate.

Took it out of the bag, quick rinse, pat dry with paper towel and cold smoked with mixed hardwood for 4 hours. It's fantastic.

Next time i'll add some spices to it, but i wanted to keep the flavors clean with the copper river fillet.


Edited by ChefCrash, 16 April 2012 - 07:31 PM.


#30 jmolinari

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Posted 16 April 2012 - 07:58 PM

Sorry guys. I should have been clearer. My % are relative to the weight of the fish. No brine. Just salt and sugar. Applied evenly to the salmon. Vac packed and then left for a couple days.

I've done a LOT of research as it pertains to brines and the science behind it is very vague. Absorption rates, pickup %, fat levels in product it's all a big guessing game between brine concentration and how long to leave the meat/fish. I don't like it. The beauty of dry curing the item using an equilibrium method is that you can't over salt it. You add as much salt by weight as you want the item to have. That's it. Then leave it long enough for the salt to equilibrate in the item.





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