How to Smoke Salmon

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finished smoked salmon recipe, with fish on cooling rack
Photo by Hank Shaw

I smoke a lot of salmon, and I am proud of this recipe, although 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 smoke 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 is an entirely different thing.

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 and make it into a smoked salmon salad, you can pound it with butter and make salmon rillettes, serve it in deviled eggs, tossed with pasta… you get the point.

Here’s what you need to get started:

  • A smoker. I’ve uses a Traeger and a Bradley. Both are good. 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 Traeger smoker is that you need to use their wood pellets. 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, but you get better precision with this method. I prefer to use alder wood for my salmon, but apple, cherry, oak or maple work fine.
  • 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. I use Diamond Crystal, which is cut finer than Morton’s.
  • Something sweet — salmon love sweet. I prefer to sweeten my smoked salmon with birch syrup; It’s just like maple syrup, only tapped from birch trees instead. Super cool stuff. But maple syrup is just as good. Just use real maple syrup, OK? Not the imitation crap. Honey works, too.
  • 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.

When you are ready to start, you will need smallish pieces of salmon about 1/4 to 1/2 pound each. Any salmonid fish will work with this recipe. I’ve done it with king salmon, sockeye, coho, and pink salmon, dolly varden, plus kokanee, steelhead and Lahontan trout.

There is no reason it would not work with chum salmon or any other char or trout species. And yes, it works 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.

finished smoked salmon recipe, with fish on cooling rack
4.93 from 571 votes

Smoked Salmon

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.
Course: Cured Meat
Cuisine: American
Servings: 5 pounds
Author: Hank Shaw
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 4 hours
Total Time: 4 hours 15 minutes


  • 5 pounds salmon, trout or char
  • Birch or maple syrup for basting


  • 1 quart cool water
  • 1/3 cup Diamond Crystal kosher salt, about 2 ounces of any kosher salt
  • 1 cup brown sugar


  • Mix together 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 4 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 8 hours. A really thick piece of king salmon might need as much as 36 hours in the brine. Never go more than 48 hours, however, or your fish will be too salty. Double the brine if it's not enough to cover the fish.
  • Take your fish out of the brine, rinse it briefly under cold running water, and pat it dry. Set 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°F or cooler. Let the fish dry for 2 to 4 hours (or up to overnight in the fridge). 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. Once you have your pellicle, you can refrigerate your fish for a few hours and smoke it later if you'd like.
  • Start by slicking the skin of your fish with some oil, so it won't stick to the smoker rack. Know that 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. It is important to bring the temperature up gradually or you will get that white albumin "bleed" on the meat. I can control my heat with my smoker, so I start the process between 140°F and 150°F for up to an hour, then finish at 175°F for a final hour or two. 
    NOTE: What my smoker is set at is not necessarily what the actual temperature is. Smoking is an art, not a science. To keep temperatures mild, always put water in your drip pan to keep the temperature down. If your smoker is very hot, like a Traeger can get, put ice in the tray.
  • After an hour in the smoker, baste the fish with birch or maple syrup, or honey; do this every hour. This is a good way to brush away any albumin that might form. In most cases, you will get a little. You just don't want a ton of it. Even if you can't control your temperature this precisely, you get the general idea. You goal should be an internal temperature of about 130°F to 140°F. (Incidentally, yes, I keep the smoke on the whole time. I don't find this to be too much smoke, but if you want a lighter smoke, finish the salmon without smoke or in a 200°F oven.)
  • 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 lots of it, you've screwed up; a little is normal. 
    Here's what happens: If you cook a piece of salmon 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.
    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 a year.


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.
And keep in mind this recipe is for basic smoked salmon. Other options are smoked salmon candy, a great snack, and, once you have your smoked salmon, you can use it in smoked salmon dip on crackers.


Serving: 113g | Calories: 132kcal | Protein: 21.3g | Fat: 4.9g | Saturated Fat: 1.1g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 1.1g | Monounsaturated Fat: 2.3g | Cholesterol: 26.7mg | Potassium: 198.7mg | Vitamin A: 100IU | Calcium: 10mg | Iron: 1mg

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Tried this recipe? Tag me today!Mention @huntgathercook or tag #hankshaw!

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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Recipe Rating


  1. Hank knows his stuff! living in the NW I catch a lot of salmon this is by FAR THE BEST smoked salmon I have ever had the basting with birch syrup is key!!

  2. Extremely detailed and well described instructions that simply produced the finest smoked salmon I’ve eaten, let alone made. The neighbors and family loved it. Thank you so much…it’s love to see what good instructions and attention to detail can produce with very repeatable results.

  3. Followed your recipe for my first time smoking salmon….WOW!! A+ Thank you. Used pecan chips in my Big Green Egg – indirect heat (half only) kept a constant 150 for 5 hours – basted with pure maple syrup every hour – it’s amazing!
    Love to send some pics didn’t see how to do that here

  4. I live in Southern California where nights are in the low 70’s. My house is in the mid 70’s so will it be an issue drying the salmon under a fan if it’s not below 60.

    1. Art: Yes, if you do it for a long time. But you should be OK drying it in front of a fan for a couple hours. Or you can leave it uncovered in the fridge overnight.

  5. I have never smoked any fish before. I followed your recipe and wow, amazing! Everyone loved it! I used all king salmon from lake Michigan and brined for 12 hours. Smoked at 130 for an hour, 150 for an hour and 170 until 145 IT. I used cherry smoke and also basted with maple syrup every hour and at the end. Sooooo Good!

  6. I always have mine covered in butter, garlic, and lemon zest. After I let it dry could I do that or should I use them in a mop sauce?

  7. May I ask for a little more information on how to know if the smoking/drying process is sufficiently done? IIs it okay if some of the pieces are more soft in the middle.
    The salmon I am smoking is Alaska sockeye and Alaska coho. The thickness iof my small pieces varies as some pieces are tail end pieces. Some pieces are from the thicker side of the filet. Do I leave the thicker pieces in the smoker (without smoke) to achieve a dryer end result? Or is it done and acceptable to stop the process even though the thicker pieces are soft in the middle.
    Thanks for any insight on how to determine when to stop. ????

    1. D&J: Yes, they are supposed to be soft. And yes, if you want a drier result, keep smoking the fish. I prefer this smoked salmon to be cooked as if you’d done it in a stove, so not hard or dried out. I have other recipes for a more stable, jerky-like smoked salmon, though.

  8. Thank You, Hank!
    I made the smoked salmon over the weekend and it turned out awesome. The directions and tips were spot on and very easy for a novice smoker to follow. Thanks again….next up: bacon.

  9. I have the brine working now. Going to smoke tomorrow. We have canned the smoke salmon and it has lasted for at least a year that way. Maybe forever…really great dip with cream cheese, capers, garlic powder, minced onions and celery, green olives…anyhow I haven’t died yet…

  10. Great recipe, thanks. I really like the maple touch. Quick question, I see you have used Trager or Bradley smokers. Any reason why you have chosen these smokers?

    1. Franco. I worked with Traeger for a hot minute, so I have one, but I started with an offset. It was OK, but I really like the set it and forget it nature of the other smokers. The Bradley is fantastic for fish, better than any other smoker, because of what could be a design flaw: The Bradley never gets real hot. So if you want to smoke cool-ish, as you do for fish, the Bradley is a winner. And no, they have not paid me a dime to say that.

  11. Keeping the smoker at that low of a temperature will be a challenge but I’ll give it a try. Would this recipe work for mackerel as well?

  12. Simply the best instructions for a simplistic recipe. Well defines step by step instructions. The salmon always comes out great too. I’ve used this method 4 or 5 times and EVERYONE loves the salmon. (People who don’t normally eat fish, ate my salmon and wanted more.) I want to try adding lemon or oranges slices to the brine. Thanks for helping me master my salmon smoking techniques

  13. Hello,
    Great recipe for the salmon.
    I’ll smoke some on Sunday but wanted to ask you what would be the best way to store it and what’s the shelf life?
    Thanks for any help,

    1. Chris: It will keep about a week or so in the fridge, and I normally vacuum seal it for freezing. It freezes well.

  14. Tried this last yr on king and it was spot on sitting her now in 2022 with a smoker full of brown trout hoping it turns out as good as the salmon did. Follow it as he states and you won’t regret it.
    Thanks for a great recipe.

  15. You are the man! I’ve made some great salmon on my smoker, but this recipe and directions were next level. Thank you!!’