You probably know lox (salmon brined, but not smoked). You likely love nova (cold-smoked). But the hot-smoked version of the ray-finned fish is among the most delicious, versatile and simple foods. To make it extraordinary takes a little bit of time. Your investment and patience will be rewarded.
King salmon, also called Chinook, is considered the best for hot-smoking, with a lot of Omega-3 rich fat and a fairly strong flavor. It’s expensive and hard to find. Sockeye salmon is milder in flavor, sufficiently fatty and less expensive, sometimes around $10 a pound in your local big-box store. Whatever salmon you choose, make sure it looks moist, smells like a sea breeze and has good color.
The trick is to cure the salmon to create a moisture buffer for when the fish is smoked, and also as a way to add flavor. Take the usual brown sugar and Kosher salt, but add lemon zest, orange zest, black pepper and Bourbon. Take a whole side of salmon, which will weigh about three pounds, and apply the cure (you can take a sip of the Bourbon, but don’t use it on the fish just yet). Hours later, rinse off the cure, brush the fish with Bourbon and maple syrup, then refrigerate the salmon, keeping it uncovered so that it forms a pellicle, a thin protein membrane that will help the smoke to adhere.
Get your smoker going. I like to use apple wood, but alder, hickory or pecan also work well. Take a piece of parchment paper and poke holes in it, then put the fish on that to make it nonstick and easy to take out of the smoker. Whatever smoker you use, be prepared to go about two hours at 200–225°F until the internal temperature of the salmon reaches about 140°F, and no more than 150. The top of the fish should be browning, if not completely golden. Take it out and let it rest about 10 minutes.
Sure, this is great as a meal all alone, or on a bagel, but explore a Stetson Salad. Or a sandwich with bacon and avocado. Perhaps some tacos? It makes a great pasta dish, too.