By Paul Suplee, MBA, CEC, PC-3
There is something so satisfying in watching a student cure meat and seafood for the first time. I remember fondly when I cured my first piece of fish in 1984, and it still amazes me about as much as my vacuum-packer does to this very day. There’s just something so mystical about science in the kitchen to a mind like mine.
I first cured fish at a restaurant in Annapolis, serving it on the Sunday brunch buffet. We would start the salmon on Friday and let it go until Sunday, and it was always a hit, along with the whole roasted pig. I still remember a self-proclaimed and proud Samoan family that would come in on occasion, and the whole family was impressive in stature. Needless to say, whenever they did come in, I (as a scrawny 6-foot 2-inch, 140-pound stick) would try to portion out the roasted pig, but one-by-one they would laugh and say “come on, bro … more than that.” It got to the point that I would just hand the tongs and knife to them and they would artfully dismantle the beast and eat like royalty.
It was here where I learned how to smoke marlin, tuna, bluefish, trout and salmon. Luckily, it is also where I learned proper smoking techniques for anything else that we could push into a 700-pound commercial smoker.
There is just no replacement for a commercially built smoker, and the difference is the smoky nuance that makes a dish delicious versus the “smoke burp,” as I call it, caused by over-smoking something. You see, our bodies can’t digest smoke. If you use too much, you end up with acrid, cigarette-tasting meats that reward you with disgusting belches that do little to convince your loved one to accompany you to any sort of smokehouse again. What your body can’t digest, it will expel and oftentimes it will do so in the form of gas, whether it’s out of the attic or the basement, if you know what I mean.
Likewise with curing, it can and often is overdone. Too much salt, or too much time being leached dry by the hygroscopic curing agents, and your finished product will be a salt lick with the bite of shoe leather. It just isn’t good.
When smoking and curing, it is a good idea to have ratios in your head. Not only will it make your life easier, but it will also leave you with a more consistent product. When your guests come to know you for certain things, then you can start playing around and deviating from the classics, as long as you still have said classics on hand for those who may not be as adventurous as are we.
Too often, cooks and chefs “wing it” and the customer is left in this strange guessing game as to what is going on with the food, and what they are going to get for dinner tonight. But even pushing this aside; from a financial standpoint, it is always a good thing to control your recipes and food cost. In an industry where margins are razor thin to begin with, everything must be well-ordered and maintained with at least some semblance of regulation.
So from a financial and culinary point of view, it is critical when you are brining, curing or marinating. The salt, sugar and/or acids denature the proteins with which they come in contact and the meat/fish will completely change in texture and flavor. If you leave chicken breast in a high-acid (think vinegar or lemon) marinade too long, it will feel like rubber. You’ve just lost that batch of yard bird.
In the same bent, over-curing a piece of salmon will have the same effect, as mentioned earlier. As such, it is important to find your magic ratio and practice, practice, practice.
And your first batch may not be perfect, but that’s normal. You have to balance the ratio, time and environment. Take notes, and perfect your recipe to your liking. And maybe you’ll be as excited as we food nerds are when we do this stuff.
makes 2 sides
2 filets fresh salmon, skin on and bones removed
25 percent of fish weight in sugar
25 percent of fish in kosher salt
2 Tbsp. Freshly cracked black pepper
Handful of fresh dill
Handful of fresh herbs of your choosing
Rinse and lay out the cheesecloth so that you can roll everything up when you’re done
Combine the salt, sugar and pepper and set aside until ready to go
Lay the fish filets skin-side up and sprinkle some salt cure on it, spreading evenly
Place the filets flesh-side up on the cheesecloth
Top with the remaining salt cure and herbs, ensuring that it all stays on the fish
Carefully roll the fish in the cheesecloth so that the two fish filets are facing each other flesh-to-flesh
Flatten them out and lay on a sheet pan that will fit flat in a refrigerator
Lightly weight it down with another sheet pan and refrigerate for 24 hours for a lightly cured, less firm flesh, and up to 48 hours for a firmer, more heavily cured fish
Slice thinly on the bias, removing the fish from the skin. Serve with bagels, cream cheese, homemade chive crème fraiche, diced onions, hard-boiled eggs and the like