If I were to list what I think are the most elegant food items, two at the top of that list would be floral Springtime honey and wild Alaskan salmon. Part of what makes these things special is their seasonal nature and the anticipation of their seemingly fleeting annual appearance. There’s more to it though. The first honey of Spring and the taste of wild salmon share the delicate essence of their unique source.
We’ve kept bees in our backyard for years. (For my post on the production of backyard honey, see this post.) One benefit of beekeeping is that the different frames of honey can be isolated and separately extracted to yield what amounts to single blossom honey. In our area, black locust predominates the early nectar flow. I feel like that locust honey tastes like a breath of Spring air when flowers are in bloom. The flavor of the wax comb permeates the honey and anything made with the honey. I’ve eaten a lot of supermarket and farm stand local honey over the years, and none of it comes close to this.
Wild Alaskan salmon, even though I hope to one day travel north and catch my own, is the fish I look forward to more than any other. Each species is great in its own right, whether king, sockeye or coho. I love them all. I taste the cold, clean Northern waters and the wild diet that gives the fish its graceful essence. When I cook wild Alaskan salmon, I make sure the salmon speaks for itself over a supporting flavor profile that may nuanced include herbs, spices, salt, or smoke. A little spice and a cedar plank are all it needs.
A few weeks ago I was perusing Instagram when a video popped up showing a piece of fish being cooked in hot beeswax. I did some more investigation and found this was a technique of Chef Heinz Reitbauer of the restaurant Steirereck in Austria. Several people who ate there made videos and commentary on the preparation of the dish. The technique is to place a fillet of fish in a mold, heat beeswax and pour over the fish. When the wax hardens, it is removed and the fish is cooked.
As a beekeeper, I have done a lot of work with beeswax. My typical uses are making candles, fire starters, and soap with the wax. My immediate thought on the fish cooking was that I had to try it, but I also knew that to heat that volume of wax to pour over fish would require it to be heated well past the melting point. Heating the wax to that temperature drives off the most delicate flavor and aroma.
Beeswax is a fat, composed mainly of palmitate, palmitoleate, and oleates esters. Therefore, it is much like any animal fat. I knew from making soap that the melting point of beeswax is around 145F. Beeswax has many culinary uses, notable in canneles de Bordeaux, and coating bottarga. It is completely edible; perhaps my favorite for beeswax is comb honey simply spread on a slice of freshly baked bread.
We have a lot of cappings wax available from recent honey extraction. This is where a hot knife is used to slice the caps off of honey comb frames to allow the honey to flow out and be collected. The cappings wax is collected in a perforated tray to allow any honey attached to it to drain off. The wax is white and very clean. [Note: if you are making this dish, make sure to use food grade beeswax.]
When a cooking situation calls for precise temperature control, the answer is sous vide! I looked at this fish cooking as essentially a confit approach. I bought two nice fillets of wild Alaskan Coho salmon, also known as silver salmon. It is the mildest of the Alaskan salmon types, so I thought it would let the beeswax shine through the best.
I cut each fillet into three nice portions, leaving the skin on. I like cooking with with the skin when possible because I find it adds flavor. I rubbed each portion with some Paul Prudhomme’s Salmon Magic and let it rest for an hour to dry brine.
Next, I placed the two corresponding portions from each fillet with the flesh side together and slid them into a vacuum bag. I doubled up the portions like this because I was concerned that 145F may overcook the fish. Overcooked salmon is no bueno. Increasing the effective thickness of the fish avoided this issue and allowed me to be more flexible on the sous vide time and temperature.
Then I added about a cup of cappings wax to each pouch, enough to provide wax to coat all surfaces. Vacuum seal the pouches.
I preheated the water bath with my immersion circulator to 143F. Once heated, I dropped in the pouches of fish. After 30 minutes, the wax was soft, but not flowing. I increased the temperature to 145F, and the wax became liquid. After another 30 minutes, I removed the pouches from the water bath. Within seconds of removal from the bath, the wax hardened. This was a great sign that I had the right temperature.
Opening the pouches, the fish separated very easily from the hardened wax. Thoughts of making salmon scented gift candles danced in my brain, but no…maybe not. Onto the plates. How was it going to taste? Comments came quickly: “This is really good.” “This is a ‘re-do’.” “This is luxury.” I knew I had a winner.
I have a lot more wax to work with. Chef Reitbauer says he has experimented with cooking many items, from meat to chocolate, with beeswax. With the success of my salmon experiment, I am looking forward to trying more things, too.