When I passed Michael Brown sampling his Just Cured salmon across from Luken's Fish, Poultry & Seafood at Findlay Market last month, I backed up to grab a sample. After I tasted it I wanted to grab a second, but that seemed greedy. So instead I introduced myself.
Michael, who lives in Western Hills even though neither he nor his wife grew up on the West Side, is curing some of the best salmon I’ve ever tasted onsite at Findlay Market in a sparkling clean custom-built smoke room across the street from the Lukens stand. It’s a dream of his and his wife’s, both lifelong foodies, to build a long-time hobby into a second career. When he recently left a big local law firm, they decided the time was right to see if his recipe for handcrafted salmon had legs.
I caught up with him one day while he dry-cured 25 pounds of his wonderful European-style cold-smoked salmon.
Michael sources his fresh fish from one of two Scottish purveyors of organically and sustainably-raised North Atlantic salmon that he found after careful research. (In contrast, what’s usually found in supermarkets and even in specialty grocers is an intensively-farmed product that is not sustainably or organically produced.)
His raw product arrives packed in ice in full-side filets. He’d like to buy the salmon whole and do his own fileting, but so far the shipping costs to airfreight whole fish (because so much of the weight of a whole salmon is head, tail, innards, or other waste) are prohibitive.
First he carefully presses a gloved hand over every inch of each filet, checking for stray pinbones which he removes with a pliers. When he’s satisfied he’s gotten everything, he picks up a bottle of bourbon, sticks a thumb into the neck to control the flow, and sprinkles a few drops over each filet. Literally just a few drops, as the bourbon is added only to counteract the bitterness of the salt required for curing. Many producers use sugar for this, but Michael prefers to use something that brings a bit of flavor to the table. Scottish producers of handcrafted smoked salmon often use malt whiskey for the same reason, but Michael uses locally-distilled Woodford Reserve Kentucky Bourbon both because he likes the taste and because it contributes to the local flavor.
He rubs the bourbon over the surface of the filets to make sure they’re evenly coated. Then he smoothes on a thick layer of kosher salt, which pulls excess moisture from the salmon.
The salted filets go uncovered into the refrigerator to dry-cure for ‘several hours’ (the exact length of each segment of the process are part of his secret, but the full cure is less than two days) and then he briefly rinses off the salt, chills and air dries the filets for a final few hours, and finally slots them into the smoker.
When the salmon comes out of the smoker, he slices it wafer thin in preparation for sale at the Luken's stand at Findlay. You can find it around the side in the case at the far south end of the stand ($ per pound). He gave out samples several weekend days in May, and each time Luken's (currently his only distributor) ran out of product. He’s gearing up, but for now it’s helpful to know his curing schedule generally places a supply into Luken's cases late Friday afternoons. I’d get there by Saturday if I were you.
Unlike the chewy, salty-sweet stuff you’ll find at supermarkets, his salmon is moist and very subtly flavored. It tastes primarily of salmon rather than of salt, smoke, or even excellent Kentucky bourbon. It’s firm yet butter-tender, almost spreadable but not mushy. This is salmon for people who like salmon, and it’s some amazing stuff. I bought a half pound and shared it with my father and son on slices of cucumber one afternoon. Next time they can buy their own. We finished it in one sitting and were not being very polite over the last few pieces.
In addition to distributing through Luken's, Michael is working out the details to distribute the salmon at local groceries and specialty markets. For his second offering he’s planning a gravlax -- dill-cured salmon -- which he cures with cognac. Eventually he may include other seafoods, poultry, and hot-smoking methods in his product line.