The Smoked Salmon Maze

Rosengarten Classic. Originally Published: ROSENGARTEN REPORT, November 2001.


Many factors contribute to the ultimate quality of the smoked salmon you buy. Here are some of them:

Genus of Salmon. There are two main types of salmon swimming around out there. The most prized is the Atlantic salmon, of the genus salmo salar. All European salmon are salmo salar, as are all eastern U.S. salmon. So, if your smoked salmon is made from salmon that was caught or raised in Scotland, Norway, Ireland or Maine, it’s salmo salar. It is highly prized because it has lots of the good stuff: oil.

The other main type is the Pacific salmon, of the genus oncorhynchus, which means “hook-nose.” Generally speaking, the Pacific type has less fat than the Atlantic type—which means that smoked salmon made from the western swimmers is usually less velvety and lush than the eastern-based smoked salmon. However, there are five different species within this hook-nosed genus, and some species are more desirable than others. Leading the quality list is Chinook salmon (also known as King, or Tyee), which has the most fat of all Pacific salmons, and makes the most luscious western smoked salmon. The other one you need to know is the bright-red, slightly drier Sockeye, which has its fans; it’s a smaller salmon, a condition which devotées say concentrates its flavor. Another species is Chum salmon (also known as Dog salmon, after the pets to which Eskimos feed their Chum); it is best avoided if you’re looking for a refined product.

Wild or Farmed? It is a romantic fantasy to think that there’s much wild salmon today in the smoked salmon distribution channels—so the issue of wild vs. farmed is mostly theoretical. And even if there were plenty—I’m still not so sure the difference would be worth getting worked up about. I’m reasonably certain that fresh wild salmon often has a deeper taste than farmed salmon—but I don’t think you can say the same about wild salmon vs. farmed salmon after they go through the curing/smoking process.

Salmon farming from the Bay of Fundy

Farmers, of course, have many arguments for the superiority of their product. They claim that farmed salmon is much more consistent—one reason being that the fat content of farmed salmon doesn’t vary from season to season. They say that their fish gets to the smokehouse in better condition, with none of the bruising that sometimes occurs in the catching of wild salmon; they say that bruised fish release lactic acid, which leads to deterioration of the flesh. Additionally, they say, they have been able (through control of the salmon’s environment) to triple the amount of omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon—the substance that scientists believe reduces cholesterol levels in humans, and makes this oil-savoring human very happy.

(Note: Since November 2001, when this piece was written, numerous factors have emerged that may make wild salmon the right choice for the environmentally-aware consumer.) 

Where Caught or Raised. If there were only wild salmon available, I’m sure connoisseurs would make much of where that salmon was caught. I’m told, for example, by a British trade organization, that wild Scottish salmon “have to swim upstream at an angle that on average is five times greater than the Norwegian angle.” This makes the Scottish wild fish stronger, they say, and deeper in flavor. That’s quite an angle itself.

But does scrutinizing national and regional differences make sense when such a high percentage of smoked salmon comes from farmed salmon? Are there discernible differences in farmed salmons from different countries?

I say “yes.” My smoked salmon utopia has always been Scotland…and I have no difficulty believing that the intrinsic quality of the farmed salmon there is higher than it is in other places. Is such a thing explainable? It is, in fact; some argue that the better salmon that has been found for eons in the wild in Scotland—now selected and bred by modern scientists—has led to superior farmed salmon in Scotland. I must confess—though I don’t have incontrovertible evidence as to superior quality—that my heart leaps like a salmon breaching a stream when I’m about to taste a farmed salmon from Scotland.

Salmon farming in Scotland

Farmed salmon from northeastern North America also makes an extremely strong showing, with some salmon from the Bay of Fundy (between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick) ranking right up there with the world’s greatest. I would also award pedigree points, from what I’ve observed, to farmed salmon from Ireland. Farmed salmon from Chile is a relatively new category—but some South American fish can be quite impressive. The one farming spot that continues to make me feel I may not have the best raw material before me is the Pacific Northwest—which undoubtedly has more to do with the species of fish than with the fish farming itself.

The Curing. The first important step in the actual production of smoked salmon is curing the fish, which always consists of applying salt. There is a good, practical reason behind this: the salt dries out the fish, removing water, which inhibits the growth of bacteria. In the process, both taste and texture are mightily affected.

The specifics of the cure vary a great deal. Most high-quality salmon is dry-cured (also known as Scottish-style curing); in this process, the salt is rubbed on. This requires individual labor on each fish, and a careful eye to determine just when each fish has had enough time in the salt cure. A cheaper, less labor-intensive process is to soak many salmon simultaneously in a salty brine. Most connoisseurs feel that this method is too effective—toughening the salmon, and leading to a salty, washed-out flavor. Dry-curing is definitely the glam option.

The other big curing issue is the addition of other ingredients. The most common “extra” is sugar—which, when added judiciously, can add a subtle, practically undetectable impression of sweetness that improves the finished product. Of course, in a time of wanton culinary creativity, all kinds of other things  are getting thrown into cures these days, but I find that most of them detract from the purity of the salmon. I do confess that if a Scottish producer who knows what he’s doing wants to rub some 12-year-old Single Malt Whisky on his fish, I’m not going to try and stop him.

The Smoking. This is huge, obviously, and has a million subtleties for specialists. But the two things resulting from smoking choices that anyone will notice are 1) texture of the fish (dry? firm? oily? tender?) and 2) degree and taste of smokiness. Here are some of the choices that have an effect on these things.

A fundamental decision for smokers is hot-smoking or cold-smoking. Hot-smoking, which is very popular in the Pacific Northwest, is more like cooking the fish, and results in a firmer, drier, flakier, “cooked” texture that does not slice well. Cold-smoked salmon is the velvety stuff and is what most people mean when they ask for smoked salmon. Cold-smoking is done at temperatures roughly between 80 degrees and 90 degrees. Higher, and the “cooked” quality sets in; lower and you have something not much different from sashimi. The precise temperature chosen by the producer makes a big difference.

Cold smoked salmon from Alaskan King Crab Co.

Hot smoked salmon from Williams-Sonoma

Next choice: how long do you smoke it? Opinions vary, and therein lies the art. You hear everything from as little as eight hours to as many as 48 hours. Obviously, less time brings a “rawer” texture and a milder smoke flavor.

Another key factor is the smokehouse itself: is the salmon in a confined space, where it’s likely to pick up lots of smoke flavor, or is it smoked in an airy space, where the smoke will have less of an effect?

A fundamental factor is the type of wood used in the smoking process. In the cheapest smoked salmon production, sawdust is burned. Quality producers eschew this. Chunks or chips of hardwood, usually oak, are used throughout Europe. Some Scottish producers talk of burning Scotch whisky barrels. Other producers mention other woody exotica, such as juniper. American smokers, principally east of the Mississippi, sometimes use hickory. And the pacific Northwest is famous for the use of alderwood–a Native American smoking tradition.

When you juggle all of these factors together, you arrive at the smoke profile of the finished product.

Where Smoked. In this category, I’m sure that geography is destiny. Let’s look at six centers of smoked salmon production:

*Scotland. Once again, the Highlanders come out on top—and here it’s nurture, not nature, that makes the difference. The Scots are simply the great artisans of the smoked salmon world. Producers of many modern luxury products, including smoked salmon, have found ways to cut corners, to make good-enough products with a little less care. I would argue that a higher percentage of smoked salmon producers hold on to the old ways in Scotland than anywhere else in smoked salmondom—curing the fish a little more carefully, and keeping the smoking temperatures low so that the silkiest product is achieved. There are small smokehouses dotting the Scottish countryside that have been in operation since the 16th century. To me, the classic Scottish smoked salmon has wide bands of fat, beautifully resilient texture, and a complexity of flavor that, at its best, is unmatched elsewhere.

A luscious, wide-fat-band slice of smoked salmon from Petrossian

Perhaps the Scotch whisky sometimes used in the cure, and the old Scotch whisky barrels sometimes burned in the smoking process, are factors that add the winning edge of flavor. The smoke itself in great Scottish smoked salmon can be integrated so well that the salmon tastes as if it had been born smoked.

*Ireland. Ireland is also more artisanal than most places—but the finished product, in my tasting experience, does not reach quite the heights of magnificence that the best Scottish salmon does. I think we have a style difference here. I don’t think the Irish are enamored of the rich, lush, wet, oily texture that the Scots seem to prefer. At its most typical—and I hasten to add that regional styles today are less typical than they used to be—Irish smoked salmon is drier than Scottish smoked salmon, and a little smokier.

*Norway. Norway, pioneer in salmon farming, has become the land of mass smoked-salmon production. The good news is that consistency’s a real strength here; the bad news is that the commercial Norwegian operations churn out product that, at its best, doesn’t compare with the best of Scottish hand-crafting. Look for good, rich, well-made fish that are generally a little softer than their Scottish-Irish counterparts, and a little less deep in flavor.

*Eastern North America. Some producers made a huge success. North Americans have become increasingly adept at homemade versions of European classics (goat cheese, beer, foie gras, etc.)—and smoked salmon is no exception. Smoked salmon from this region isn’t necessarily great—but it certainly can be among the greatest in the world. Hard to generalize about style.

*Western North America. There are also fine artisans in this part of the continent—but unless they’re working with Atlantic salmon (and the vast preponderance of them aren’t) their product is not up to eastern and European standards. There is one bright spot, however: a lot of western salmon is smoked, in the Native American tradition, over alderwood, which lends a bewitching sweet-fruity accent to smoked salmon.



Photos Via: The Atlantic Salmon Trust, Samaki.Inc,Alaskan King Crab Co.Williams-Sonoma, Petrossian Blog