This has been the Summer of Salmon for me. The king salmon fishing here in California has been the best its been in 20 years, and I’ve caught my share in the past couple months. Add to that a gonzo sockeye and pink salmon fishing trip to Cordova, Alaska, and my freezer runneth over.
Perfect opportunity to hone my smoking skills. Now it would be the height of arrogance to say that what I do is the end-all, be-all of salmon smoking recipes. Lots of people smoked their salmon in lots of ways, and many of them are good. But I’ve been smoking fish for many years, and I’ve developed a system that works well.
Keep in mind this is a hot-smoking recipe. Cold smoking, which is the kind of slice-able smoked fish you get in fancy boxes from Scotland, cannot be done in a California summer: Our the ambient air temperature is higher than the 86°F maximum for that style of smoking. You’ll need to wait for winter to get my recipe for that.
Almost everyone in Salmon Country hot smokes their fish. If you’re unfamiliar with hot-smoked fish, think about those golden smoked whitefish you see in delicatessens; those are hot smoked. How do you eat it? Well, you can just eat it plain, or you can flake it out and make it into a smoked salmon salad, you can pound it with butter and make rillettes, serve it with scrambled eggs, tossed with pasta… you get the point.
Here’s what you need to get started:
- A smoker. I use a Bradley digital smoker and I love it. It lets me control the temperature independently of the smoker and tells me exactly what the temperature is inside the chamber. I’ve used a lot of smokers over the years, and I prefer the Bradley. No matter what smoker you use, you will need to be able to a) know your smoking chamber’s temperature, and b) control the heat, at least in a rough sense.
- Wood. The only downside to a Bradley smoker is that you need to use their pressed wood pucks. As a guy who used a Brinkmann wood-fired BBQ for years, fueling it with scraps of almond and other fruit woods, buying wood can be annoying. I prefer to use alder wood for my salmon, but apple, cherry, oak, maple or even hickory would work fine. Avoid mesquite, which is so distinctive and strong it will kill the salmon’s flavor.
- Salt. Buy a box of kosher salt from the supermarket. Do not use regular table salt, as it contains iodide and anti-caking agents that will give your salmon an “off” flavor.
- Something sweet — salmon love sweet. As this is Alaska salmon, I prefer to sweeten my brine with Alaska Birch Syrup from Kahiltna. It’s just like maple syrup, only tapped from birch trees instead. Super cool stuff. It does taste different from maple syrup, and I think it’s worth the expense. But maple syrup is just as good; just use real maple syrup, OK? Not the flavored crap.
- A large plastic container. Buy the big, flat ones from the supermarket. They stack easily in a normal fridge, so you can have two different brines going. And they clean easily and are pretty cheap.
- A wire rack. You need to rest your brined fish on a rack with plenty of air circulation to form the all-important pellicle (more on that in a bit), and you will use it to rest the smoked fish before storing it.
- A basting brush. You probably already have this in your kitchen, but if not, pick one up. Get the flat kind, like you use to paint detail on window trim.
Smoked Salmon, Glazed with Birch or Maple Syrup
When you are ready to start, you will need smallish pieces of salmon about 1/4 to 1/2 pound each. If you look closely at the piece of sockeye salmon above, you will see it split along the centerline when I picked it up. It’s still perfectly fine to eat, of course, but I am a perfectionist when it comes to presentation.
Any salmonid fish will work with this recipe. I’ve done it with king salmon, sockeye and pink salmon, plus kokanee, steelhead and Lahontan trout. There is no reason it would not work with coho salmon, chum salmon or any other char or trout species. And yes, I suppose it would work with farmed Atlantic salmon, but I never eat the stuff.
I prefer to smoke salmon with its skin on, but I’ve done it with skinless pieces and it works fine.
Note that my salmon cure is very simple. Feel free to add things if you like. I’ve added bay leaves, chiles, thyme, garlic and minced onion. All are fine, but subtle. And since I often use smoked salmon as a base for another dish, I want mine to remain simple and clean-tasting.
One last piece of advice: Try to fill up your smoker with fish. This process takes a while to do, and your smoker doesn’t care if its full or half-empty, so you might as well make a big batch.
Makes enough brine for 5 pounds of fish.
Prep Time: 24 hours, almost all of it passive in the fridge.
Cook Time: 6 hours, depending on your smoker’s temperature and how smoky you want your fish
- 5 pounds salmon, trout or char
- 1 quart cool water
- 1/3 cup kosher salt
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1/2 cup birch syrup or maple syrup
- More birch or maple syrup for basting
Mix together all the brine ingredients and place your fish in a non-reactive container (plastic or glass), cover and put in the refrigerator. This curing process eliminates some of the moisture from the inside of the fish while at the same time infusing it with salt, which will help preserve the salmon. You will need to cure your salmon at least 8 hours, even for thin fillets from trout or pink salmon. In my experience, large trout or char, as well as pink, sockeye and silver salmon need 24-30 hours. A really thick piece of king salmon might need as much as 30-36 hours in the brine. Never go more than 48 hours, however, or your fish will be too salty.
Take your fish out of the brine and pat it dry. Sit the fillets on your cooling rack, skin side down. Ideally you’d do this right under a ceiling fan set on high, or outside in a cool, breezy place. By “cool” I mean 60 degrees or cooler. Let the fish dry for 2-4 hours. You want the surface of the fish to develop a shiny skin called a pellicle.
This is one step many beginning smokers fail to do, but drying your cured, brined fish in a cool, breezy place is vital to properly smoking it. The pellicle, which is a thin, lacquer-like layer on top of the fish, seals it and offers a sticky surface for the smoke to adhere to. Don’t worry, the salt in the brine will protect your fish from spoilage.
Now you are ready to smoke your fish. Even though this is hot smoking, you still do not want high temperatures. Start with a small fire and work your way up as you go. I can control my heat with the Bradley smoker, so I start the process at 100°F for 2 hours. Then I step up the heat to 140°F for another 2 hours, then finish at 175°F for a final two hours.
Baste with the birch or maple syrup every hour.
Even if you can’t control your temperature this precisely, you get the general idea. You goal should be an internal temperature of about 140-145°F.
You must be careful about your heat. Other than failing to dry your salmon long enough, the single biggest problem in smoking salmon is too high heat. If you’ve ever seen salmon “bleed” a white, creamy substance, that’s a protein called albumin. If you see it, you’ve screwed up. Here’s what happens: If you cook a piece of salmon (or trout or char) at too high a heat, the muscle fibers in the meat contract so violently that they extrude albumin, which immediately congeals on the surface of the fish. It’s ugly, and it also means your salmon will be drier than it could have been.
You prevent this with a solidly formed pellicle, and by keeping your heat gentle. All this said, if you let your heat get away from you and you do get a white mess on your salmon all is not lost. Just flake it out and make salmon salad with it: The mayonnaise in the salad will mask any dryness.
Once your fish is smoked, let it rest on the cooling rack for an hour before you put it in the fridge. Once refrigerated and wrapped in plastic, smoked fish will keep for 10 days. If you vacuum-seal it, the fish will keep for up to 3 weeks. Or freeze your fish for up to 6 months.