If you grew up in the Pacific Northwest, smoked salmon is in your DNA. The dish is a deeply rooted part of the region’s food culture — from the hallowed halls of Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle to the smokehouses on Indian reservations peppering the western reaches of the state. People up in Washington will drive crazy distances for a piece of flaky, unctuous smoked salmon. I personally grew up eating it every way I could get it: in home-canned smoked salmon sandwiches, in broken off chunks on Alpine hikes into the Olympics, and in lusty fistfuls on drunken late night splurges.
I remember friends and family gathering in little dive bars crowded with country-music-filled jukeboxes and wonky pool tables where we’d argue over baskets of broasted chicken and jo-jos about the perfect balance of brown sugar and salt in a proper smoked salmon dry brine. The debates could get legitimately heated, and that’s before we got into which woods to use for the smoke. All of this history makes finding the best smoked salmon in the Great Pacific Northwest less about a simple trip to a nearby fishmonger and more a quest to a culinary holy land — where salmon is God and the smokehouse master is the highest prophet.
Before we get too much further, let’s define what smoked salmon in the PNW is, exactly. What I’m talking about here is a hard or hot-smoked salmon. This isn’t lox. That’s a cold cured (brined) salmon that might be cold smoked or might not be smoked at all. Without getting too granular, the process of hot smoking is vastly different from cold smoking (where the heat source is removed).
Hot smoked salmon is usually dry brined — similarly to cold cured — with a mix of sugar (usually brown sugar, sometimes maple syrup) and salt. Sometimes botanicals like dill or cracked red pepper are added, more often not. After a good overnight dry brining, the salmon is hot smoked in a smoker or smokehouse where temperatures reach 120F-220F, depending on who’s smoking (most commonly, the perfect internal temperature of a piece of smoked salmon seems to be 130F-140F).
The wood varies from local alder to apple, cherry, maple, madrone, or oak to more rarely used hickory, pecan, or mesquite. The salmon can be in the smoker for anywhere from less than two hours (higher heat) to four or more hours (lower heat). Low and slow is preferred, but not a be-all-end-all in the smoked salmon game.
Now that we know what it is, let’s dive into where you can find the very best preparations of this rich, sweet, smoky product. The route around the Salish Sea along I-5 and Highway 101 is the best route to find great smoked salmon. This epic road trip starts in Seattle, along the Puget Sound, heads south then winds back up and around the Olympic Peninsula along the Hood Canal, Straits of Juan de Fuca, and the Pacific Ocean, through several Indian Reservations.