An Elegant Salmon Hors d’Oeuvre

Smoked and poached fish costar in silky, sophisticated, and simple-to-make rillettes.

Published Oct. 3, 2022.

Swiped across a toasted baguette slice at a party, salmon rillettes feel extravagant. But the cook is the one who experiences its true luxury—the savory spread comes together quickly from a handful of ingredients, and it can be made up to a day ahead. Simply pull it out of the fridge and serve it as a cocktail hour nibble or pack it into a jar as a host gift.

Rillettes originated as a French preservation method in which meat, traditionally pork, was slow‑cooked in fat until it reached a meltingly tender, spreadable consistency. Nowadays the rillettes formula is applied to other proteins, with some modifications. Salmon is a natural fit, as it is rich like the game that was traditionally used but requires only a fraction of the cooking time. Recipes from Eric Ripert and Dorie Greenspan relied on a poached fillet as the base of the spread, and I followed suit, opting for farm‑raised salmon over wild because its higher fat content would produce a richer, more luxurious texture.

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A hybrid method of poaching and steaming the fish would ensure a moist, evenly cooked fillet. I boiled water in a saucepan, added the fish, reduced the heat, and then simmered the fish just until it began to turn opaque. Then, I covered the pot and removed it from the heat, allowing the steam and residual heat to finish the cooking. 

As the poached salmon cooled in the fridge, I assembled the rest of my ingredients. The subtle taste of the poached fish needed some punch, but I didn’t want to distract from the salmon flavor. The solution? Smoked salmon. I processed a few silky slices with softened butter until it formed a smooth paste that would infuse the rillettes with savoriness and subtle smoke. As a binder, I reached for crème fraîche, an ingredient that felt at home in this traditional French dish and would balance the fish’s richness with its mild cultured tang. Lemon juice, whole-grain mustard, and fresh chives also hearkened to French flavors and added a dose of brightness and freshness without disrupting the rillettes’ texture.

With that, it was time to bring the components together. Rillettes run the gamut when it comes to texture: Some versions are finely shredded, while others feature a mix of larger and smaller pieces of meat. I wanted my rillettes to be easy to spread into a thick layer without being too homogeneous, so I finely shredded two-thirds of the poached fillet into the smoked salmon butter and then flaked the other third into 1/2-inch pieces before adding it to the mixture. 

After a couple hours of chilling in the refrigerator, this velvety, spreadable salmon was the star of my charcuterie board.

Salmon Rillettes

Smoked and poached fish costar in silky, sophisticated, and simple-to-make rillettes.
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