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.
Pike Place Fish Co., Seattle
Where to go: Pike Place Fish Co. in Seattle’s iconic Pike Place Market on First Street downtown is where to start any hot smoked salmon journey. Yes, this place can get a little touristy. It’s also full of locals in the know. The amount of fresh seafood available at Pike Place is staggering — a true testament to the area’s bounty.
Right in the middle of it all is that famous spot where fishmongers yell out orders and throw entire salmon to one another. It’s part spectacle, part tradition, and a lot of fun. The real buy at Pike Place Fish Co. is the smoked salmon that’s off to the lefthand side if you’re standing facing the fish counter. There’s always a dedicated fishmonger hanging around that part of the display in bright orange fishing overalls and big gumboots (with a requisite flannel shirt underneath and a beanie on his or her head). That person will be handing out free samples of their in-house smoked salmon.
For my taste, it’s a little dry thanks to an always safe higher cooking temperature during the smoke. The flavor, otherwise, is spot on.
What to get: Where Pike Place Fish Co. truly shines is with their smoked salmon bellies. The unctuous fatty strips of salmon are dry brined with a wonderful balance of heavy salt and light sugars. This allows the fat to shine through. The best part is that the fin is still attached, giving you a little handle to hold onto as you nosh. A good rule of thumb is to order two bellies per person.
Where to eat: Find a place to sit on the Pike Place Market deck overlooking Elliot Bay and dig in. You will get messy. The fatty salmon strips have a soft texture that melts in your mouth. The mix of fat, salt, and sugar with the slight hint of seawater is the perfect matrix of hot smoked salmon flavors.