Beyond the Bagel: All About Smoked Fish


Smoked Salmon with Sunchoke Paté [Photograph: Mads Damgaard]

If you mention smoked fish to anyone, particularly a New Yorker, chances are they'll begin to wax poetic about thin ribbons of salmon nestled between two slices of a bagel or bialy with a generous schmear of cream cheese. It's a combination that symbolizes the lasting influence of Jewish immigrant cuisine on New York's—and America's—food culture.

Given the ubiquity of the smoked salmon bagel, it's easy to forget that smoke is used around the world as a means of preserving meats, including all manner of fish. I first realized this when eating an elegantly presented plate of smoked trout with dill, currant, and potato salad at Cafe König in Baden-Baden, Germany. The bright sweetness of the fruit contrasted with the pungency of the trout, while the creaminess of the potatoes tempered things. Neither bread nor cheese was necessary to appreciate the interplay.

Back here in the States, smoked fish of various sorts have been popping up on menus in novel ways. Last year, the whitefish donburi at Slurp Shop and the smoked salmon ramen at Yuji Ramen were two new and noteworthy examples of the star role of smoke in the Jewish-Asian fusion cuisine that has taken hold in New York and beyond. Searching through more traditional recipes, smoked fish are often a welcome addition to egg or cream-based dishes that can support strong flavors.

If you ask me, it's about time for smoked fish to move beyond the bagel and become a more regular fixture in mains, sides, and beyond. If you're going to try incorporating it into your own cooking, here are a few things you should know to help you select the right fish.


Smoked salmon scraps [Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

All About Salmon

Although nowadays smoked salmon is often referred to as lox, in actuality they're two different, if related, preparations. Lox refers specifically to salmon bellies cured in brine. They typically have a bracingly salty flavor (the one time I asked for it specifically at Lower East Side institution Russ & Daughters, the guy behind the counter asked me whether I was sure that's what I wanted—twice).

What you're probably thinking of when you envision lox is salmon that has been briefly salted and then cold-smoked. There are number of styles commonly available, with Nova, Scottish, and Norwegian being some of the most popular. These names refer less to the origin of the fish being used than the method used to cure and smoke them. Smoked salmon prepared in the above styles may come from anywhere, although the majority are Atlantic farmed salmon. But is possible to find Pacific varieties, such as coho or sockeye, which generally have a lower fat content.

European styles of smoking (Scottish, Norwegian, Irish, etc.) follow the same basic processes and are differentiated mainly by the type of wood used and the duration and intensity of the smoke. First, a dry brine of salt and sugar is applied directly to the whole fish, which is left to cure overnight. The salmon is then rinsed and put in a hardwood smoker at a temperature of 70ºF to 90º F for anywhere from a few hours to several days—this is the most important step in creating flavor. The low temperature prevents the salmon from cooking and allows it to keep its silky texture.

Nova salmon, on the other hand, involves curing the fish in a wet brine before it is cold-smoked. This gives it a wetter, more slippery texture compared to the European styles, in which the moisture is drawn out by the dry brine, making for a coarser, more flaky product.

Another type of smoked salmon you might encounter is kippered salmon, which has been broken down into smaller pieces before being quickly brined and hot-smoked. Gravlax, the Scandinavian specialty, is not smoked but simply rubbed and left to sit in a brine that can include dill and other seasonings.

Other Creatures of the Deep

While there's no limit to the varieties of fish that can be smoked (apparently, even smoked fugu is a thing), trout, mackerel, and whitefish are the ones you're most likely to encounter. That said, you're unlikely to find any of these in cold-smoked form—for safety reasons, they're usually hot-smoked at a temperature of 145ºF or more for at least 30 minutes. Trout, with its fine, delicate flesh, tends to be the most mild of the bunch. Mackerel, on the other hand, is known for the strong fishiness and high oil content that gives it a rich flavor. Meanwhile, whitefish has a very flaky texture that lends itself well to spreads.

Certain smoked fish are used as a flavoring ingredient, to boost the umami factor and deliver a nice hint of smoke. For example, katsuobushi, one of the ingredients that gives Japanese dashi its distinctive flavor, is made from smoked skipjack tuna. Spanish smoked anchovies are another ingredient that can be added to stews and sauces for a similar effect. The list goes on, but in short, feel free to think of the smoked fish of all sorts as a potential flavor booster that can change the profile of a dish in the way that a little bit of bacon does.


Tea Smoked Fish [Photograph: Chichi Wang]

How To Use It

Smoked fish from the store can be used as a quick topping for salads, or, if you're not too much of a traditionalist, on pizzas. They're also a natural match for egg-based dishes, such as kedgeree, the Anglo-Indian breakfast jumble that calls for smoked haddock and curry powder. Salmon bits and scraps, which you can usually find on the cheap, can be used to spread that desirable flavor throughout, such as in the smoked salmon and potato salad. Just keep in mind that if you're going to put a cold-smoked fish into something hot, it will get cooked and the texture will change. Furthermore, for any of the fish, its best not to overdo it when cooking, because they will dry out and get brittle quickly.

If you're up to the task, you can create your own smoked fish in either an indoor or outdoor smoker. We've had particular success with tea-smoking fish, which, using just a wok and steamer, allows you to impart delicate aromas to the fish. Make sure to check out our introduction to the technique before you get started. From there, any number of possibilities await.

Smoked Fish Recipes

Here are a few recipes from the archives that demonstrate some of the ways in which smoked fish can transform a meal. Some, like the smoked salmon with sunchoke paté, put it center stage, while others, like our miso soup, use it as a flavoring.