So, you think you know smoked fish, huh? Well, let’s see. We’ll start with the basics. Salmon in the wild roam the waters freely, and where they are caught in their journey can affect the texture and flavor of the fish. Generally, they are lean and less fatty. Since fat is a significant component of flavor, wild-caught salmon tends to be less flavorful. Not only that, farmed salmon, less active than their cousins in the wild, have a smoother and more buttery flavor. (Bet those little factoids have surprised the purists.)
Now, a few words about hot-smoked vs. cold-smoked. Hot smoking (usually between 165 and 185 F) cooks the meat while flavoring it with smoke. Cold smoking (usually between 69 and 87 F for up to 30 days) preserves the meat.
Sable. This fish is actually black cod, but sable sounds so much more elegant, doesn’t it? No matter what you call it, its flavor is sweet, buttery, and a touch salty. But the texture is silky.
Sturgeon. Ahh, this is the king of smoked fish, at least to some mavens. It is hot smoked, traditionally with maple wood to enhance its natural flavor, which is mild and somewhat sweet. Its texture is dense and meaty. You’ve got to taste it to understand it.
Whitefish. Whitefish, found in the Great Lakes of North America, run from 2 to 23 pounds. They are considered one of the best-eating freshwater fish — high in fat content, mild flavor, medium firm, sweet, delicate and smoky meat with large juicy flakes that peel right off the bone. Chubs, baby whitefish, are rich tasting, delicate and smoky, and are always sold whole. [By the way, if making gefilte fish is your thing, combine whitefish with yellow pike. No carp.]
Gravlax. This cured salmon dish dates to the 14th century, when salt was expensive and alternative methods were found to preserve the fish. The early technique that preserved the fish in dirt has been refined to a recipe calling for salt, brown sugar and dill. Gravlax, excellent at any time, is particularly delicious as hors d’oeuvres. Serve with a creamy dill sauce.
Kippered salmon. Preparation is the same as for baked salmon, but kippered salmon is hot-smoked, which flavors the meat. Either way, the whole slab is prepared, then cut into chunks. The belly section is succulent and sweet, the back section drier. Still mighty good.
Tuna. For smoking choose ahi tuna, or maybe yellowfin. Salted slightly and hardwood smoked, the tuna has a delicate, mildly sweet flavor and a dark reddish-purple color.
Brook trout. Brook trout live in the cold freshwater lakes and streams of the Great Lakes region. They inhabit shallow lakes in the north, and deep lakes farther south. To enhance the flavor, they are brined, refrigerated, dried and hot-smoked. The result is a smoky, salty, somewhat chewy delicacy, available whole.
Bluefish. Surprise. Bet you didn’t expect that. Living here on the North Fork, you learn that bluefish run in the Sound into the late fall, and when they run, they run in huge schools. It is not unusual to net 10-20 of them on a really good day. What to do with all that fish? Smoke it. The preparation is the same as for brook trout, and a hot-smoke for many hours — well into the night as your Shofar editor recalls — depending on the thickness of the fillets, yields something akin to out of this world. When done, refrigerate, share the bounty with friends and neighbors, and freeze the rest. Serve on crackers with a squeeze of lemon. A tam g’naden.
[This article was adapted from an item in The Forward by Len Berk, a 26-year Zabar’s slicer.]