Smoked salmon is a holiday favorite, an indulgence served at parties and breakfasts. Often mislabeled as lox (which is unsmoked, wet-cured salmon), or gravlax (unsmoked and dry-cured), smoked salmon is actually fresh salmon—either farmed Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) or one of five wild Pacific salmon species (chum, coho, pink, sockeye, or Chinook)—that is cured with salt, sugar, and seasonings and then cold-smoked at temperatures below 80°F. Unlike hot-smoking, cold-smoking doesn’t cook the fish, so the result is the silky, delicate texture we expect from smoked salmon.
But which brand to buy? To find out, we tried eight of the country’s top mail-order cold-smoked salmons in a blind taste test. We were looking for pleasantly smoky, not too salty succulent smoked salmon that we’d be happy to serve at our holiday celebrations. The four here fit the bill.
Browne Trading Company’s Scotch-cured smoked Scottish salmon ($23 for 8 oz., sliced; $45 for 1 lb., sliced; Brownetrading.com) comes from farmed Atlantic salmon wet-cured with Scotch whisky and smoked over Maine fruitwoods. We found it a touch sweet, a touch salty, and nicely smoky. Its texture was very close to that of raw salmon, which was a plus for several tasters.
Russ & Daughters’ Gaspe Nova ($30 per lb., sliced; Russanddaughters.com) was incredibly smooth and rich, starting out with a salty bite but finishing with gentle smoke. This salmon originates in the Gaspe Bay of Quebec, Canada. It’s called Nova as shorthand for the traditional Nova Scotia nomenclature for smoked Atlantic salmon originating from fisheries in that area. Also wet-cured in brine, this style of smoked salmon would make a lovely canape topping or a lush partner for crackers, creme fraiche, and capers.
Tracklement’s Original Highland Smoked Salmon ($59 for 1-1/2 lb., unsliced; Tracklements.com) is made from fish from the Bay of Fundy, near Nova Scotia. Tasters noted its oily appearance, but after the salmon’s cure in brown sugar and salt and hardwood-smoking, the nuanced balance of sweetness, salt, and smoke was perfect, and the texture was luscious and tender. To preserve quality and freshness, Tracklement’s doesn’t slice its salmon for you, so be ready with a sharp knife to carve the thinnest possible slices.
Taku Wild Alaska Seafood was our favorite wild Pacific salmon ($61 for 1-1/2 lb., sliced; Takustore.com). The intense red coloring of the sockeye salmon surprised some tasters, but its fresh flavor won us over. Lightly smoky and mild in flavor, the naturally dense fish had a less delicate texture than farmed varieties, but we felt good knowing we were enjoying a truly wild product.
White Smoked Salmon
For a real treat, seek out the rare—and absolutely delicious—silky smooth white smoked salmon. The same Atlantic species as pink-colored salmon, these fish live in the Baltic Sea on a diet devoid of shrimp or krill, which lend their pink hues to the fish that eat them. Cap’n Mike’s Holy Smoke Northwest-style white salmon lox ($54.95 per lb., sliced; 707-585-2000) is a great product, even if it is misleadingly called lox. Petrossian (800-828-9241) and Nantucket Wild Gourmet & Smokehouse (508-945-2700) also carry white smoked salmon from time to time, so call to check for availability. It’s well worth the effort.