I've got nothing but love for salmon. It is an ingredient near and dear to my heart, and one that I've had the pleasure of seeing in its native habitat, having caught them on fly and spinning rods, and cooked them up in kitchens around the US. Their fatty flesh contains vital omega-3 fatty acids that us humans need in our diet. To add these wild fishes to our daily intake of food is to take part in thousands of years of history of eating this robust fish. To lose access to it would be a devastating loss for all.
Considered a Keystone species, salmon are a vital part of the ecosystem that provides nourishment to so many animals, including the human animal. At one time, you could find wild salmon here in Maine, but damming of the rivers basically wiped them out of New England completely. Today you'll find dam removals and artificial fish ladders implemented to try and reestablish the populations. However, I may never see them thrive here in my lifetime.
In 1998, while working at the Heathman Hotel in Portland, Oregon, I got my first opportunity to work with the infamous Copper River Salmon. Copper Reds, as they're called, refer to the first run of Chinook salmon into the rivers. Their vibrant color and delicious taste make them a highly prized fish on any menu. The fish was baked on rocks taken from the rivers in France where the chef was raised.
Two years later, I would find myself living beside the Yentna river in Alaska, where I cooked at RiverSong Lodge for the summer season. This fly-in lodge allowed me to work intimately with salmon, cooking several species weekly. On my days off, I’d take the fly rod out on the boat and try to hook up one of the thousands of fish that were trying to make it up the river to spawn.
Just Add Salt
Salt curing salmon is one of those DIY projects that may seem slightly overwhelming at first, but is really so simple from start to finish. A simple mixture of salt, herbs and spices, and a touch of sweetener transforms the fleshy fish into a firm, salty texture perfect for rye bread, chilled appetizers, spreads, or perfectly paired with poached eggs and hollandaise.
Depending on the thickness of your fillet, the process takes about a week to fully penetrate from the top of the fillet down to the skin. Once finished, you can slice it thick, vacuum seal it, and freeze for winter. Play around with the combination of herbs and spices, using anything from traditional dill to juniper berries.
How to Make Cured Salmon
- 1 (2-pound) fillet fresh wild salmon (look for a thick fillet)
- 2/3 cup sea salt
- 1/3 cup maple sugar or Rapadura
- 1/2 cup dill or other fresh chopped herbs
- 1 tablespoon ground juniper berries (optional)
- a splash of vodka, cider, or other alcohol
- Other - Cheesecloth
- Remove any remaining pin bones from the salmon. Trim the thin belly side and cut away the tail end. I cook the tail side for a meal or cure it separately from the center cut of the fish.
- Combine the remaining ingredients in a small bowl and mix thoroughly.
- Lay out enough cheesecloth to cover the full length of the fillet. Place the fish skin side down in the middle of the cloth.
- Cover all the flesh with the seasoned salt in one even layer.
- Wrap up the fillet with the overhanging cloth, then carefully transfer over to a small cookie sheet or Pyrex dish.
- Cover with a board (I use a cedar shingle), then top wth a weight of any kind. I use a brick.
- Place the pan in the fridge and let sit for 4-5 days, flipping the fish every day, and draining off any liquid.
- after 5 days or so, unwrap the fish and scrape off the salt mixture and rinse well under cold water. Dry the flesh with a towel then slice, serve, and enjoy.