Slicing smoked salmon is both a craft and an art, a skill grounded in tradition that has been passed down from an untold number of masters to select apprentices. Typically, this bequeathal of knowledge and skill has taken place on the service side of delis and appetizing shops, or along the salty and smokey slicing lines behind the scenes at smokehouses. Sadly, with the advent of slicing machines, and fewer and fewer greenhorns willing to take up the trade, slicing smoked salmon by hand has become a slowly dying artform. That said, nowhere is this historic occupation as alive and well as it is in New York City.
Attaining a mastery of smoked salmon slicing can take years, and at many New York City smoked fish shops, customers have their favorite slicer, much like a favorite butcher or bartender. People will wait as long as it takes to be served by these artisans. To watch them practice their craft, plying their knives across the glossy surface of smoked salmon, yielding gossamer slices, and handing them a couple of samples along the way.
An expert slicer can feel a side of smoked salmon in ways that a machine or novice cannot. Fish are not shoes. There is no saying, “I want a size 12,” and that’s that. Each fish, and each side of it, is unique. They are more akin to snowflakes, or perhaps more appropriately, icebergs. You can look at the surface, already exceptional, but there is much more to be revealed below, and without some skill, one can run aground.
When it comes time to slice, the style chosen may be a specialty of the house, the slicer, or selected by the preference of the customer. Whether traditional slice, long slice, or side slice (see below for examples), the importance of technique and skill lies in achieving that perfect, fluid movement of the knife. The work of a master is readily obvious when you hold up a slice of smoked salmon so thin that you can read the New York Times through it.
Smoked salmon comes in myriad varieties. There is nova, scotch, Western, pastrami style, gravlax, and kippered salmon. There is also the unsmoked cured variety known as lox, which is likewise excellent sliced thin by an expert slicer. Nova, short for Nova Scotia, is a cold smoked variety, so named for its origin. Nova smoked salmon was once sourced from wild Atlantic salmon stocks landed in Nova Scotia, and the surrounding Canadian maritime provinces. They were transported from Canada to New York City smokehouses, barreled in brine, and then smoked at temperatures between 70- and 85-degrees Fahrenheit for 18-24 hours, a process known as cold smoking. Lox was treated the same, but the smoking process was left out, and the salmon was allowed to cure in the brine for longer. Nova smoked salmon is no longer sourced from Nova Scotia, but the name stuck. Nova smoked salmon is a classic choice for slicing. A perfect blend of lean and fatty, where the knife can glide through with just the right combination of friction and give.
In acquiring new skills, the first step to learning is trying. Learning to slice smoked salmon is no different. Some people are naturals, but most are not. What makes learning to slice smoked salmon more fun than say, playing poker, whether or not your first attempt is perfect, you still end up with delicious smoked salmon at the end. When you’re learning how to play poker, you’re just going to lose a lot of money.
If you’re serious about learning to slice smoked salmon, it’s important to keep in mind that achieving that perfect slice time after time can take some practice to master, but here are some tips that can get you off to a good start. So, for all of the aspiring smoked salmon slicers out there, check out the following steps and give it a go.
Make your first cut in the tail direction at a roughly 45-degree angle. Make this cut slightly up from the tip of the tail, as far up as a 45-degree cutting angle first becomes possible. This will set the slicing angle that you will maintain as you slice your way up the whole side of smoked salmon. (Pro tip: The piece of smoked salmon that you remove is good for making a smoked salmon salad, smoked salmon tartare, a dip, or a smoked salmon cream cheese spread.)
Some sides may have a small piece of belly still attached (see photo). If this is the case, just cut straight down where the belly meets the rest of the side, in order to remove it. Like the little piece of tail, this can be saved for making the dishes mentioned at the end of Step 1 or discarded.
Now you are ready to start slicing. When slicing, you want to apply slight downward pressure on the knife. You will notice that the highly flexible blade of your knife will curl a bit near the handle as you apply this pressure. This is normal, but you will want to make sure that you are slicing – in a steady back and forth motion – with the part of the blade that remains flat, in order to achieve even slices. Try and maintain the slicing angle that you established in Step 1. The 3 most common ways to slice smoked salmon are the following methods.
If there is any dark meat on your slices, which are from the middle part of the muscle where the fillet meets the skin, trim it off. You can save this meat with your tail and belly and chop it all up by hand or with a food processor, to make more tasty creations.
Slicing smoked salmon is a skill that can be refined over a lifetime, but with these instructions, you’re off to an excellent start. Get some friends and family together, show off your new skill, and make some fun memories. Even if you end up with a few less-than-perfect slices while you’re learning, deliciousness is guaranteed!
On our Acme Smoked Fish online store, we have a Slice Your Own Smoked Salmon Kit available for purchase. Included in each Slice Your Own Smoked Salmon Kit is a full side of our most premium line of smoked salmon, Blue Hill Bay All-Natural Nova. This is a fully trimmed and deboned piece of our finest smoked salmon, so very little prep is required prior to slicing. Also in this kit is the very same smoked salmon slicing knife that we use at Acme Smoked Fish. With quality ingredients, a tool chosen by the professionals, and the very instructions before you, you have everything you need for smoked salmon slicing success.