Carla Hall Tells Us the Secret to Smoking Salmon Without a Smoker
If you thought you couldn't make smoked salmon without a smoker, Carla Hall is about to blow your mind.
That is the first thing I said after tasting Carla Hall's Hot Smoked Salmon. How often does a recipe get that kind of reaction? If it's from Chef Carla Hall, it gets that reaction pretty consistently, so this wasn't a total surprise. But for someone who doesn't like fish all that much, it was… an unexpected delight. It’s unlike any baked, broiled, grilled, or smoked salmon I’ve ever had before — it’s so good, that I can’t keep this recipe (which is part of Yummly Pro, Yummly's premium chef-guided video recipes) to myself.
What Makes This Recipe Amazing?
Leave it to our favorite Top Chef to do away with the need for a backyard smoker or pellet grill, and bring it all indoors. If you, like me, are an apartment dweller or you don't have a sprawling backyard, you might have considered buying one of those tiny grills to perch on your fire escape or sit on the sole square of cement in your courtyard to get your smoked-fish fix. But: You don't need a grill or a smoker to make smoked salmon with this recipe.
The Ad Hoc Smoker
The setup is simple: It involves tenting aluminum over a sheet pan lined with wood chips (to make smoke) topped by a cooling rack holding the fish. Then it all goes into the oven for gradual cooking. That's it. But there's so much more to this smoked salmon recipe than the genius makeshift smoker.
The Magic of Quick Hot Smoking
First, let’s talk about what hot smoking is. Hot smoking is all about letting heat and smoke circulate under, over, and around your food for a fairly long time. If you were into grilling, you could use a grill as the smoker: Place the food on the grate, and close the grill cover to hold in the smoke so the salmon can absorb smoke flavor over the span of a few hours. Carla Hall’s method distills the process so it can be done quickly indoors. I call this a “quick” smoking recipe for a couple of reasons:
Temperature This recipe calls for a higher temperature than you would use if you were using a smoker or an outdoor grill. Most ovens don't maintain temperatures as low as smokers, so this recipe adjusts the temperature, and as a result, it smokes faster. The cook time for a typical smoked salmon recipe is about 4 hours, but Carla's method only takes about a half-hour.
Marinade Her recipe is also unique in that it calls for a marinade rather than a brine. A brine recipe is simpler than a marinade. Brine ingredients include water, salt, and maybe some sugar. For smoked salmon, brining means letting fresh salmon soak in the solution for six or seven hours to add moisture and flavor before cooking — like a Thanksgiving turkey. A marinade adds more flavoring elements, often including herbs or spices. In this recipe, the salmon steeps in the marinade for only four hours in order to infuse flavor into the meat before cooking. The acid in the marinade speeds up the cooking process by breaking down the salmon slightly before it's gently cooked during the smoking process.
If you follow Carla Hall at all, you know that she champions the concept of building flavor, and this marinade is where she builds the flavor for her smoked salmon. Carla’s marinade calls for lemon juice and white wine as the acid component, soy sauce for salt and brown sugar for balance (plus other flavorings like black pepper and onions). The fat, which she calls the “flavor carrier,” is olive oil. The salmon fillets soak in this mix for a few hours before smoking. You do not want to skip this marinade; it creates an otherworldly flavor experience.
I've executed this recipe several times and I can enthusiastically say that even if you make a misstep somewhere along the line, it will still taste amazing. I know this because I made a few delicious
mistakes detours and I don’t regret any of them. I've also made many of Carla Hall's recipes and she designs them so that they're easy enough for beginning cooks to execute flawlessly, but leaves enough room in the recipes so that experienced cooks can play with them. Honestly, this recipe opened up so many ways of smoking that, um, I can't stop playing :)
I made a big accidental detour in one iteration because I was a little too excited to get to the final product and I rushed it:
Foil Tent: I didn't crimp and seal my aluminum foil tent very well.
Drying Step: After removing my salmon from the marinade, I didn't let it air-dry long enough for it to form a pellicle (a shiny/tacky outer layer) so it was kind of steamed instead of smoked. This was a VERY happy accident. In fact, I would be proud to serve that version of the salmon because Carla is a master of the art of building flavor, thankyouverymuch.
Other Ways I Played
Here are a few more things I tried with this recipe:
Change of vessel: Instead of a sheet pan and standard cooling rack as the smoking vessel, I lined my cast iron Dutch oven with aluminum foil and inserted a round cooling rack to lay the salmon fillets on.
Moist chips: I used soaked wood chips (I used alder wood chips) and no water (her method calls for a little bit of water).
Dry chips: I used dry chips and no water.
Marinating time: I let the marinated salmon refrigerate uncovered overnight to dry out before smoking (Carla lets hers dry for an hour).
Dry-out try-outs: I let the marinated salmon dry at room temperature for two hours instead of one.
All of my riffs on the recipe resulted in fish that tickles tastebuds. Every iteration was delicious hot as a main dish, or at room temperature as an appetizer. I plan to make it again and again. And again.
I've carried out countless recipes by Carla Hall and I have yet to try one that didn't make my day, change my cooking perspective, or teach me a different way of doing something and she has many more to share. To learn more about how Carla Hall and other chefs can help guide you on your journey to being a better cook, check out Yummly Pro, our new premium subscription service.
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