In the 19th century, if you didn't smoke the fish you caught, it would spoil. But it takes time to cook all those fillets, so when smoked salmon became the delicacy we know it as today, most restaurants bought presmoked fillets to avoid the hassle. Not so with Willows Inn on remote Lummi Island, north of Seattle, which has perfected the age-old practice. "The key is to start with good fish," says Willows chef Blaine Wetzel, winner of this year's James Beard Award for best Northwest chef. "The quality of the fish gets amplified — good or bad — through smoking." That's why Wetzel prefers wild salmon, ideally sockeye or king.
Ingredients (Serves 4)
- 1 fillet of salmon (3 to 5 lbs)
- ½ cup Kosher salt
- ½ cup white verjuice (or ¼ cup white wine and ¼ cup white wine vinegar)
- ½ cup melted unsalted butter
- ½ cup brown sugar
Directions (Cook time: 8 hours)
1. The day before, make a brine by combining a quart of water with a half cup of salt. Bring to a boil; stir to dissolve salt. Remove from heat. Stir in 2 lbs of ice to chill brine.
2. Using needle-nose pliers or tweezers, remove all pin bones from fillet.
3. Once the brine is cold, place fillet in a large baking pan, and pour the brine over the fish until it's submerged. Brine 35 minutes, then remove fish, rinse under water, and set on a drying rack over a baking pan. Refrigerate overnight, uncovered.
4. Preheat smoker or grill to as low a temperature as possible (ideally 110°). "The idea is to smoke it as long as you can without quite cooking the fish," says Wetzel.
5. Meanwhile, make a glaze by combining the verjuice, butter, and brown sugar in a small pot. Heat to a simmer, stir to combine, and remove from heat.
6. Set salmon, skin side down, on grill. Smoke for six hours, brushing with glaze every two hours.
7. After six hours, increase smoker temperature slightly (to 200°), and smoke for 30 minutes more.
Set the fillet on a cutting board, and let people pick it apart with their fingers. Make sure to smoke a big batch, because the leftovers are just as good. To save them, wrap what's left in tin foil. Pop it in the oven to warm before serving, or use it for an easy salmon spread: Mix together ¼ lb smoked salmon, finely chopped; juice from half a lemon; a little minced dill; a pinch of salt; and ½ cup crème fraîche or sour cream.