How to Smoke Salmon?

Prepping Time: 15 m

Cooking Time: 4 hr

Total Time: 4 hr 15 m

Originally done as a method of preservation, smoking salmon has went through a lot of innovation in the recent years. Instead of its former purpose, it has now become an essential ingredient for countless recipes including those of pasta, quiches, pâtés, and even salads.

If you want to take your cooking to the next level, you need to know how to smoke fish, especially salmon as it is the most commonly used seafood for this purpose.

What do you need to get started?

Prior to getting your salmon all smoked up, there are a number of things that you need to make sure are present with you. Now, if you don't have one of these, it is OKAY, you can buy it if you want or ignore it. The ingredients and items that we are mentioning here are the ones that we think are imperative for getting the ideal results for your smoked salmon.

Nevertheless, like we always recommend, feel free to experiment around to get the best possible recipe that you love.

High Quality Smoker

This is the most neglected step whenever it comes to smoking food. You need to make sure that the smoker you have, or if you plan to buy it, is of the best possible quality. This is for three vital reasons:

  • Ability to sustain high temperatures

When you buy a smoker, you need to consider all the kinds of recipe that you are going to try. It might be that you initially bought it for smoking fish but later thought about getting some pork done too. The point to note here is that you need a less intense temperature to smoke fish in comparison with pork, venison or turkey. If your smoker breaks down after consistent cooking sessions, then it is not worth the money.

For a coal-fueled smoker, we recommend the Dyna-Glo company (as shown in the picture above). If you are looking for an electric one, Masterbuilt is your perfect companion.

  • Presence of an efficient system for temperature control

You don't want your salmon burned up or smoked up too quickly. The smoker you use must have a control system, a knob or something with which you can regulate the heat easily in accordance with how quickly or slowly you want to cook the fish.

Generally, we recommend using a medium temperature, even though it takes longer time, that will allow your salmon to fully absorb the warmth and become tender from inside out.

  • Durability and sturdiness which won't betray

You are not going to be smoking salmon for once in your lifetime. Besides, fish is not the only food which you will be working on (in the future). Therefore, remember that quality comes at a price. If you really are passionate about cooking and want to impress your friends and family, spending some bucks won't disappoint you, that's for sure!

Kosher Salt

This is for the preservation and taste purposes. You cannot use the common table salt for this as its full of iodide and anti-caking agents which may give an awkward metallic taste to your salmon.

If you don't have kosher salt, you can use pickling salt. It is the pure form of granulated salt and is non-iodized with no unnecessary agents.

Container

You need to put your salmon on something that is non-reactive (glass or plastic), clean and wide enough to accommodate the fish pieces on it without crowding. The container you use can be of any size as long as it is not too tall and fits inside your fridge effortlessly.

Sweetener

If you haven't tried to use a sweetening agent for your fish, you are missing a lot of delicious and mouth-watering experience. You can use anything from common honey to maple syrup and birch syrup. The latter is preferred for its taste, but then it depends on your preferences as well. This will be added (according to your liking) into the brine which you will be making for your salmon.

Wired Grid

This will be placed on the surface of the container such that it doesn't fall inside it but remains over it with its edges resting on those of the container. The brined salmon needs loads of air circulation to form the pellicle around it. It also needs to remain fresh so we need to use something which has space inside it (container) and a grid, to place the salmon pieces on, with lots of open areas. This will ensure that the fish is getting proper air from all the sides.

Basting Brush

You can get this from any superstore or online shopping sites. This will be required for various purposes, one of which will be the oiling up of the salmon before putting it in the smoker.

What to do?

The process of smoking salmon is simple as long as you have all the required ingredients and items along with you. Here are the precise steps that you should be following for a successful outcome:

1) Cure the salmon: create the brine with the ingredients of your choice, our recipe will be mentioned below in the FAQs section. Add it in a non-reactive container (glass or plastic) and put the fish pieces in it. Cover the container and put it in the refrigerator. This step will ensure all the internal moisture of the fish is eliminated and the taste and spices of the brine, along with salt, are infused in it.

2) Leave it for some time: the refrigerated salmon will need time to fully cure. For normal-sized thin pieces, the process will take around 4-5 hours to complete. If you are using a thick fillet, expect to let it alone for 8-12 hours. If you are using a really thick one, the likes of chinook salmon (also known as king salmon), then you must leave it for about 30-36 hours. Make sure never to cross the duration of 48 hours or the fish will absorb in too much salt and get its taste ruined.

3) Let the fish dry: you should now take the salmon out of the brine and pat it dry. Place the wired grid on the container and put the fish on it and let it dry under a high-speed ceiling fan. If you want, you can also dry it in the refrigerator overnight. This step is super essential in smoking the salmon correctly. Many beginners fail to do this either out of laziness or negligence and end up making a not-so-nice smoked salmon.

4) Smoke the salmon: use a basting brush to oil every inch of the fish so that it doesn't stick to the surface of the smoker's rack. Now start the smoker with a low flame and increase it gradually, depending on the condition of the salmon. Do not rush with this step or otherwise you may notice white substance extracting out of the fish. This is called albumin and it's nothing to worry about as long as it is not in an excessive amount. We recommend you to start with 140°F, slowly increase it till 150°F for an hour and then finally go to a maximum of 175°F and keep it for another hour or two.

5) Apply the sweetening agent: this may be maple syrup, birch syrup or honey. Use whatever is available and whatever you like the best. Although, birch syrup generally makes the salmon taste much more better.

You need to apply the sweetener every hour or so with the basting brush. Make sure to brush away any white substance first and then coat the syrup.

6) Cool the fish and serve it: the smoked salmon is now to be cooled under a ceiling fan for an hour. In this step, do not use refrigerator to cool it. By cooling here, we mean to get rid of the excessive heat as it just came off the smoker.

Once done, you can serve it with anything or use it as an ingredient in another recipe. If you want to use it later, feel free to store it by wrapping a plastic around it. This will allow it to last around 10 days before going bad. If you vacuum-seal it, your salmon will be capable of surviving for 3 weeks.

How do I make brine?

Brine has several recipes, each of it with its own taste and ingredients. Ranging from the most basic which is usable anywhere, to the most advanced ones which need precision to learn.

For smoking salmon, we'll be using a basic flavored recipe of brine with the least amount of ingredients so you can easily make it. 

  • 2 cups of water 
  • 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt (you can add more to your liking)
  • 1/2 teaspoon of brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon of sweetening agent  
  • (Optional) any sauce that you may desire

FAQs

I don't have a sweetening agent, except for honey and I'm not a big fan of it. Is it necessary to use it?

No, it is not at all necessary to use any kind of sweetening liquids. It is just a tradition to do so when smoking salmon. What matters in the end is whether you are happy with the end results. If it is without any sweeteners, so be it.

Should I smoke the salmon with or without its skin?

Doesn't matter. It depends on how you like it. No difference is made to the taste.

I used the temperature as per your instructions. There still was a lot of white substance (albumin) coming out of the salmon. What went wrong?

It could be that you used frozen fish. They tend to "bleed" more than the fresh ones. Anyhow, don't worry too much, just keep following the instructions and you should be fine.

Can I cool off my fish in the outdoors instead of under a ceiling fan or a refrigerator?

You sure can. It's just that we don't want the flying dirt particles in the air to land on your beautiful salmon so that's why we didn't mention this method.

Do I use wood or charcoal to smoke my salmon?

You can use either of them. Charcoal tends to give a BBQ-ish kind of taste while wood doesn't give anything of its own to the fish.

What do you suggest for smoking other kinds of fish?

Generally, salmon and sea bass are the best ones to smoke. Leaner fish tend to take more attention and hard-work in ensuring nothing goes wrong. You can also try tuna and sailfish.

Conclusion

Smoking fish is not a difficult job at all. In fact, once you become good at it, we bet you'll want to smoke every kind of food to see what comes out of it.

Just remember that different kinds of foods take different kinds of ways to smoke them. Meat such as beef, pork and venison take more time and different methods to properly smoke. Fish, on the other hand, are the most commonly smoked food due to their ease of handling and simple-to-use recipes.

About the Author Albert Thompson

Albert hails from Kentucky where grilling is a lifestyle. He brings with him his years of experience in the cooking sector and the product sector, but dont let that fool you, he practices what he preaches and enjoys a big rack of ribs every weekend.

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