I’ve always been a fisherman. Growing up in Florida with grandparents who lived on a saltwater canal, my grandfather and uncles made sure I had a fishing rod in my hand starting at a young age. Snook, sheepshead, redfish, mangrove snapper, and–too frequently–catfish and stingrays were regularly on the other end of my line. Later on I took up fishing for largemouth and peacock bass in the canals near my home in Miami, and still have one of those catches mounted on the wall in my basement.
The waters in Florida are warm, and the fish are aggressive. With the exception of sheepshead, the fish I usually caught would strike a bait or lure with ferocity. This made adjusting to steelhead fishing in Ohio a real challenge.
When I moved to Cleveland in 2013, my buddy Brian took me under his wing and showed me the ways of steelhead angling in the Cleveland Metroparks. Steelhead are “sea-run” rainbow trout, except here the “sea” is Lake Erie. They’re stocked in the local rivers by the Metroparks system, make the trek to the Lake in the summer, and return to the rivers for the fall, winter, and spring. Relatively abundant, easily accessed, hard fighting, and excellent table fare, the steelhead competes with walleye and perch for the honor of the most highly sought-after sportfish in Northeast Ohio.
“How hard could this be?” was my reaction when Brian, a local musician (check out his folksy songs on iTunes), introduced me to float fishing. Other than occasionally using a popping cork to target redfish on the grassflats of Tampa Bay, I hadn’t been bobber fishing since graduating from bluegill at age 8. We donned our waders and fishing vests and headed down to the river, the late-October foliage rusting on the trees around us. Once in the oasis of Cleveland’s Metroparks it can nearly impossible to tell you’re in the heart of Cuyahoga County, and not wading a remote stream in the White Mountains of New England.
I was skunked on that first trip, and numerous subsequent ones. In the spring I learned how to catch suckers, but the king of the river still eluded me. Soon life got in the way of fishing as often as I would like, and I got frustrated as I powerfully set my hook into logs, rocks, and more suckers. Season after season I watched Brian land steelhead as I continued to struggle. He did his best to help me, but I just wasn’t getting bites. Then my luck changed.
On the morning of Veteran’s Day, Brian and I were on the river before dawn. By the time the sun rose, half a dozen other anglers had joined us, eager to get the most out of their day off. Thirty minutes after the sun appeared I started to reel in my line when it reached the end of the run I was fishing. That was when I watched my line begin to move on its own accord, rushing powerfully against the current. A couple of seconds later a flash of chrome leapt from the water, and it was clear I was fighting my first steelhead. I never felt the bite, I never set the hook, yet ten minutes later the 26″ fish was on the riverbank.
I decided to end that morning’s fishing excursion on a high note, and took my fish home to clean it. My love of fishing reinvigorated and my luck changed, I’ve pulled more steelhead from the river since then, and am eager to get back on the river when the conditions are right.
This was the first time I had ever caught a salmonid, and I was excited to try my hand at turning it into one of my favorite foods: lox. As a native Miamian, cold-smoked salmon lox have been something I’ve enjoyed from a young age. The soft, salty, mildly smokey fish is typically served cold on a bagel topped with cream cheese, thinly-sliced onions, capers, and dill. In the U.S. we think of it as a traditionally Jewish food, but variations on how it is prepared and served can be found across northern Europe. Therefore it was no surprise that Googling “steelhead lox” and “homemade lox” revealed a number of variations on curing and smoking (or lack thereof) techniques for this fish.
I had hot-smoked a number of fish before (smoked mullet is truly the bacon of the sea), but never had the occasion to attempt cold-smoking. The difference between the two is–you guessed it–the temperature of the smoking process. In hot smoking, the heat source that is producing the smoke is typically located somewhere near the meat being smoked. This is how most barbecue is produced, with temperatures in the mid-to-high 100s F. Cold smoking, on the other hand, uses only smoke with virtually no heat to help cure the meat. While meat that has been hot-smoked is clearly cooked with a warm interior and slightly hardened exterior, cold-smoked meat often appears almost raw.
The first step in preparing steelhead in this way is to fillet the fish. I scraped most of the larger scales off of the skin, filleted it, and kept the skin on. As mentioned above, steelhead have a line of bones running along the middle of their pinkish-orange fillets. I used a pair of needlenose pliers to remove these, and felt up and down the fillet to double check they were all pulled.
With the fillet cleaned up, it was ready to be cured. The internet gave me some really complex and likely non-traditional methods to do this, but I kept it simple to preserve as much of the flavor of the fish as possible. The folks at Foodista.com had the fewest ingredients in their cure recipe, and a pretty solid reputation as a food site, so the following ingredients and steps are pretty much straight from them.
The Foodista.Com Cure:
- 1/4 cup Kosher salt
- 1/4 cup plain white sugar
I mixed the salt and sugar, laid the steelhead skin-side-down on some plastic wrap, covered it in the cure mixture, and wrapped it up tightly. I then placed it in the fridge with a cookie sheet on top of it and placed some heavy jars on the cooking sheet to weight it down.
After 2 days of this there was a small amount of liquid in the plastic wrap. I carefully unwrapped the fish, patted it dry with paper towels, and re-wrapped it in fresh plastic wrap. I then put it in the freezer, being careful to position it so the filet would freeze straight as a board.
As I mentioned, I had never cold-smoked anything before, so turning my cheapo “smoking grill” into a cold smoker took a bit of creativity. A couple of wooden dowels, a cooling rack, a couple of metal clamps, and a square of mid-gauge aluminum sheeting from home depot helped convert a large cardboard box into a cold smoker.
I used the small fuel door on the side of the smoker as the outlet for the smoke, and cut a hole in the box that lined up with it. I was concerned about the heat from the smoker setting the box on fire, so aluminum sheets were positioned where the box and smoker met. I then inserted the dowels near the top of the box, placed the cooling rack on top of them, and cut a couple of holes for the smoke to flow out of. Voila! A single-use cold smoker.
It was cold and snowing lightly on the morning I smoked the lox, perfect weather to help keep the temperature down in the “cold smoker.” Into the smoking grill I dumped a small amount of burning charcoal topped with around half a dozen chunks of pecan wood that had been soaking overnight. I topped this all with about 2 cups of dry pecan s hells, and then placed the water bowl in the smoker and filled it with ice water.
I unwrapped the steelhead fillet and placed it–still frozen–on the rack in the cardboard box. Smoke quickly filled the box, and I taped it up with regular plastic packaging tape. Sealed, the smoke flowed across the fillet and out of the holes I had cut in the upper corner of the box.
After about an hour I taste-tested the fish and found it very mild. I added a couple more soaked wood chunks to the smoker and left the fillet in there for another 15 minutes.
After removing the fish from the smoker I placed it in some wax paper and left it in the fridge to rest. A couple of hours later, the exterior of the meat was brownish-orange, and the interior was a lighter orange then when it was raw. The flavor was a bit bolder than store-bought salmon lox, not fishy at all, but simply smokier and more flavorful.
I let the lox rest in the fridge for a couple of days, and the flavor mellowed out. On Thanksgiving morning I served it to my family on bagels with cream cheese, onions, dill, and capers. As with the venison prosciutto, the Floridian out-of-towners gave it high marks.
In closing, I don’t think I would change anything about how I made the steelhead lox–I was really pleased with the outcome. As I’ve said before, I’m a nobody, and everything I post here is just to share my love of “meat prep joy.” If you choose to try your hand at cold-smoking fish, do your research, make sure you keep your food safe, and don’t let your cardboard box smoker catch on fire. Best of luck.