How to Smoke Salmon

4.94 from 637 votes
Comment
Jump to Recipe

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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 637 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!

You May Also Like

Smoked Salmon Pasta

Whole wheat pasta with flaked smoked salmon and fresh herbs. Easy to make, quick, healthy and tasty.

Smoked Salmon Deviled Eggs

Deviled eggs are one of those foods I have a hard time controlling myself with. These deviled eggs, made with smoked salmon, are especially good.

Salmon Risotto

A simple salmon risotto recipe with herbs and butter that works well with leftover salmon or trout, or scraps from the carcass. You could use canned or smoked salmon or trout.

Japanese Salmon Rice

A very simple, clean, Japanese salmon rice recipe that uses short- or medium-grain rice, sake, green onions, salmon and optional furikake rice seasoning.

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.

4.94 from 637 votes (183 ratings without comment)

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recipe Rating




1,235 Comments

  1. I don’t eat seafood, but my wife does. I got my Traeger a few weeks ago and smoked a pork shoulder. Yesterday, we spotted some salmon and my wife asked if I could smoke that. I followed the recipe exactly as written, except my Traeger 22’s lowest setting (Smoke) put my temp up to around 175 all the time. Results? Amazing. My wife started noshing immediately. I asked what her reaction would be if she were served this salmon in a fine restaurant. Her response is unprintable, but exceptionally positive. She suggested I break the code so I could award 6 stars.

    It was extremely easy to do this and this recipe will go into my all-time best recipes. Thank you for the recipe.

  2. WONDERFUL RECIPE!!! I had Copper River Sockeye….it came out perfect!!! Just the right amount of salt and sweet. Thank you!

  3. Great article. I’m curious about the different curing methods: wet, in this recipe, vs. the dry method described in the Candied Salmon recipe. Why would you favor one method over the other? The dry method is obviously faster. Do they produce a different result somehow? Thanks!

    1. Michael: The dry salting method results in a slightly drier end product. I like my regular smoked salmon kinda lush, so I use the brine. For the candied salmon, I want it sturdier and a bit drier so I can tote it around.

  4. This is my new Go To smoked salmon recipe. I bought 3 sockeye fillets and did em up in my old rusted out SmokeHollow smoker with cherry wood chips, was so easy it was a pleasure. My wife says it was the best ever ! I was a little worried that I had left in the brine to long . 13 hours. it wasn’t to salty after a good rinse. I didn’t baste or glaze it with anything . It was perfect , Thanks……

  5. Sorry, this IS the end-all, be-all way of smoking salmon!
    I use this technique every time I do a cook; 3-4 times a year. Smoked salmon is carved into the menu for Christmas Eve and Easter, no questions asked. The other cooks are usually impromptu, just because we’re craving it! Everyone loves the leftovers and asks for the recipe!
    I always wet-brine my fish for 48 hrs and air dry in the refrigerator for 24 hrs.. That being said; if I double the brine recipe, I one-and-a-half the salt, not double.
    I use my Hasty Bake grill with 50/50 hickory and apple woods. I use real maple syrup for the baste.
    Sometimes, I will add spices to the brine..just to play around. But usually I will stick to salt and brown sugar.
    *Homemade cheese grits and a tangy mustard/lemon kale salad w/ dried cranberries and parm. is a pretty-perfect pairing!

    Thanks Hank!

  6. Thank you for the advice. the picture looks amazing. Can’t wait to see how this turns out.

  7. I’ve used this recipe many times now. Everyone really enjoys the flavor we get from the fish! Thanks for making this available.

  8. I’m very excited to try this recipe! This is my first try at smoking salmon. I am looking forward to the end results, and will comment about my end results. Thank you for sharing this recipe!!

  9. Hubby & I have made this recipe numerous times with great success (except once, when hubby failed to follow directions and I was gone for part of the day). It has always been a huge success with family & friends and I have shared the recipe with several people. I have just put 10 pounds of salmon into brine to smoke tomorrow!!

  10. Hank, this was the best recipe, as simple recipes go, that I’ve had for smoking salmon. When I did it I accidentally bought Steelhead because it was in the Costco case right next to the salmon, it was wonderful, won’t do salmon anymore. I thought the honey gave it more depth as well. I did a 2.5 lb steelhead cut into 4 pieces, 24 hour brine and 24 hour drying in frig., 3.5 hours on the Traeger 170 with super smoke the entire time. Last 20 mins took it to 200, to get internal temp to 130. My Traeger won’t go down to 140, 165 is lowest. Thanks!

  11. Your recipe sounds great! I have been smoking salmon for 10 years and I don’t have a pellet grill. I use a Weber kettle grill with the snake method. If not familiar with that, google charcoal snake method. Doing a 1×1 snake, I can keep the temp from 110-140 degrees with the dampers avoiding much Albumin. I actually have four whole filets drying in the fridge now.

  12. I have been buying Costco skinless farmed salmon – I cut off the thin end for gravlax ( a different recipe! ) and the rest I smoke using this recipe – 24 hours in the brine and then 2 hours in a very basic electric smoker at 215 degrees. I use pellets in the smoker because they are easy and cheap. about 1/3 cup of pellets every 45 minutes. I put the fillets on 1/4 sheet racks and put it on the smoker with the rack. Be aware that the salmon is not nearly as good when it is hot. Put in the fridge and only eat it when it is cold. AMAZING. Thank you Hank ( and Elise for sending me to you ) . If you have access to a smoker and a piece of salmon – make this ASAP – you won’t be disappointed,