How to Smoke Salmon - Smoked Salmon Recipe

Smoking and brining meats have been a method of preserving meat since ancient times. Brining (or pickling) meat slows the spoiling process because the salt inhibits bacterial growth, but it does not kill trichinosis or salmonella and therefore meat should be fully cooked after brining. The smoking process allows meats to be kept for longer period of time without the benefit of refrigeration because the smoking process reduces moisture.

Smoked Salmon Recipe

Preparing the Salmon

I use one 2 ½ to 3 ½ pound skinless filet. The thicker the better. I use skinless because I hate dealing with the skin sticking to the cooking grate and if you smoke the fish with the skin up, you won’t get that wonderful mahogany colored patina when you’re done. Run your hand over the filet to insure that all of the pin bones have been removed. If you feel any of them, remove them with a pair of pliers. Now your fish is ready for the brine.

Time for the Brine

  • 1 cup kosher salt to 1 gallon liquid (iodized salt use ½ cup)
  • 1-2 tablespoons Cayenne pepper
  • 3-4 tablespoons Garlic powder (not salt)
  • 2 tablespoons Onion powder (not salt)
  • 1/3 cup robust molasses or brown sugar
  • 1 bottle Apple cider (not juice)
  • Any combination of aromatic spices that suit your fancy
  • A cookie sheet with a cooling rack

A Word about Brine

Unlike many people believe, brining ads negligible amounts of sodium to the meat. The salt in brine does not transfer to the meat. If you are concerned about the salt content, simply make sure to rinse the brine off the meat thoroughly before cooking. But I can tell you from years of experience that a good brine is key to good smoked salmon. What the sodium does is force the meat to hold more water which means moist results. The brine that I suggest is as much a marinade as brine and will make for amazing flavor! It is important to remember that brine needs to have sweetness added to balance the salt. Some people like to add pineapple juice or orange juice. Get creative, add your own personal touches, and have fun. Knock yourself out, or as my mama used to say, “Stump your big toe!”

Place all spices and about 1 ½ to 2 cups water in a microwave safe bowl and heat loosely covered for about 6 minutes or until it starts to boil. If you heat it on the stove, use a stainless steel pot, or some other non-reactive metal. Let this “tea” steep, covered, for about 5 or 8 minutes. Add your molasses (or brown sugar) and stir until combined. Now it’s time for the salt. The ratio of kosher salt to water is about 1 cup to 1 gallon of water. The ratio is ½ cup to one gallon if you prefer to use iodised table salt. Add the salt firstly to the hot water then stir until dissolved. If it all doesn’t dissolve yet, don’t worry. It is important that your brine be reduced in temperature to about 42 degrees Fahrenheit. I add some ice to the hot brine to drop the temp. Remove any excess ice when the brine is sufficiently cool and add your apple cider until you have about a gallon of brine and stir.

Place your rinsed salmon into a large sealable plastic zip bag; add all of the brine making sure to include any seasonings that have settled to the bottom of the bowl. If you use a bowl, make sure it is made of plastic, stainless steel, or some other non-reactive metal. The fish must be completely submerged in the brine. This is why I find a plastic bag works best. Remove any air from the bag, seal, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour per pound of fish and up to 24 hours. I’ve found that it is hard to over brine salmon when it is to be smoked.

After the brine period is over, remove the fish and make a decision: to rinse or not to rinse. If you like your fish with a bit of a salty flavor do not rinse the brine. If you are not a “salt person”, thoroughly rinse the brine off of the fish. Now, the next part is very important to acceptable results. After removal from the brine or rinsing in the sink, carefully pat the fish dry with paper towels being careful not tear the flesh. You may want to re-season your salmon at this time (no more salt!!). Place the fish on a cooling rack for at least an hour and up to 2 ½ hours. Do not skip or shorten this step. Make sure to use a cooling rack so the air is able to circulate around the fish. The fish should acquire a sheen and a tacky feel prior to smoking. This sheen is called a pellicle finish. Failing to allow a pellicle finish to develop on the fish prior to smoking will affect the appearance and flavor of the fish. The tackiness allows more of the smoke flavor to stick to the surface of the fish, while the drying time helps prevent fat from bubbling up and pooling on the surface of the salmon during the smoking process. In other words, the pellicle finish helps to seal in that wonderful fat! Don’t fret the salmon fat!! Remember, it is in that fat that you’ll find those omega 3’s. If you see fat pooling on the surface, blot it up with a paper towel.

Now we’re ready to smoke some salmon.

All the Equipment You’ll Need:

  • Kettle grill with upper and lower vents and hinged cooking grate
  • Terracotta pot from any nursery or Home Depot
  • Charcoal briquettes (this method uses a lot of coals)
  • Wood chips (I use hickory, but many consider this too bold a flavor. Mesquite is way too strong)
  • Bowl of water for soaking the wood
  • Bowl of water for inside the grill
  • Long tongs
  • Oven thermometer
  • Charcoal lighting chimney (fluid effects the flavor)
  • A couple sheets of newspaper

I don’t use a smoker, but if you are serious about smoking meat you should absolutely look into an upright smoker. A Brinkman is a cheap and very well constructed smoker that can be found on Amazon or at your local home improvement store. I just use a 22 ½ inch Weber kettle grill. I love Weber, but I’m sure any covered kettle with upper and lower vents will work. The process that I outline here is for a covered kettle, not a smoker. There is only one issue, though; the Weber 22 ½ inch kettle has a hinged cooking grate that is essential when replenishing the coals and hardwood during the smoking process. If you don’t have a hinged grill you may have to remove the cooking grate every time you replenish the coals.

The smoking steps that I outline here can be used to slow roast or smoke any kind of meat. All grills are a bit different. You will have to adjust your times and number of coals to suit your grill and the climate in which you are working. It’s great fun and yields mouth watering fish, ribs, roast, and foul. So like my mama says, “Get out there and stump your big toe!”

Smoking Steps

  1. Pre-soak the wood chips for at least 60 minutes prior to smoking.
  2. Light about 20 briquettes in the chimney using the sheets of newspaper. When the coals are white around the edges they are ready.
  3. Pour them into the terracotta pot.
  4. Using the tongs, place between 3 to 5 coals to the far left and right edges of the grill (6-10 coals in total). Try to keep the number of coals to the bare minimum. If you are uncomfortable with the low temperature you may always add more coals from the terracotta pot. But remember, the cooler the temperature the better. You want as much smoke with as little heat as possible.
  5. Place the other bowl of water between the coals at the bottom of the grill and place the cooking grate on top making sure the hinges are oriented over the coals. There’s no real need to pre-heat the grill.
  6. Place your brined salmon centered between the hinges on the cooking grate and find a spot for your thermometer.
  7. Using the tongs, open the cooking grate hinges, pick up a few of the soaked wood chips, and place them directly on the coals. Make sure the bottom vents are completely open.
  8. Cover the grill tightly. You may close the top vents to about ½ to ¼ but do not close them completely.
  9. Set a timer for 20 or 30 minute intervals to remind you to replenish the coals and wood if needed. There is no reason to flip or turn the fish.

Some Important Details

I try to keep the temperature at cooking grate level to around 180-210 degrees. Try to keep it to the lower end of the spectrum. To do this you will need an oven thermometer which can be found in most grocery stores or at Amazon. Simply place the thermometer on the cooking grate near the fish. The hotter the temperature, the shorter the cooking time. Once you have begun smoking, keep an eye on the kettle. You should begin to see a good deal of smoke coming out of the vents, this is a good thing. You should have a terracotta pot containing the remaining hot coals nearby. When the smoke stops venting (usually at 20-40 minute intervals), open the kettle and, using the tongs, place 1 to 2 hot coals on each side through the grate openings and top them with more wood. Cover the grill and re-set your timer. Check your temperature each time you replenish. If the temp is too hot, add only wood and check again in 15 minutes or so. Don’t worry if the coals go out because you have a supply of hot coals in the terracotta pot. Each time you take coals from the terracotta pot, you should add a few new coals to keep enough hot coals available. If you see fat building up on the top of the fish you may want to blot it up with a paper towel.

Checking for Doneness

How do you tell when the smoked salmon is done? Well some cooks use an instant read thermometer and pull it at around 130 degrees Fahrenheit. I use my eyes and fingers for smoked fish. I like my smoked fish to be well done but very juicy (that’s where the brine comes in). I know my smoked fish is done when it is the color of mahogany and it is firm to the touch. 2 ½ to 3 pounds of salmon takes about 2 ½ hours (closer to 4 hours if you keep the temperature closer to 180 degrees). If you like your smoked salmon more rare, merely pull it off the grill at 1 ½ to 2 hours or at around 120 to 125 degrees Fahrenheit. You will need an instant read thermometer to do this effectively.

I know that once you have used my method for smoking a couple of times, you will tweak it, make it your own, and love it as much as I do! Use this same basic method to smoke your Fourth of July ribs or Thanksgiving turkey (use the same brine for any foul – smoked or not).

Smoke it, love it, and most of all – stump your big toe!!

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