A luxurious treat that is delicious all on its own or enjoyed with crackers, in a dip, or added to Deviled Eggs, Smoked Salmon is easier than you’d think. It’s tender, smoky, and yes, absolutely worth it when you make it yourself.
This takes you through making Smoked Salmon step by step; if you have a smoker, you’re already well on your way. With this recipe, you can make your own smoked salmon using a backyard smoker. It’s a hot-smoking process, but the smoking temperature is kept to a minimum for maximum velvety texture and flavor.
Unlike cold smoking, which puts the salmon through a lengthy curing and smoking process at a very low temperature, hot-smoking salmon can be smoked over the course of an afternoon, which is ideal, especially if you’re hungry.
If you’ve got a smoker that’s just begging to be dusted off and a gorgeous piece of red salmon, there’s no better time than right now to learn how to transform it into a delicacy, right this very weekend.
What kind of salmon do you need to make Smoked Salmon?
Any salmon or salmonoid will work with this technique: wild salmon, Steelhead, trout, sockeye, or coho. You can also smoke farmed or wild, line-caught salmon. It’s entirely up to you. Skin on is preferable to skinned.
Depending on how large the chamber of your smoker is, you may want to fill up your smoker with as much fish as you can possibly afford. You can always vacuum seal the rest, or freeze it. And it always makes a nice gift.
What is a Smoked Salmon pellicle?
A pellicle is something that smokers strive for. Have you ever been to a Jewish deli or a fish market, and seen the pieces of glossy smoked fish on display? That shiny finish is the pellicle. It forms a seal that holds in moisture, and attracts smoke flavor. The stronger your pellicle is, the more moist and smoky your fish will be.
The trick to attaining a good pellicle is letting the fish dry out once it’s rinsed. Some smokers swear by using a small electric fan to blow over the fish on the rack as it dries.
What you need to smoke salmon:
Here’s what you need to turn fresh salmon into freshly smoked salmon. (BTW, if you feel like you can’t live without something here, buying through the links helps with running this site, so thank you very much!)
- A smoker. This recipe for Smoked Salmon is made on one of the undisputed champions, the good old WSM, or Weber Smokey Mountain. It uses regular charcoal or briquettes, and wood chips. You can make smoked salmon on a Traeger, a Big Green Egg, a pellet smoker, or an electric smoker, as long as you can control the heat and keep things nice and low. There’s a few tricks to getting a low heat with a charcoal smoker, down below.
- Wood chips. Adding hardwood chips boosts the flavor of smoked meat. Cherry, hickory, and alder wood all work great with salmon. Apple wood is wonderful, too!
- A coal chimney. Like this one. Indispensable for grilling, smoking– everything. Lights coals perfectly, every time, without starter. All you need is a match and a couple sheets of newspaper.
- An instant read probe thermometer. Make sure it’s reliable, like this one.
- A cooling rack. A cooling rack will help dry the fish before smoking, and be useful for cooling the fish once it comes out of the smoker.
- Plastic or Glass container. Those big, shallow food storage containers work best because they fit in the fridge easily and can be stacked on top of each other. You can use a shallow glass baking dish, too.
- Salt. Buy a big box of Kosher salt, like Morton’s or Diamond Crystal salt. Ordinary table salt will not work, because it has anti-caking agents in it that will give the salmon a bad taste.
- Brown Sugar. Plain brown sugar makes a great dry brine when mixed with the salt.
- Maple syrup. Real maple syrup makes an excellent basting liquid for the salmon, if you would like to add something sweet to smoked salmon. Honey works too. You don’t have to baste–just putting it out there in case you can’t control yourself.
- Basting Brush. In case you feel the need to baste, a basting brush comes in handy.
How to make Smoked Salmon:
First, make a smoked salmon brine, which will help remove some of the moisture in the salmon, and help in preserving it. This is a super easy dry brine that’s ready in seconds.
Find a shallow glass baking dish or a food grade plastic covered container–something large enough for the fillet to fit in comfortably. To make the brine, mix together the brown sugar and salt, and generously coat both sides of the salmon. Don’t worry about the amount of salt and sugar. After the brine does its thing, it gets rinsed off.
Next, cover the dish with plastic wrap and store it in the refrigerator. The salmon needs to brine at least 24 hours.
After that, rinse the brine from the filet. Use cold water, and make sure you rinse the salmon off thoroughly.
Then pat both sides of the fish dry with paper towels. This next step is important; it involves leaving the fish out to dry and develop a pellicle. A pellicle is a thin, shiny coating that forms on proteins which helps absorb the flavor of the smoke during cooking. The ideal spot is a cool, breezy room. Don’t worry about spoiling; you only need to dry the salmon out for 2 to 4 hours. The longer you leave the fish out, the better your pellicle will be.
If you’re planning on smoking right away, go ahead and light your smoker. If not, wrap the salmon fillet up and store in the refrigerator until you’re ready.
Once you’ve reached the ideal temperature for smoked salmon, 120-150 degrees, go ahead and place the fish on the grates. At this point, if you have one and you feel like using it, you can place the fillet on a soaked cedar plank. It will act as a buffer from the heat and make removal easy, too.
A gentle heat is really, really important for smoking salmon. If your smoker is too hot, or gets hot too quickly, the muscle fibers will contract and squeeze out moisture. Have you ever seen grilled salmon with congealed white liquid on the surface? It’s called albumen, and it’s there because the coals are too hot. While it is okay to eat, it generally means that the fish is overcooked and therefore dry.
While a little albumen is okay, the goal is to avoid it by using a low, gentle heat.
Smoke the salmon at a low temperature for about three hours, basting with maple syrup and a brush every hour, if you prefer.
Once you finish smoking salmon, remove it from the smoker and allow to cool for an hour before storing in the refrigerator. Smoked salmon will keep for 10 days. If you vacuum seal it, it should keep for up to three weeks. If you freeze smoked salmon, it will keep for up to a year.
How to Light a Charcoal Smoker for Smoked Salmon:
Smoking salmon is technically a “hot smoking” technique, but unlike ribs, tri-tip, or chicken, you don’t want high heat temperatures–even 200 degrees is too high for fish. The key here is to use much less fuel than you normally would, and keep some of the vents closed to prevent heat spikes.
The secret to consistent smoker temperature is a foolproof setup from the getgo. Here’s a surefire way to light a charcoal smoker like the WSM using a low heat fire. It’s a modified version of the technique called the Minion method, named after BBQ master Jim Minion.
Want to know even more about How to Use a Smoker? Head on over to read even more about smoking with hardwood, smoked chicken, and how to clean a smoker.
Expose the charcoal grate. First, remove the cylindrical part (center section) of the smoker, exposing the rounded bottom of the smoker, the lower charcoal grate, and the fire ring, also known as the coal chamber. Make sure these areas are relatively clean and free of ashes.
Dump the briquettes. Next, pour the unlit charcoal briquettes into the fire ring. Because you don’t need a lot of heat, you don’t need a lot of coals–maybe half of what you’d need for smoked turkey or ribs. Make a hole in the center of the briquettes with your hands.
Get the hardwood. If you decide on hardwood chunks for extra flavor, throw one or two medium to large dry chunks into the top of the coals in the lower grate, preferably near the vents, to create a bit more smoke. Wood causes temperature spikes, so don’t go overboard here. (Only use one or two chunks, but don’t bury them deep into the coals—meat accepts the smoke flavor better when raw and cool; once it starts cooking, the smoke can turn the meat bitter.)
Close the vents. Most of the time, The Minion method relies on fully open vents for maximum air circulation and heat. However, for smoked salmon, the goal is to keep the heat very low, so close two vents and only crack open one. You can open them a tiny bit only when you need a little more heat later on.
Use a chimney starter. Next, add only about 10-12 briquettes to the chamber of a chimney starter. Stuff the bottom with paper according to the starter’s instructions and light.
Orange coals is go time. Once the briquettes in the starter are white in color and glowing orange inside, they’re ready. When that’s apparent, pour them into the well you made in the center of the coal ring. These glowing coals will gradually light the surrounding coals; that’s what will sustain the temperature. Those closed/cracked bottom vents will keep things in check.
Reassemble smoker. Then put everything back together. Return the cylinder part of the smoker to the bottom of the smoker.
Fill the water pan. Now it’s time to fill the water pan. Open the smoker door and fill the pan about 3/4 of the way up with water.
Close it up. Then close the door; then double check and make sure the vents are in the proper position: one cracked, two closed. Finally, place the lid on the smoker and keep the lid vent half open. Chances are you’ll leave the lid vent that way during the entire smoke.
Sit back and wait. Wait until the smoker comes up to 5-10 degrees past the temperature you need—about 165-175 degrees—and then close that cracked lower vent. The temp should stabilize and eventually slowly drop. When it gets too cool, crack that vent open again to warm it up, and close it when it reaches temperature. Repeat as needed, rotating which vent you crack for even burning of charcoal.
Help! My Smoked Salmon has white stuff all over it! Did I ruin it?
Nope, not at all. Smoked salmon albumen is harmless. All it means is that the smoker got too hot, too fast. The salmon will still be delicious, albeit a tad bit dry. Flake it up and enjoy it with some mayonnaise, like tuna salad.
You can always fiddle around with the vent settings and coal on your next go ’round. Smoking is an art, not a science, after all!
Smoked Salmon Recipe
- 3 pound filet of salmon skin on
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 3/4 cup kosher salt
- Place the salmon filet flat in a non-reactive glass or plastic dish that's large enough to accommodate it.
- Mix the brown sugar and salt together and rub generously over the salmon on both sides.
- Cover the salmon with plastic wrap and leave overnight in the fridge.
- After 24 hours, rinse the fish thoroughly under cold water to get rid of the sugar and salt.
- Lay the fish on paper towels and pat dry on both sides.
- Transfer the fish to a cooling rack set over a clean baking pan, skin side down, and let it sit at room temperature for 2-4 hours to dry. It should develop a smooth, shiny skin and feel firm to the touch.
- Once the salmon has developed the skin, called a pellicle, you can stick it back in the refrigerator until you're ready to smoke.
- When the smoker has reached a temperature of 150 degrees, place the salmon directly onto the grate.
- Smoke the salmon for about three hours making sure to keep the temperature very low-- around 130-150 degrees.