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
4.94 from 597 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

Ingredients 

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

BRINE

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

Instructions 

  • 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.

Notes

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.

Nutrition

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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1,188 Comments

  1. I love this recipe! I’ve used it several times. I’m a pro at meats like brisket, I’ve done thousands of pounds for our catering business. But I was a rookie at salmon, and living in the PNW I needed to learn a few years back, so thank you Hank Shaw. I’ve added a few things to the brine on occasion, but my favorite addition is adding Kentucky bourbon to the real maple syrup baste. Highly recommend the bourbon! About 2 parts maple syrup, 1 part bourbon, baste liberally.

  2. Hi Hank,
    Wondering if I can make a large batch and then freeze. I don’t have a vacuum sealer but I do have a deep freezer. Any recommendations ?
    Thank you

    1. Nicole: You can freeze it. Once the fish is cool, wrap in plastic wrap and then again in freezer paper. Or put the pieces in a heavy freezer bag. It won’t keep very long, only a few months, but it will be better than nothing.

    2. I have frozen my whole smoked salmon many, many times and it must be wraped in plastic wrap and vacuum sealed as Hank mentioned. I have even packed it in a suitcase to take to a party that I catered out of state.

  3. Thanks for the great recipe and smoking tips. We have tried several different recipes for smoking Spring and Coho salmon. This one is definitely the best. We have used it now for 3 years. Not too salty, not too sweet. Perfect!!!! Brine for 7-8 hours, then dry and leave on racks in the fridge overnight. Smoke the next morning.

  4. This has been my one and only smoked salmon recipe for the past three years. It comes out great every time.

    I don’t have a real smoker, I just use an old charcoal webber grill with a thermostat on the cover. It’s pretty tricky to it to operate at 140 degrees for several hours but it can be done if you’re very careful with the air supply and watch it like a hawk. I use standard charcoal covered with some hickory wood chips.

    The smoked salmon is really good on a salad with hearty green such as kale or collard and a citrus dressing.

    If you like to impress your wife, girlfriend or any other woman, treat her to some of your smoked salmon. Just mentioning that you’re smoking salmon will perk their interest, not to mention the positive reaction you’ll get when they eat it. I may have something to do with the primordial manliness of the whole thing.

  5. This has been my go-to recipe for a couple of years now. The explanation of the pellicle formation was critical for me to understand how to make good smoked fish. Thanks Hank!

  6. I’ve used this recipe for a few years now, it’s the best recipe and process I’ve ever come upon. Hank knows smoking!!!

  7. I live in an apartment so I am not in the market for any smokers. But what I desire to bring to your attention that after having read the recipe for smoking salmon on Traeger’s website, a warning, that because of the possibility of the creosote levels in the wood, they failed to mention pine or fir as no, no. Please inform others of this.

  8. First time I made this I used it in a smoke salmon spaghetti. Cream, cream cheese, onion, garlic S&P to taste and spaghetti. Simply awesome. Even those who do not like salmon loved this dish.

  9. Followed the recipe exactly. Brined the salmon overnight, used apple wood, and used pure maple syrup. Everybody loves it!!

  10. outstanding recipe – the best smoked salmon I have made to date. I used cherry pellets in my Green Mountain hopper and utilized a smoker tube burning hickory right next to the salmon fillets.

  11. Love this recipe!!! I smoked king salmon I caught on Lake Michigan with a hickory n peach chip blend. Basted half way thru smoking with homemade maple syrup made from trees from Atlanta Michigan, then sprinkled brown sugar on top15 minutes before pulling the fish… AMAZING Follow his steps n you will not be disappointed.

  12. I’ve been smoking salmon off and on since I was in my teens, using the same basic brine as you offer here with teriyaki or soy sauce in place of part of the salt. I’ve added cayenne, ginger, red chili flakes but I still like the basic recipe. I used a Little Chief smoker for years and now I’ve got a Big Chief, by Luhr Jensen. It takes most of a day to get it done so I brine the day before smoking

  13. I love this recipe! Makes it pretty much fool proof and I’ve made it many times. Until this time I had more of the white albumin than expected. I am in Wisconsin and it is very cold. I wonder if I should have brought the salmon to room temp first? or maybe I should have put the salmon in the smoker as it came to temp? Normally I wait until thte temp on the smoker hits 140 degrees but perhaps I shoud have put it in cold as the smoker warmed up? Either way, this is a fantastic recipe and I follow it and it always turns out perfect! (I’m sure this batch will too, just wondering about the albumin)

  14. Have made this multiple times-amazing EVERY TIME! The hardest part is that my Traeger doesn’t go below 170 so I really have to keep an ion it and keep it from getting too hot. Everyone loves and requests it!

    1. I made it twice now and it turned out great! I did the brine overnight in the fridge, did the drying in the fridge for about 6 hours. Then I set the traeger to the smoke setting and put a glass of ice in there when I added the fish. That kept me around 150-160 and on the second maple syrup brushing I took out the glass so it would finish a little hotter like 175.

  15. Just made it for the 3rd time with fresh Coho salmon . I use a Traeger with apple pellets.Smoked Salmon,Homemade jams are a favorite for Christmas baskets for friends and family.

  16. Love this recipe! I’ve been using it for about 2 years now and it’s great for my long backpacking trips.

  17. Bravo Hank! Followed these instructions and recipe to the T today and didn’t disappoint, our Thanksgiving meal with a 5 lb Icelandic Atlantic with applewood chips. Hands down the best salmon all of my family has ever had. Watching their faces in amazement was actually kind of comical. Savory, sweet, smoky, tender flakes that just dissolves on the tongue. I think we have a new family Thanksgiving tradition. Thanks for sharing this Hank!

  18. Followed the recipe to the letter and smoked on a Weber smokey mountain. Served with a dill and hot mustard aioli. With a curry squash soup and crusty loaf.
    It’s a true culinary masterpiece. A real hit at a holiday luncheon.

  19. I used this for my first time smoking salmon. It came out amazing. Everyone that tried it was impressed. Thanks for the detailed steps for a first timer!