How To Smoke The Perfect Salmon
Two years ago, after my husband and I sold our house, we decided to give ourselves a small budget to buy something for ourselves. We had been eyeballing a large backyard smoker for some time and decided to splurge a little and buy the smoker of our dreams. The smoker has since replaced our backyard grill, and we cook on our smoker year-round, sometimes several times a week.
Smoking Meals at Home
We've mastered the basics from smoked chicken to ribs and even brisket. For a long time, we stayed away from smoked seafood because of where we live. Living in the landlocked Midwest, fresh, high-quality seafood is impossible to come by. We noticed food delivery services growing in popularity in our area, so we decided to look into food delivery.
You see, we both grew up by the ocean, and both of us have been eating seafood since we were babies. If you were to ask either of us what we miss about living by the ocean, I can guarantee you we would both say "eating seafood!"
We were thrilled to learn that seafood was no longer a distant memory for us. We could place an order online for high-quality, wild-caught seafood, and it would arrive still frozen at our doorstep.
We can buy frozen seafood locally, but it's never clear where the seafood comes from, and how fresh it is. I want to know that I am getting coho or chinook salmon fillets, not generic pale-colored, thin frozen salmon from the freezer section of my local store.
Instead, now we can order beautiful and flavorful fresh-caught and flash frozen seafood from Global Seafoods that ships quickly and arrives still frozen.
So, we did.
Now that we figured out how to source high-quality seafood, we decided to master our techniques for smoking salmon at home.
How to Smoke a Salmon Fillet:
Grilled salmon is fantastic in and of itself but learning how to hot smoke salmon can take your home-cooked salmon to the next level. Hot smoked salmon is a little sweet, a little smoky, and a lot delicious.
Smoking requires lower grill temperatures and the use of wood, wood chips, or sawdust that slowly burn while producing lots of flavorful smoke while your meat cooks. The smoke permeates your meat or fish while infusing a delicious smoky flavor into your food. Smoking salmon is a yummy and unique way to incorporate this healthy and fantastic food into your diet.
There are two ways to smoke salmon, and we will go over both of them.
- Hot Smoking Salmon: This is the most common method for smoking salmon. Hot smoking requires shorter salmon smoking times than cold-smoked salmon, which makes it a slightly more popular way of smoking fish. With hot smoked salmon, you smoke your fish at around 120 degrees to 175 degrees in the smoker for 4-6 hours until your salmon reaches an internal temp of 140 degrees. Hot smoking is best on a specialized smoker, but you can even learn how to smoke salmon on a weber grill. Converting your gas grill into a smoker requires a small box called a smoker box. Using indirect heat by only lighting one side of your gas grill, you can convert your backyard grill into a smoker.
- Cold Smoked Salmon: With cold smoked salmon recipes, you are smoking your salmon fillets for anywhere from 12-18 hours at a lower smoking salmon temp. As a result of smoking your salmon at lower temps for longer, you get salmon that is preserved and tender but slightly less smokey. Cold smoked salmon is silkier in texture and can be sliced very thin because it doesn't flake as much as hot-smoked salmon. Cold smoked salmon is perfect for smoked salmon sandwiches because of its smooth texture. Cold smoking salmon requires specialized smoking equipment. You cannot cold smoke salmon on your gas grill—you cold smoke salmon at temperatures of 68-86 degrees, regular gas grills, and most smokers cannot sustain temps that low.
Best Salmon for Smoking:
While you can smoke almost any variety of salmon, a few types of salmon are going to be more forgiving and more flavorful when smoked. Here are our suggestions for some of the best salmon to smoke. Two of the criteria to consider when shopping for salmon is its size and its oil content. Larger pieces of salmon with higher oil content are going to be more flavorful and more tender when smoked.
- King Salmon: As the name suggests, king salmon is king when it comes to any salmon recipes. King salmon is one of the largest varieties of salmon with the highest oil content. King salmon also goes by the name Chinook salmon. The deep red color and flavor of king salmon make it the best smoked salmon. Because king salmon is a larger variety, it may require longer salmon smoke times.
- Sockeye Salmon: Sockeye salmon is next in line behind king salmon for smoking. Sockeye salmon boasts a deep red color and high-oil content that make it a great candidate for smoking. The texture of sockeye salmon is slightly firmer than king salmon, making it a better candidate as hot-smoked salmon.
- Chum Salmon: Believe it or not, smoked chum salmon is a delicious treat. Chum salmon has a bad reputation because of its name, but when caught fresh, chum salmon has a firm texture and delicious taste. Most commonly used for canning or smoking, chum salmon is lighter in color and has fewer oils than other varieties of salmon, but don't discount chum salmon entirely because it's one of the more affordable types of salmon for smoking.
- Coho Salmon: Coho salmon is lower in fat than king salmon and sockeye salmon, but coho salmon have enough oils to do well on the smoker. Any high-quality cut of wild-caught salmon will be delicious as smoked salmon.
No matter the type of salmon you choose, the key to the most delicious flavor is freshness. Buying only very fresh salmon, or flash-frozen salmon ensures the best flavor and texture of your smoked salmon recipes. Ordering directly from Global Seafoods guarantees you'll be using the freshest salmon you can buy.
Best Wood to Smoke Salmon:
Salmon is one of the only types of food that not only stands up well against cedar, but salmon does better when smoked with cedar. Cedar is a less popular wood for smoking but is an excellent wood for smoking salmon. Aside from cedar planks, one of the best woods for smoking salmon is alder wood chips.
If you must smoke salmon with other types of wood chips, look for a blend of wood to help balance the smoke flavors infused into your salmon. Look for wood chips that include a variety of fruit trees for the sweetness to compliment your salmon. While challenging to find locally, citrus wood, such as orange, is an excellent match for smoking salmon.
To Brine or Not to Brine?
One of the best ways to ensure a delicious and moist smoked salmon is to brine your salmon before smoking. There are different schools of thought on how long to bring salmon before smoking. The thing to keep in mind with brining is that a brine is very different from a marinade. Marinades have acidic ingredients in them that can start to cook your salmon during the marinating process. A Brine is not a marinade. You can brine seafood and, in particular, salmon, for much longer than you can marinate seafood.
You don't have to brine salmon before smoking, but brining will help boost the flavor and tenderness of your smoked salmon. Keep in mind that if you plan to brine your salmon, you're going to need to prepare and brine your salmon the day before you plan to smoke your salmon.
Dry Brine Vs. Wet Brine:
There are two ways to brine your salmon, a dry brine, or wet brine. A dry brine involves coating your salmon in a 2:1 ratio of brown sugar and salt and letting it sit in the fridge for up to 12 hours. You then rinse off your brine and let your salmon air dry in the refrigerator for 4-6 hours.
A wet brine is much the same except you first dissolve your sugar and salt in boiling water, cool it down, and soak your salmon in the brine for 12 hours. You then take your salmon out of the brine and allow it to air dry in the fridge for 4-6 hours.
Basic Wet Brine Recipe:
- 1/3 cup of Kosher salt
- 1 Cup of Brown Sugar
- 1 Quart of water
- Combine your salt, sugar, and water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Stirring constantly.
- Once your salt and sugar are fully dissolved, remove your pan from the heat and cool to room temperature.
- Combine your brine with 2-3 cups of ice and put your salmon fillets in the brine. Refrigerate overnight or up to 12 hours (sometimes even 24 hours for whole salmon).
- Remove your salmon from the brine.
- Let your salmon air dry, uncovered in the fridge for 4-6 hours before smoking.
Basic Dry Brine Recipe:
- 1 cup of brown sugar
- 1/2 cup of Kosher salt
- Combine your brown sugar and salt in a small bowl, mixing thoroughly.
- Coat your salmon with the dry brine and refrigerate up to 12 hours. A lot of excess liquid will come out of the salmon.
- Drain off the liquid and rinse your salmon fillets under cold water.
- Let your salmon air dry, uncovered in the fridge for 4-6 hours before smoking.
Smoking Salmon Recipe:
Since hot smoked salmon is the most popular and easiest way to smoke salmon, we are going to share with you our hot smoke salmon recipe.
The first thing you need to do is decide whether you want to use a dry brine or a wet brine. There are no significant advantages to either one, but a wet brine will do better for more tender types of meat, such as fish. Dry brining helps more for tougher cuts of meat, but some back-yard smokers swear by dry brining for smoked salmon. The choice is entirely up to you. We've tried both and think you get a slightly better flavor from wet brining. A wet brine does require more space and more prep time.
To prep for a wet brine, you will need:
- Large Sauce Pan
- 1/3 cup Kosher salt
- 1 Cup of Brown sugar (dark brown sugar is preferable)
- 1 Quart of water
- 3-5 cups of ice
Ingredients for Smoked Salmon:
- 5lbs of salmon (variety of your choice). Cleaned and rinsed.
- Something sweet, honey or real maple syrup for basting your salmon while it smokes. About 1/2 cup.
- Prepare your wet brine by stirring together your water, salt, and brown sugar over high heat in a large saucepan, stirring often. Bring just to a boil to dissolve the salt and sugar into the water.
- Transfer your hot brine to a large bowl or glass dish and add your ice to cool down the brine.
- Once cooled, add your salmon to the brine, cover and refrigerate for 12-24 hours. You can get away with as little as 6-8 hours in the brine, depending on your time frame for smoking.
- After your brine time, remove the salmon and discard your brine.
- Rinse your salmon off and pat dry. Place salmon on a cooling rack and allow to air dry in the refrigerator for 2-4 hours. You want the outside of your salmon to dry to the point of having a slightly tacky, shiny appearance.
- Prepare your smoker while the salmon is drying. Start your smoker at around 120 degrees.
- Place your salmon on the smoker racks. If you are smoking fillets, make sure they are not touching one another.
- Smoke your salmon at 120 degrees for about two hours. Check and baste your salmon with honey after the first two hours.
- After the first two hours, increase the temperature to 140 degrees. Gradually increase the temperature every hour or two until you get the smoker up to 175 degrees. Basting with honey ever 1-2 hours. *Gradually increasing the temp on your smoker prevents much of the white liquid protein from seeping out of the salmon. **
- You're looking at a total smoking time of about 5-6 hours. Your salmon should reach an internal temp of 130-140 degrees.
- You can enjoy some of your salmon immediately and allow your leftovers to cool.
- Once cooled, wrap your leftovers in plastic wrap. Your salmon will keep in the fridge for up to 2 weeks and can be frozen for up to a year.
Frequently Asked Questions About Smoked Salmon
How Long to Smoke Salmon?
This recipe for honey smoked salmon is delicious and straightforward. Your most significant obstacle in making smoked salmon is time. When planning for smoked salmon, give yourself a total of two days for your brine time (12-24 hours), drying time (4-6 hours), and smoking time (4-6 hours). We promise it's well worth the wait.
Is Smoked Salmon Healthy?
Smoked salmon is an excellent source of protein, B vitamins, Vitamin D, and Omega 3 fatty acids, which are known to promote cardiovascular health. Due to the brining process, smoked salmon is higher in sodium than unsmoked salmon, which is a consideration for those who struggle with sodium. As an occasional treat or splurge, you should eat smoked salmon without guilt.
There are approximately 160 calories in smoked salmon (1 cup), making it a low calorie and high protein snack or meal.
Is smoked salmon cooked?
Hot smoked salmon does come to a safe internal temperature and is cooked. With hot smoked salmon, you are slowly heating the salmon to a safe internal temp while the smoke from your wood chips infuses the salmon with a delicate smoky flavor. Cold smoked salmon is preserved salmon. The salt curing preserves the salmon, but the cold smoking process does not cook the salmon.
Cold-smoked salmon smokes at lower temperatures bringing to mind food safety issues when it comes to eating cold smoked salmon. Cold smoking salmon requires special equipment and safe food handling practices to ensure a properly cold smoked salmon. Be sure to keep your salmon covered and at cold temps and to practice food safety when cooking or handling cold smoked salmon.
How to Serve Smoked Salmon:
While you want to try your smoked salmon right away when it comes off of the smoker, it's best after it's chilled in the refrigerator for about 4-6 hours while the smoky flavor continues to permeate every part of the fish. After chilling your salmon, then you can enjoy the full flavors of your home-smoked salmon.
Recipes with Smoked Salmon:
Buying a smoker and realizing we could buy fantastic seafood from Global Seafoods opened up our meal planning to a variety of new foods we hadn't been able to enjoy in years. We love smoking salmon in bulk so that we can make lots of different meals at home using our home-smoked salmon.
- Smoked salmon sandwiches
- Smoked Salmon dip with liquid smoke for an extra smoky flavor.
- Smoked salmon pasta
- Smoked salmon risotto
- Scrambled eggs with smoked salmon
- Smoked salmon pate
- Smoked salmon potato gratin
- Smoked salmon sushi
- Smoked salmon tarts