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By Mike Stines, Ph. B.
Smoking food is a cooking method that has existed since man discovered fire and found his smoke-filled cave also served to preserve fish and meat. Smoking was also used to prepare food for storage over the winter when fresh meat and seafood wasn’t readily available. In the Pacific Northwest Native Americans smoked fish using alder sticks stuck into the ground alongside a fire or on a drying rack over a smoldering fire.
Commercial smoking of seafood began on a large scale in the 1800’s with scores of smokehouses opening in Brooklyn, New York bringing salmon in from the west coast and later using North Atlantic salmon. Unfortunately heavy commercial fishing of salmon almost drove the fish into extinction. Today most salmon comes from the Pacific Northwest or the North Atlantic while some is imported from Chile and Norway.
Cold-smoked salmon – sliced very thinly and eaten raw – is an elegant dish. Lox (smoked salmon that is also cold-smoked) is more heavily cured and is often eaten on a bagel with cream cheese, red onion and capers. Kippers are cured and smoked herrings, very popular in Britain for breakfast and lunch. Residents of Scotland’s village of Findon are credited with creating finnan haddie (smoked haddock that is either poached or broiled after smoking and served hot) that was originally smoked over peat. Halibut, sturgeon and fish roe are usually cold-smoked while eel, trout, bluefish and mackerel are hot-smoked and can be eaten without further cooking.
There are two ways of curing seafood: using a brine solution or a dry cure. Most store bought smoked salmon is brined. The smoking process also varies (as does the smoking of meats) and two methods are used: hot-smoking or cold-smoking. The main difference is the length of the smoking and the temperature used for smoking. Cold smoked seafood tends to be slightly smoky and oilier while the hot-smoked version is much drier with a stronger smoke flavor.
Temperatures for cold smoking are typically between 68 to 86 degrees F. At this temperature range foods take on a smoked flavor but remain relatively moist. Cold smoking does not cook foods and frequently takes days of smoking.
Hot smoking exposes food to smoke and heat in a controlled environment. Although foods that have been hot smoked are often reheated or cooked, they are safe to eat without further cooking. Hot smoking is done between 126 to 176 degrees F. while barbecue, also called smoke roasting or pit roasting, is traditionally done at 225 to 250 degrees F.