hot smoked salmon

How To Smoke Salmon (Rubs, Brines & Time)

hot smoked salmon

I got addicted to hot smoked salmon many years ago, it’s so simple, but can be one of the tastiest basic smoking recipes.

Will go through all the ways of I have learned to smoked salmon, which i think create pretty awesome results. Will also cover some rub recipes at the bottom.

The basic way I use is shown below, which I have refined over a few decades. However, cooking and smoking is all about experimenting too of course. You will also find a list of flavors and herbs, that go really well with smoked salmon.

Catching fresh salmon or buying fresh, you want to make sure that the salmon has a good story behind it like any food (farmed salmon can have quite a lot of hormonal additives, do some research – support the ethical companies!).

How To Smoke Salmon

  1. Brine or salt dry cure the salmon
  2. Place salmon covered in the fridge for at least 4 hours
  3. Wash off the salt cure
  4. Form the pellicle, uncovered in the fridge for a minimum of 1 hour
  5. Remove once fish flakes easily or target temperature has been reached

I would give yourself at least 16 hours prepping too, before the smoking/cooking. You can for sure make it a short prep time, but you won’t get as much smoke flavor into the salmon.

You can use any smoker, I will cover off the ones I have used. Because the salmon isn’t dense like beef or pork, it will cook through quite fast.

How To Smoke Salmon a Detailed Guide

Equipment Needed

  • Salt – sea salt or kosher salt (not iodized)
  • Salmon – doesn’t have to be a whole fillet
  • Hot Smoker, Portable Smoker, Gas BBQ or Kettle Charcoal BBQ
  • Dry smoking wood (to suit smoker)
  • Bowl with a lid to cover when curing salmon
  • Cooling rack, hang or on chopsticks – to get air flow to develop pellicle

1. Brine or Salt dry Cure the Salmon

You know that salmon is not a uniform even shape, so if you are smoking a whole fillet the dry salting can be less toward the tapered end.

You will find the moisture content relatively even across the fillet. If you want, you can cut the fillet into strips before smoking. They will cook/smoke faster (I did this in the pics to test different salt levels for this post).

Generally most people like myself like to brine the salmon, it effectively helps hold the moisture inside the salmon during the smoking/cooking process.

Remove Pin Bones – Makes Eating Easier

Quite often bought salmon has the pin bones removed, however you should run you finder across the rib cage area of the fillet to see if they are protruding.

Pin Bone Removal

I chef trick is to run a knife backward across the fillet to expose the bones more.

Tweezers are good, small pliers even better. You don’t have to remove the pin bones. However, when you present the glorious smoked salmon, it is more enjoyable without bones.

Some people prefer to remove the pin bones after brining, it can be easier.

Skin On – Easier

Having the skin on, I find protects the flesh during the smoking process. Since you will be smoking with the skin side on the bottom. It works fine without the skin also.

The bottom part of the fish will just be slightly more cooked through if you remove it. I do like to fry up the skin in a pan it becomes a crunchy nugget of flavor (no oil needed, natural fats are used)!

When I first started smoking fish I was catching trout, I would use a 2:1 ratio of salt to brown sugar. Would sprinkle it on, quite lightly. Leave it overnight covered in the fridge. It was then ready for the portable smoker.

Large trout about to get hot smoked in the portable smoker

The next morning, I would use stronger wood sawdust, like oak and fire up the grill BBQ. I used a portable smoker for 10 years, it was mainly during the fishing or camping trips, it was so convenient to use. Just kept is wrapped in a blanket so it didn’t mess up any other gear.

Loved the finished product and it produced a much lighter flavor than the low and slow smoking I now do. You could call this a fast fish smoking method.

If you want more information on the portable smoker, I wrote about it here.

The method below is for a more refined outcome using an electric, gas, pellet or charcoal smoker. Having a bit of control over the temperature means you can adopt the low & slow styles, this means more smoke flavor, due to longer exposure to the smoke gases (it’s the gases supposedly that flavor the meat and have the anti-bacterial properties).

Portable Smoker Thin Blue Smoke
My Portable Smoker Thin Blue Smoke

Salt Brining

For an easy universal salt brine, you need 5% salt to 1 quart or 1 Liter

For example, 4 cups of water for each 1/4 cup sea salt or 50 grams or 1.8 oz (approx)

Also known as, ’20 degrees’ in a commercial sense, measured by a salometer. Much stronger brines are used to quickly brine commercial fish.

Just remember different salts take up different volumes, so measuring with some accurate scales does help a lot (especially with equilibrium dry curing for salumi etc.).

I would call this an overnight brine, wouldn’t leave it in for more than 24 hours personally. Don’t worry if you over brine, you can just soak it in fresh water for maybe 30 minutes. I like to try it and see how salty it is at this point.

A 5% brine is a good guide for most peoples salt taste preference I have found. Below, I did some homework to figure out the sweet flavor of brine if that is what you are after.

If you want more information about wet brine vs dry salt brine, I read a few books on commercial smoking. You can make very salty brine if you want to speed up the process. A good book, but it’s old school:

Home smoking and curing: how to smoke-cure meat, fish and game, by
Keith Erlandson

Different Sugar Ratios to Salt

I did an experiment to help you work out how much sugar you may want to put in there brine. I had a group of friends that have varying taste buds when it comes to sweetness.

I cut a salmon fillet into 4 pieces and tried some slightly different curing ratios. All were removed 8 hours or over night the next morning.

  1. 5% Brine / 1.7 oz cup brown sugar (50g) – Light sweetness
  2. 5% Brine to 1L / 3.5 oz brown sugar (100g) – moderate sweetness
  3. 2% dry cure salt / 1% brown sugar dry cure – moderate sweetness
  4. 5% brine only – no sweetness

I split the salmon so that piece was 250g or 8.8 oz of salmon.

We found them all enjoyable, however, 1 & 2 with some sugar was what most guests preferred.

Next time I will lower the direct dry salt curing to 1.5%

5% & 1 cup of sugar for 1 quart is used for many recipes online. Personally, this makes the salmon too sweet. Generally, I don’t need any more sugar in my diet too.

Optional Curing Spices & Flavors

For wild and farmed poultry, I have used white wine, bay leaves, garlic, pepper, and fresh herbs.

You can use teriyaki sauce and a host of other condiments, many generally are sweet, because they use sugar as a preservative. My preference is on less processed more natural additives.

Flavor Ideas for a brine

  • Bay leaves
  • Garlic
  • Fennel
  • Mustard
  • Dill (popular in Scandinavia)
  • Lemon Pepper
  • Lemon or Lime Zest

You can really play around with the herbs and flavors, often you will find they will come through more subtle than other styles of cooking. Rub recipes will be down the bottom after the method.

Any spice or herb that goes or pairs with meat can be used. With salmon, I generally just want the smokey delicious salmon flavor to come through.

Salt Dry Curing

Salt curing can be more inconsistent, depending on the salt and the coverage on the meat lastly how long you leave the salt cure on the meat.

From the above experience, I think 1-2% sea salt of the total weight of the salmon would work out well. Funnily enough, with equilibrium curing, 1-3% is generally the guideline (braesola, pancetta etc.)

2. Place Salmon Covered in the Fridge for at least 4 Hours

Based on the brining method above, 4 to 5 hours will be enough to cure the salmon so it is ready for drying. Overnight is the preference, you could go as long as 24 hours, you might get quite a salty outcome.

I don’t find any need for turning or playing around with it, I just use good tight tupperware to keep it all locked in.

3. Wash Off the Salt Cure

Now, some folks I have heard use white wine to wash the salmon fillet. I find this too much. Did it once, didn’t find any change in flavor after the smoking was done.

Simply wash the fish under the cold water tap for a minute or two.

You will find the salmon meat has become slightly firmer due to the curing or brining.

4. Dry the Fish to Form the Pellicle

I find it best to place uncovered in the fridge, on a rack is the ideal method I think. On cooler winter days, I have hung fillets in breezy shed which have some air flow.

The fridge is ideal because it is cool of course, but it also runs at approximately 25-50% humidity and should have some air flow also. Great conditions for forming a pellicle.

Because your salmon is cured, it won’t left off any smell in the fridge either I find.

In summary, the pellicle is when the protein on the outside of the meat binds together to protect itself. It has a tacky, slightly glossy look to it.

It really helps the smoke adhere the gases (it’s not smoke that flavors the meat) to the meat.

If you want to read more about pellicle formation, I wrote a full post on it here.

5. Remove Once Fish Flakes or Target Temperature has Been Reached

Time & Temperature

As a guide, I will use between 140-180°F / 60-82°C for 1.5 to 3 hours.

hot smoked salmon

This really does depend on the thickness of the salmon fillet.

Luckily the good healthy fat in salmon, means it is harder to overcook. Also, the salt curing makes it harder to overcook the fish. Curing & brining helps hold the moisture in during the cooking/smoking process.

Built in thermostats can be inaccurate sometimes if you are using one. I have found the location on the grill or kettle can sometimes not reflect the temperature. I have seen some being off by up to 50°F. Using a reliable thermometer can help you get more accuracy.

Thermometers are very popular nowadays with backyard smoking enthusiasts, especially with the longer low and slow style. If you are smoking something for half or a whole day, you want to keep the temperature consistent. Its not essential, it just makes it easier.

If you want to check out a few thermometers I have talked about, please find them here.

Cooking the salmon until it can easily breakaway when you push a fork into it makes sure it’s cooked through properly.

Or

If you want to get technical, 145°F / 62.8°C is cooked (USDA Guidelines). Over about 155 F is when it will become overcooked.

Optional Basting for Sweetness

If you want to add some sweetness to the salmon, honey or maple syrup is common in many book recipes. I prefer without, but each one to there own. I want the smoke and salmon flavor to come through unadulterated.

Salmon Smoking Options Slow or Fast

So I find the faster option will have a more subtle smoke flavor, the slow method will create a deeper smoke flavor.

Low & Slow Smoking

  • Electric / Gas Smokers
  • Pellet Smokers
  • Charcoal smokers (kettle for instance)

These smokers will all do a great job at smoking salmon and may other meats & foods. Of course, having a thermostat controlled option, can make this literally a set and forget cooking session.

Gave some serious thought about the main factors if you are after a set & forgotIoption, if you look for a super easy smoker, I wrote about all the easiest smokers here.

Kettle Smoker Snake Method
‘Snake head’ is burning

If you do have a charcoal kettle, the “snake method” works great also for a charcoal kettle grill setup to. It just takes a bit of time to get the initial charcoal fuel going before adding it to the kettle.

Remember to add hot boiling water, or else will will talk quite some time to get the smoker up to temperature in the smoker.

Fast Hot Smoking

Portable Smoker Fish

This is generally done is a much more confined area, it means the salmon is surrounded by smoke. The heat is coming directly from below, this is a common method through many countries in the world now.

Some call the device you use a ‘pressure smoker’, but it’s dones’t seem to create an pressure, it’s just a nick name. The main name for this is box smoker or portable smoker. If you aren’t familiar with these, more info below.

The temperature I find can be around 265-320°F / 130 – 160°C for 15 to 30 minutes depending on thickness of the fillet.

If you are just trying to weight up the costs of a smoker. I wrote about some options based on use and positive feedback of friends. You will find different price range brackets summarised, please find that post here.

What is the White Stuff on Smoked Salmon?

One thing to be careful about is too much heat, if you don’t watch it, you will see a puddle of white substance on top of the salmon fillet. I think this is due to overheating mainly. Easy fix, you can just wipe it away.

You will generally always have some I find, either a little or a lot.

This substance is coagulated protein known as albumin and it is pushed out of the salmon during the cooking process.

Don’t Forget a Water Pan

You will find it easier to regulate heat if you use a water pan. As a backup, if it does get too hot. You can throw in some ice.

If you are using a box/portable smoker this won’t be necessary, since you are smoking over a short period of time.

Portable Smokers – Faster & Hotter Smoking

As mentioned previously, this was my go to option when I was catching a lot of trout and a few salmon. I still use it extensively for certain holiday outings.

It can work very well, especially if you don’t want the full smoker setup. It does take some adjusting.

It’s not essential, but if you want to get a better idea of what is going on in the smoker, I would suggest buying a thermometer you can poke into the smoker.

The smoker takes direct heat from below, the wood sits at the bottom of the smoker box. A small rack is above it, the meat or food sits on the rack. A good portable smoker has only 2 pieces the molded box and a good sliding lid.

Not all portable smokers were created equal, I have known a few people that bought designs that leaked heat or were rivets, here is a post I wrote about some decent ones.

Tip A small amount of wood can produce a lot of smoke and flavor in a portable smoker. With some certain fruit woods, I ended up with thin yellow smoke instead of the common blue smoke from most smoking hardwoods, which looked very cool.

If you want some tips on universal smoking woods, please find it here.

How To Store Hot Smoked Salmon

In an airtight container, tucked away in the fridge will keep the salmon happy. As mentioned, the smoke flavor will actually get a bit stronger, once it has been in the fridge for a day.

How Long Does Hot Smoked Salmon Last?

You will find if refrigrated, about 10-12 days. It have a little preserving going on. This is cooked salmon with some smoked flavor.

Hot Smoking does not preserve the fish much at all, if you want more information on hot smoking and why is does not preserve, I wrote a post comparing hot & cold smoking here.

Best Wood for Hot Smoked Salmon

From my experiences, fruit woods like apple, cherry, grape and pear work incredible well.

Oak or maple, I consider a medium wood, it does work out well also.

Being a softer flavor then red meat, I would keep away from pure strong hardwoods like mesquite. Mixing the heavier smoke flavored woods is also an option.

There is a lot of internet talk about the flavors of wood, personally apart from light,medium and strong. Can’t say I have noticed specific flavors that some claim.

Ways to Use Hot Smoked Salmon

Because it should come off the smoker moist & soft, it has a bunch of ways you can use it. It firms up a little when cooled.

7 Ways to Use Hot Smoked Salmon

  • Just straight from the smoker
  • Hot smoked salmon paté
  • Egg Benedict with hot smoke salmon
  • Mixed in with scrambled eggs
  • Hot smoked salmon pattie
  • In a quiche
  • Mixed into a pasta dish
  • Kedgeree (light Indian/UK curry, egg, rice, smoked fish)

Different Types of Salmon for Smoking

I haven’t found a salmon type that doesn’t hot smoke nicely. If you would generally bake it, then smoking it will work fine.

Most of the salmon I have smoked have been chinook, most salmon seem to take on smoke flavor nicely that I have tried.

Always best to find what is local or closed in my opinion.

Is Hot Smoked Salmon Healthy?

Considering there are so many healthy fats in salmon, you really are getting some good nutrition. It does depend on the quality of the salmon, the tractability of course to the source. Wild and farmed can be completely different depending on where you are in the world.

Smoke chemicals actually have anti-bacterial properties, I read about this in a smoking book.

Related Questions

Is Smoked Salmon Served Hot or Cold?

Hot smoked salmon can be served hot or cold. If the hot smoked salmon is refrigerated, it will develop a deeper smoke flavor. Hot smoked salmon can be reheated the same as baked or fried salmon.

How do you Smoke Salmon Fast?

Using a portable smoker which is directly heated will mean the salmon will cook faster in approximately 15 to 30 minutes. The smoke flavor will be lighter due to the shorter time in the smoking environment.

What Temperature do you Smoke Salmon to?

The internal temperature of the salmon should reach 145°F or 62.8°C. This will mean the salmon has fully cooked internally. This is the same temperature as if you were cooking salmon by baking or frying.

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