In my opinion, salmon is never as good as it can be unless it's smoked. It's also never as good as it can be unless you brine it before you smoke it to help lock in the tasty fats. In this recipe, I will show you how to brine the salmon, dry it until it forms a perfect “seal” or pellicle on the outside, season it with barbecue rub and sweet and tangy citrus juices then smoke it to absolute perfection.

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Helpful Information
  • Prep Time: 8 hours
  • Cook Time: 4+ hours
  • Smoker Temp: 160°F
  • Meat Finish Temp: 130°F (medium)
  • Recommended Wood: Alder or Apple
What You'll Need

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recipe-ad-rubWhile you can certainly use the Texas style rub recipe on this salmon, there's something about salmon that just works with my original rub like nothing else can. Using citrus juices such as lime, lemon and orange as a base for the rub on this salmon adds a zing that you will love from the first bite to the last.

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Step 1: Make Brine Solution

Fill a 1-gallon container with cold water

Add 1 cup of coarse kosher salt (Morton's works for me)

Stir until the water returns to near clear.

Add brown sugar and stir until well dissolved.

Squeeze ½ lemon, ½ lime and ½ orange into solution and stir to combine.

Note: don't worry about the seeds.. won't hurt a thing.

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Step 2: Brine Salmon

Note: Make sure the salmon does not have any pin bones. Run your fingers over the top of the fish, pressing down slightly and you will be able to feel if there are any pin bones still present. If you find any, pull them out with clean needle nose pliers.

Place salmon into large plastic, glass or other non-reactive container. Ideally the salmon would be laying flat with skin side down but as you can see, I used a large mixing bowl with the fish slightly folded and it worked just fine. Use what you have available.

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Pour brine over fish to cover and place in refrigerator for about 4 hours.

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After 4 hours has expired, remove bowl from fridge.

Step 3: Rinse and Dry

Remove fish from brine and rinse well under cold water. This is to remove any excess salt.

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Lay fish on several layers of paper towels then lay paper towels on top of the salmon to soak up excess water. You may want to do this several times to expedite the drying process.

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Leave the fish on the cabinet or cutting board to dry for 3-4 hours. This time can be lessened by directing a fan at the fish to speed up the drying process.

Note: I have always done this in the fridge due to my tendency to not take any risks with food safety but the fridge tends to be humid and I decided to try it out on the cabinet this time. The salt and sugar in the brine retards the growth of bacteria and drying fish at room temperature is considered by most experts to be completely safe.

If you do not feel comfortable doing this, then it can be placed in the fridge to dry but it may take longer with the increased humidity and decreased air flow over and around the fish.

The point of drying is to allow the fish to form it's own glaze or pellicle which works to help seal in the white flavorful protein called albumin. This is best when it is left intact inside the fish and will help the fish to end up extremely moist, tender and flavorful.

Another way that we ensure the albumin stays intact is by cooking it over very low heat. I will get into that in the “Smoking the Fish” section below.

When the pellicle has properly formed, the fish will be shiny and it will feel tacky to the touch.

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Once this has happened, we can move on to adding some extra flavor to the outside of the fish.

Step 4: Season the Salmon

In seasoning meats we usually like to add a little moisture or something sticky to help the rub to stick. On this salmon, I decided to use orange, lime and lemon juices to introduce some citrus flavors as well as give the original rub a good base to stick to.

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You do want to be careful and not brush the juice onto the fish and disturb the natural seal that we have spent the last several hours creating. Just squeeze the juices all over the fish and let it fall where it may to moisten the outside of the fish.

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Sprinkle my original rub (purchase recipes here), onto the top surface of the salmon as shown.

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When the rub mixes with the citrus juices, the flavors are incredible as the sweet and spicy from the rub combines with the sweet and tangy of the various juices. It almost has a hint of cuban mojo to it.

Leave the seasoned salmon on the cabinet or cutting board for a few minutes while you go get the smoker ready.

Step 5: Smoking the Fish

Setup your smoker for indirect cooking at very low temperatures if possible. 160-180°F is optimal in my opinion. You can do this on any smoker as long as you can maintain 160 – 225°F.

I have not tried smoking salmon like this in a pellet smoker such as the Woodwind by Camp Chef but it does a really good job of holding a fairly low temperature (about 180°F) on the “Lo Smoke” setting so I have no doubts that it would do a wonderful job.

Salmon, as with most fish, is delicate and works best with lighter tasting woods such as alder and apple. Most fruit woods will work just fine. It is ok to keep the smoke going as long as the smoke is very light and hazy.

Once the smoker is ready, place the fish, skin side down, on a piece of parchment paper and lay it on the smoker grate. The parchment paper ensures it does not stick to the grates and makes it really easy to maneuver inside the smoker in case you need to rotate it. It also makes it easy to remove once it's finished cooking.

Note: I like to carefully tear the parchment paper to the shape of the fish for good presentation.

Let the fish smoke cook until it reaches about 130°F in the thickest part. The cooking time will vary based on the thickness of the fish and the temperature of the smoker but you can probably expect around 4 hours if you keep the heat low.

2015-IMG_7836


Note
: Some folks recommend, as have I in the past, to cook fish to 140-145°F  (per the USDA) however, the fish will be drier than it should be and pulling it at a lower temperature makes a huge difference.

I know that many well known restaurants and chefs employ this method to make sure the fish is the best it can be and is not dried out.

As long as you make sure the fish is fresh and it comes from a good reliable source, then, this is a fine way to serve salmon.

To monitor the temperature of the salmon, use a leave-in digital meat thermometer such as the Smoke by Thermoworks or you can use a fast reading handheld thermometer such as the Thermapen or the ThermoPop. I have a large assortment of handheld and leave-in digital thermometers and this allows me to cook the meat to perfection each and every time without any guesswork.

Step 6: Resting

Place the fish on the cabinet with a little foil tented over the top and let it rest for about 10 minutes.

Step 7: Serve it Up

Salmon is one of the those things that is just as good, if not better, at room temperature than it is hot. I even eat it cold sometimes and it is delicious. The salmon can be sliced up and served in portions or it can be flaked apart and mixed with cream cheese and herbs for a tasty dip. I even like to eat some atop some scrambled eggs for a great breakfast treat.

My favorite: Add pieces of the smoked salmon atop a bagel or piece of toast with a poached or fried egg, avocado wedges, slice of tomato seasoned with coarse black pepper and sea salt.

2015-IMG_7821

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"Love the original rib rub and sauce! We have an annual rib fest competition at the lake every 4th of July. I will say we have won a great percent of the time over the past 15 years so we are not novices by any means. However, we didn't win last year and had to step up our game! We used Jeff's rub and sauce (sauce on the side) and it was a landslide win for us this year! Thanks Jeff for the great recipes. I'm looking forward to trying the Texas style rub in the near future!" ~Michelle M.

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Printable Recipe

Cool Smoked Salmon with Citrus
Recipe Type: Entree
Cuisine: Cold Smoking
Author: Jeff Phillips
Prep time:
Cook time:
Total time:
Serves: 4-6
In my opinion, salmon is never as good as it can be unless it's smoked. It's also never as good as it can be unless you brine it before you smoke it to help lock in the tasty fats. In this recipe, I will show you how to brine the salmon, dry it until it forms a perfect “seal” or pellicle on the outside, season it with barbecue rub and sweet and tangy citrus juices then smoke it to absolute perfection.
Ingredients
Instructions
Step 1: Make Brine Solution
  1. Fill a 1-gallon container with cold water
  2. Add 1 cup of coarse kosher salt (Morton's works for me)
  3. Stir until the water returns to near clear.
  4. Add brown sugar and stir until well dissolved.
  5. Squeeze ½ lemon, ½ lime and ½ orange into solution and stir to combine.
Step 2: Brine Salmon
  1. Place salmon into large plastic, glass or other non-reactive container.
  2. Pour brine over fish to cover and place in refrigerator for about 4 hours.
  3. After 4 hours has expired, remove bowl from fridge.
Step 3: Rinse and Dry
  1. Remove fish from brine and rinse well under cold water. This is to remove any excess salt.
  2. Lay fish on several layers of paper towels then lay paper towels on top of the salmon to soak up excess water. You may want to do this several times to expedite the drying process.
  3. Leave the fish on the cabinet or cutting board to dry for 3-4 hours. This time can be lessened by directing a fan at the fish to speed up the drying process.
  4. When the pellicle has properly formed, the fish will be shiny and it will feel tacky to the touch.
Step 4: Season the Salmon
  1. Squeeze the juices of ½ orange, ½ lime and ½ lemon all over the fish to create a wetness on the fish for the rub to adhere to.
  2. Sprinkle my original rub, also called Jeff's naked rib rub, lightly onto the top surface of the salmon.
  3. Leave the seasoned salmon on the cabinet or cutting board for a few minutes while you go get the smoker ready.
Step 5: Smoking the Fish
  1. Setup your smoker for cooking at very low temperatures if possible. 160°F is optimal in my opinion.
  2. Salmon, as with most fish, is delicate and works best with lighter tasting woods such as alder and apple. Most fruit woods will work just fine.
  3. Once the smoker is ready, place the fish, skin side down, on a piece of parchment paper and lay it on the smoker grate. The parchment paper ensures it does not stick to the grates and makes it really easy to maneuver inside the smoker in case you need to rotate it. It also makes it easy to remove once it's finished cooking.
  4. If you wish, tear the parchment paper to the shape of the fish for good presentation.
  5. Let the fish smoke cook until it reaches about 130°F in the thickest part. Some folks recommend, as have I in the past, to cook fish to 140 °F however, the fish will be drier than it should be and pulling it at a lower temperature makes a huge difference.
Step 6: Resting
  1. Place the fish on the cabinet with a little foil tented over the top and let it rest for about 10 minutes.
Step 7: Serve it Up
  1. The salmon can be sliced up and served in portions or it can be flaked apart and mixed with cream cheese and herbs for a tasty dip. I even like to eat some atop some scrambled eggs for a great breakfast treat.
  2. For an extra special treat, add pieces of the smoked salmon atop a bagel or piece of toast with a poached or fried egg, avocado wedges, slice of tomato seasoned with coarse black pepper and sea salt.

 

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About the Author

Long time Industrial Engineer turned self-proclaimed fire poker, pitmaster and smoke whisperer and loving every minute of it!

8 Comments on this article. Feel free to join this conversation.

  1. Randall June 21, 2016 at 12:02 pm - Reply

    I’m somewhat new to smoking meats. Is 160 degrees in an electric smoker hot enough to get apple wood smoking? I’ve used your brisket recipe and ribs recipe. They’re both fantastic, but with the brisket smoking at 215-220, it seemed like the wood wouldn’t start smoking. I’d have to open the door to drop the temperature a little bit so the heating element would kick on and run hot enough to ignite the wood. Similar problem here?

    • Jeff Phillips June 21, 2016 at 1:50 pm - Reply

      The smoking of the wood chips has nothing to do with the temperature inside the smoker.

      As you noticed with the brisket, the wood chips produce smoke when the electric element in the smoker comes on and gets the chips hot enough to smolder. Sometimes you have to open the door to let the temperature drop just a little and make the heating element come on when you add chips.

      Some electric smokers, including the Masterbuilt, even have side chutes for adding chips and this does a good job of making sure there is no heat loss but it has the side effect of making sure the chips do not smoke until the heating element comes on again which could be a good while later depending on how well your smoker holds heat.

      The best thing you can do for an electric smoker is to spend about $30 on a smoke generator called the Amazen pellet smoker.. you fill the box with pellets, light it on one end and it provides smoke independently for up to 11 hours straight. Well worth the money in my opinion and you will love being able to set the temperature, light the pellets and walk away for hours on end knowing that everything is doing what it should be doing.

      Check out the Amazen pellet smoker at http://www.smoking-meat.com/amnps

  2. Paul July 30, 2015 at 3:03 pm - Reply

    Jeff,
    I have got to ask this because my Dad has been after me to smoke him some salmon. I do not like anything to do with fish, smell, taste you name it. I do how ever want to smoke it for my dad. My question is if I do smoke fish, salmon specifically will my smoker have a fishy smell or taste. I smoke every weekend and would hate to end up with everything after the fish smelling or tasting like it.

    Thanks in advance

    Paul
    P.S. I did buy your recipes and they are excellent!

  3. billy sharpstick July 30, 2015 at 5:52 am - Reply

    Step 3a: Before setting out to dry, throw all the cats out.

  4. Rickey Stewart July 29, 2015 at 3:54 pm - Reply

    Although the process is a bit long; it was definitely worth it. So much flavor. I didn’t want to share and I didn’t want to eat it because I know it would be gone. Thanks for sharing this amazing recipe.

  5. Patrick Bair July 28, 2015 at 5:45 am - Reply

    Hi, Jeff. Tried the Cool-Smoked Salmon with Citrus last night. I overdid the rub, but otherwise it was delicious. I totally agree with you about the drying and the finish temp. I do have a question about the recipe ingredients. You call for “3 each of oranges, lemons, limes;” but as far as I can tell, the recipe uses only 1 each, half in the brine and half prior to smoking. What did I miss? Is the rest garnish?

    • Jeff Phillips August 4, 2015 at 4:40 pm - Reply

      I used some for the brine and then some of it squeezed on top of the fish before the rub and then before serving. I also used some slices for garnish but did not show this in the pictures.

      I apologize for not making the use of the citrus fruits more clear.

  6. Henk July 25, 2015 at 11:16 am - Reply

    salmon smoke house electric I am deaf

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