What’s the Difference Between Hot Smoked and Cold Smoked Salmon?
Smoked salmon on the West and East Coasts
When people who live along the Pacific Northwest Coast are asked about smoked salmon, they can almost taste that irresistibly smoky-sweet, flaky, blissfully satisfying, deep-red delicacy! But ask those who live on the East Coast and they may instead conjure up a completely different image: a thin, delicate, light pink, almost translucent morsel, with an essence of fishiness, often served with cream cheese on a bagel. Delicious! But two entirely different taste treats.
Both are indeed “smoked salmon,” but their processing journeys and end tastes are entirely different. In this article, we’ll discuss the notable differences in taste, texture and preparation methods between the West Coast hot smoked salmon, and the typically East Coast cold smoked salmon. Of course, both varieties are now familiar wherever great food is served.
Lox and Gravlax are not smoked salmon
But first, we’ll briefly mention lox and gravlax, which often come up in the discussion of cured salmon. Both are cured in salt or a salty brine; but lox, which is made from the belly of the salmon, is cured only in salt, while gravlax is cured in both salt and sugar. Importantly though, neither is smoked, and thus will not appear again in this article.
Because salmon is a fatty fish (containing those healthy omega-3 fatty acids), it’s a particularly good fish for smoking. It’s those famous fats that absorb all the wonderful flavors.
First the salmon are cured
Both hot smoked salmon and cold smoked salmon ideally involve only the highest quality salmon. First, that premium salmon is cured. This involves soaking the fish in a salt solution, or sometimes a salt-and-sugar mixture. This brine not only introduces flavor notes to the naturally tasty fish, but also helps the fish retain moisture, enhancing its texture. The highly saturated cure causes the proteins in the salmon to “denature,” similar to what cooking does. Those who smoke fish at home have to be careful not to over-cure, causing their fish to be too salty and tough. At the other extreme, if the fish is under-cured, it may be raw. Professional smokers have each step in their processes carefully timed so they create the exact product they’re aiming for.
The hot smoking process
Let’s look at the hot smoking process. Premium salmon - wild-caught Alaskan sockeye salmon is a favorite - is soaked for several hours in a solution of kosher salt and water, sometimes with white or brown sugar added. The fish is then rinsed and set out to dry. Drying causes the fish to develop a pellicle, or skin-like layer of stickiness, that attracts the smoke particles. Maple syrup, teriyaki sauce or pepper is often brushed on for additional tang, and the fish is smoked at a temperature of 120℉ or above for up to eight hours. Thus, because the salmon has been exposed to heat, it is considered “cooked.” This process yields a rich red-brown, smoky, flaky, salty and satisfyingly chewy treat eaten just as is. But cut into small pieces, the smoked salmon tidbits make a signature difference when added to casseroles, quiches, soups, dips, pasta, egg dishes - the possibilities are endless!
Cold smoking process
Cured cold smoked salmon is also soaked in a salt brine, or a salt and sugar solution. Dill is sometimes added, but most adherents prefer the natural taste of the salmon enhanced with smoke and no added flavor. It is smoked at a cool temperature of about 75℉, and definitely not above 85℉, for eighteen hours or longer - even up to a month! - yielding fish with a delicately pink, slightly smoky, silky, almost buttery texture. It is often cut into very thin slices and placed on bagels, crackers or breads, with perhaps a light touch of dill or fresh parsley.
Fish smoking through the ages
Fish smoking has been a part of most maritime communities throughout the ages. Recognized in ancient times as an effective and delicious way to preserve salmon and other fish, smoking has continued to offer a valuable product in today’s societies.
Archeological evidence shows that the practice of smoking fish has existed for thousands of years. Many Stone Age communities were surrounded by bodies of water that provided them with teeming supplies of salmon, herring, and other bountiful fish. Smoking was an early solution to this abundance, and then proved essential during times of scarcity. The ancient Greeks and Romans, Medieval cultures, African coastal peoples and Native American communities all found fish smoking to be an ideal technique to preserve fish for future use and transportability.
Evidence from the Middle Ages shows that Europeans smoked herring when their runs provided them with an over-abundance of those oily fish. Indeed, communally owned smokehouses dotted the landscape, for smoking was the state-of-the-art way to preserve food before refrigeration was known. For Northwest Coast Native Americans, salmon was a primary food source. Salmon inspired the art, religious beliefs and culture of the indigenous Americans, and came to represent abundance, fertility, prosperity and renewal.
If you haven't ever tried smoked salmon, you're in for a treat. If you have, you know what we're talking about!