How to eat: smoked salmon

·7 min read

How to Eat was 21 years old when it first encountered smoked salmon. Back in [DATE REDACTED] it was still a rarity, served, in this instance, as part of a baffling university buffet at an English department event for a visiting author. By the third year, the drill was familiar: sit in the pub until the talk finishes, slip in under cover of the concluding applause for free food, and, wait … what even is that?! It’s raw!

In the intervening decades, smoked salmon has escaped that ivory tower and now sits in every supermarket, a victory for the democratisation of experience, if not the quality of smoked salmon. Salmon consumption has tripled globally in the last 40 years. The vast majority of that salmon is farmed and some of it really isn’t very good. It also creates complex ecological issues that make it prudent to eat Britain’s most popular fish infrequently and to shop for salmon that is MSC-certified as sustainable.

High-end and traditionally smoked wild salmon – at its best firm and meaty, drier and less fatty, elegant and restrained in its carefully structured flavours – is so expensive (sailing upwards from £6 per 100g), that you are unlikely to be eating it regularly. If you are in that privileged position, those sides of salmon should offer layers of flavour worth lingering over.

Mass-produced smoked salmon is a different matter. Quality-wise, it is a very mixed bag: fast-growing, farmed fish are often unimpressively flabby and oily, and – in a significant number of cases – smoked in a way that delivers, not balanced flavours, but aggressive blows of salt, spice and smoke. Luckily, there are worse things to be hit by and, while such smoked salmon is more letdown than luxury if eaten on its own, it is still a useful ingredient – used almost as intense seasoning. Even terrible smoked salmon can make itself useful in a paté or quiche. Like culinary Polyfilla, eggs and cream cheese can smooth over many cracks.

Fundamentally, then, unless you blow big bucks on it, smoked salmon is invariably better “in” rather than “on” things. But what? And how? That is where How to Eat – the series identifying how best to eat Britain’s favourite foods – can help.

Smoked salmon
Only the best salmon deserves star billing. Photograph: istetiana/Alamy

Smoked salmon: naked

If you have the very finest smoked fish money can buy, go for it. That will be a memorable plate of food, even without capers or a spritz of lemon. If you crave a carb platform, toast will turn it into a very dry snack. Some sort of pikelet or blini, moistened with sour cream, would be better but is ultimately unnecessary. As discussed above, though, lower-quality salmon is better incorporated into dishes where its flaws are less obvious.

Paté

Like many things (chicken livers, crab, pigs’ offal, mackerel), smoked salmon is frequently improved – its flavour developed, rounded and extended over several more servings – if mechanically pulsed into an indistinguishable paté. In that state, the texture of smoked salmon is less important than its flavour. That is useful given the texture of farmed smoked salmon often sits somewhere between “stranger’s sweaty palm” and “plastic salmon theatre prop”. You are literally putting stuff in a food processor and pressing “Go” here. Any idiot can do it. Many do. Dill. Lemon juice. Soft cheese. Creme fraiche. Maybe horseradish. Whirring motors. Flashing blades. Done.

Continuing this theme of simplicity, there is a lot of debate over the right toast for smoked salmon paté. Good sourdough? For once, too dense and chewy. Tear-and-share brioche buns? Thankfully, not a goer in the Covid-19 era. Or a left turn into earthy rye bread? Well, relax. The perfect solution is any reasonably sturdy sliced white loaf. Crap toast, the blander the better, works fine. It is a delivery vehicle of little consequence.

Salmon paté and toast often comes with some sort of green salad or undressed tangle of watercress trailing sadly in its wake. This offers neither a welcome extra dimension nor a pleasant palate cleanser. On the contrary, green salad is an awkward hurdle. It brings an unnecessary note of piety to proceedings, as if we are not allowed to consume great gobfuls of fat, smoke and buttery toast without some sort of penance. A certain self-loathing goes with the territory of human existence – we needn’t work it into smoked salmon paté.

Smoked salmon and scrambled eggs

Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Jack and Vera, Killer Mike and EL-P: smoked salmon and scrambled eggs belong in that pantheon – a classic double act of almost universal appeal (among people you would want to go for a pint with). That combination of rich creaminess and smoke-tinged, salty umami speaks for itself, its interaction of flavours behaving in a similarly satisfying way to bacon and eggs. As the food blogger Silverbrow once observed, smoked salmon is a kind of kosher alternative to a rasher of smoked streaky. Hence why what one Guardian commenter once brilliantly dubbed “marine bacon” sometimes guest stars in scotch eggs.

Warning: many people rightly get very angry if you cut the smoked salmon into strips and mix it through the scrambled egg before serving. It is arrogant, dictatorial, an affront! Why should the cook, some stove-top Stalin, decide in what ratio you eat your eggs and salmon? Serve the salmon on the side so the recipients can add slivers to each mouthful of eggs, as they see fit.

Quiche

A strong contender for ideal smoked salmon receptacle. The last thing you want in a quiche is friction, resistance, tensile strength in its constituent ingredients. In many instances, this is hand-held food. You should be able to cut through it cleanly using only your teeth. That calls for bite-sized and/or softly yielding ingredients that punch above their weight in flavour. Smoked salmon to a tee.

Sandwiches

HTE is not saying it would not eat a smoked salmon sandwich. In fact, there is something magical about the interaction of smoky foods with lighter, sweeter Montreal-style bagels. Add gherkins, capers, the moreish mortar of a decent cream cheese, and you may create a multidimensional taste sensation that makes a rare, persuasive case for sweet breads in a savoury context. But there is a hierarchy and, so often fumbled, the smoked salmon sandwich lags in fourth place behind scrambled eggs, paté and quiche.

How can a sandwich go so wrong? Ratios, usually. An inch-thick screed of cream cheese and a sorry damp-course of smoked salmon, sandwiched between pappy white bread, creates an almost indigestible wodge of clag. Too often, that is the smoked salmon sandwich.

Smoked salmon pasta
Smoked salmon pasta – often too slippery to eat. Photograph: Foodcollection RF/Getty Images

Pasta

Do we have to? Really? Marginally overcooked pasta plus invariable creamy sauce and smoked salmon: that’s three layers of slippery, which is at least two too many. Moreover smoked salmon pasta encourages people to lazily throw in peas, asparagus, green beans, spinach, tomatoes et al. As if, to create a successful take on it, you can simply deconstruct a quiche or the components of a hot smoked salmon meal (a very different beast).

Smoked salmon salad
Smoked salmon salad, a job for Nigel Slater. Photograph: RapidEye/Getty Images

Smoked salmon salad

No. OK, maybe. But only if you are a) Nigel Slater, or b) similarly minded to get busy with the quick-pickled onions, beetroot and fennel. To create a good salmon salad you must use your imagination. You have to commit, creatively, to ensure all the components are combined in such a way that the end product is greater than the sum of its parts. Either that or thread some through a Russian salad.

Temperature

From cheese to tomatoes, most foods you might store in the fridge and then eat “raw” taste vastly better if removed early and left to come to room temperature, smoked salmon being a prime example.

Removing that fridge chill liberates a food’s volatile flavour and aroma compounds, helps activate the taste receptor TRPM5, and triggers other positive connections between palate, brain and nasal cavity that science is yet to unravel. Intuitively, who wants an incongruous clash of hot creamy scrambled eggs and jarringly cold smoked salmon on the same plate? Let the smoked salmon warm on the kitchen counter and the eggs cool a little before serving, and your dish will achieve a happy median (range of temperatures).

So, smoked salmon, how do you eat yours?