Hot Smoking Fish Is a Fine and Delicious Art, but Is It Barbecue?

In honor of Sunday's sold-out Meat Fight, we're celebrating smoked animal flesh all week long in our inaugural Meat Week, in which we celebrate the procuring, cooking and face-stuffing of dead-animal flesh.

Smoking fish: It may be the oldest kind of cooking there is. It predates refrigeration. You can find it on mosaics in Pompeii. For Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest it's reverential. So why the hell isn't it considered barbecue?

That's what Jon Alexis, the owner of TJ's Seafood Market in Oak Lawn, wants to know. TJ's is one of the sponsors of this year's Meat Fight, and they're pushing the gospel that fish is a meat, despite what the Catholic Church would have you believe during Lent. "Smoking is considered man's work," Alexis says, "and brisket is considered manlier than fish." He aims to prove that this is foolishness.

One to two times every week TJ's smokes eight pounds of salmon, mostly tail and collar cuts, along with odds and ends that get incorporated into smoked salmon dip. At TJ's you can buy a smoked salmon appetizer ($15) or just buy smoked tail and collar by the pound (adjusted for volume lost during smoking. If a pound of salmon loses half its weight in fluid after being brined, then the price of it per pound roughly doubles.) It's also available as a salad topping at Dough Pizzeria in North Dallas.

The center cuts are the most popular part of the salmon; the middle part of the filet that slices into nice, non-fish-shaped rectangles. Typically collar and tail meat sell a lot slower, so rather than sit on those cuts until they're no longer fresh and then finding something else to use them for, TJ's puts them in a dry brine for several days. Afterward, the mix of salt, brown sugar, white pepper, bay leaf (and other unnamed touches) has infused the meat and drawn out a lot moisture. Those cuts then get rinsed off before going into the smoker.

What most people know as smoked salmon is actually cold smoked, which is a technique that smokes the fish at a low enough temperature that the flesh doesn't actually cook. It's why the salmon that comes with your bagel and cream cheese has the texture of sushi. The smoked salmon at TJ's is hot smoked, so the fish is cooked all the way through and flakes apart at a touch.

According to Alexis, any kind of seafood can be smoked. Fatty fish like salmon and tuna hold up well against the strong flavor of the dry brine. White fish needs a wet one, and more delicate-tasting things like shellfish need no brine at all, just a quick jaunt in the smoker to get the flavor. TJ's will special order smoke anything they have in stock -- lobster, trout, oysters.

Alexis is also a proponent of home-smoking. "To the general public," he says, "you don't need the most expensive smoker out there."

in fact the huge, industrial smokers with intimidating women's names that are common at most barbecue joints are ill-suited to this kind of work. Not only does TJ's not handle the same volume of smoked goods as most barbecue houses, but smoking seafood takes a more delicate approach. TJ's uses wet wood ships of alder and hickory, and a simple smoker that anyone can pick up at a big hardware store for a couple hundred dollars.It's a quick process compared to the hours involved in smoking a brisket. The smoker is set for 225 degrees, the salmon goes in before it reaches full heat, around 100 degrees or so, and stays in for half an hour.

Another big misconception about smoking salmon is that it involves a cedar plank. "If your cedar plank catches fire then you're doing it wrong. A cedar plank should be wet and not in contact with direct heat."

The smoked salmon appetizer is sold cold, with crackers and toppings like capers, a mayonnaise/mustard sauce, diced egg whites, yolks, shallots and parsley - things you'd usually associate with smoked salmon. It's delicious, and I chomped through an entire tail in short enough time to almost be embarrassed.

Hot out of the smoker though, the meat is unbelievable. I bit into a strip of belly and warmth burst out of it and coated my mouth and throat. After the brining the only moisture left in the fish was the luscious and flavorful fat. The skin wasn't crisp enough to break at a bite but the smoky, warm, fatty sensation of that fish is, without embellishment, one of the most amazing things I've ever eaten. Everything about it was new: the texture, the physical sensation of it, and the weird lip glossy feeling it left on my mouth.

I count myself as a fish lover, and I believe nothing in the world is as beautiful as seafood. In spite of that enthusiasm I still had a tinge of disbelief as Alexis told me all the ways that smoked fish matched up against beef, pork and chicken. When I finally tasted that warm and bursting belly though, all I had to compare it to was juicy brisket, not in flavor or texture, but in moisture and fatness, and it wouldn't be out of place on a platter with cooked greens, cornbread and potato salad.

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Luke Darby
Contact: Luke Darby