How to Smoke Salmon

Smoking Salmon 018

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This month, I would like to turn the focus toward smoking salmon. We won't exactly be cold smoking it but we won't be smoking it hot at 225 degrees like we normally do most other meats either.

Salmon happens to be a fish that has a lot of oil/fat in it and this produces great flavor and helps to keep the fish moist while it smokes.

Preparing the Salmon

If you are fortunate enough to have fresh caught salmon, you will want to clean it and fillet it before going any further. If you are like me and it comes wrapped in paper or plastic, I like to give it a good rinse before it goes in the brine.

If it is frozen, thaw it in the fridge for about 24 hours before it goes into the brine.

Brining the Salmon

Salmon in Brine

Brine recipe
1 gallon of cool water (bottled is best)
1 cup of kosher salt
1 cup of brown sugar
1/4 cup of lemon juice (fresh squeezed is best)
2 TBS of Jeff's naked rib rub

Pour 1/2 gallon of water into large plastic or glass mixing bowl (non-reactive). Add salt and stir until water is returned to clear. Add brown sugar and Jeff's rub and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Add lemon juice.

Salmon in brine with ice on top

Place fish in large flat container that is about 3 inches deep and pour the brine over the fish with remaining 1/2 gallon of water making sure fish is completely submerged in the liquid. Use a zip top freezer bag full of ice cubes to keep the salmon submerged if necessary.

Brine fish in refrigerator for about an hour per pound of fish minimum. The fish I just smoked was right at 2 lbs and was in the brine for about 2 hours and 15 minutes

Drying the Salmon

Salmon with Pellicle

Once the fish is finished brining, rinse the fish lightly under cool water and pat dry with a paper towel. Place the fish on a rack to dry. As the outside of the fish dries, it will form a shiny, slightly tacky surface known as the “pellicle”.

This pellicle serves to seal the moisture in and keeps the white fat from bubbling out of the fish while it smokes making it more aesthetically pleasing as well.

This drying process can take as2 hours depending on how much air is flowing around. You can speed up this process by placing a fan so that it is blowing on the fish.

For this drying process, I use the shelves from  my Bradley smoker and it works like a charm.

The fish will be shiny and tacky to the touch when the pellicle has formed properly.

Smoking the Salmon

Salmon Done Smoking

I have seen a huge range of recommended temperatures for smoking fish and I don't know that one way is “bad” per se but I seem to get better results from staying on the low end at around 180 degrees F. Sometimes I start at out at around 150 degrees for the first hour or so then bump it up to 180 degrees for remainder but you can just smoke it at 180 degrees for the entire time to keep it simple.

Most of the salmon that I smoke is around 2 lbs and about 1/2 to 3/4 inch thick.

If you have a rack such as the shelves from a Bradley smoker then that is ideal for placing the fish on at drying time and just leaving it on that same rack throughout the smoking time until it is finished cooking.

You can also fold up heavy duty foil several layers thick so that it is just slightly larger than the fish you are smoking. spray the bottom of the fish or the foil pad and place the fish on the foil pad for easier transport into and out of the smoker and to make sure that the fish does not fall through the grates.

Due to the variation in thickness and smoking times, I recommend using a thermometer for accuracy. The fish is done per the USDA when it reaches 145 degrees F. If you do not want to use a thermometer, the fish is done (probably overdone) when it flakes using a fork pressed down on the meat. You can easily expect this to take around 4-6 hours at my recommended cooking temperature.

If you want it done a little faster you can hot smoke it at 200-220 degrees however, I think the taste and texture are not as good as when it is cooked slower.

As far as providing smoke for flavor, I like to use apple, cherry, alder, pecan and other woods that are considered to be mild. Heavier tasting woods such as hickory and mesquite can be used sparingly with vents wide open but some folks may not prefer it.

Serving the Salmon

Salmon spread with cream cheese and chives

You can easily serve the salmon as fillets with some seasonal vegetables or another favorite side dish but I personally like to mix the salmon with some cream cheese and chives and eat it on crackers (melba toast pictured at left) as a tasty appetizer. In fact, I am eating some of that right now as I write this newsletter.

Salmon & Chive Spread

1 – 8 oz. pkg. cream cheese, softened
1/4 c. chopped fresh chives
3 Tbs. lemon juice
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 c. smoked salmon, flaked

In a small bowl, combine cream cheese, fresh chives, lemon juice & cumin.  Fold in smoked salmon and serve with crackers.

Final Thoughts

The salmon that I brined and smoked for this newsletter was right at 2 lbs. I brined it for 2 hours and 15 mintues, dried it for 2 hours then smoked it for 6 hours at 180 degrees.

The pellicle was not formed completely and I went ahead and started smoking it. As a result, you can see the white fat oozing out of the fish. Not a big problem but it doesn't look good and can be prevented with a little patience.

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  1. I smoked some Atlantic Salmon using this method on the weekend and it turned fantastic, moist and very flavorful!
    To answer some questions posted here I had skin on salmon and the smoke penetrated just fine.
    Brined for 2 hours 15 minutes and air dried 2 hours on the counter.
    I will definitely be making this again.

  2. When smoking a salmon fillet, do you remove the skin, or leave it on?  I wondered if ithe fillet dried out too much if skin off, but not sure if the smoke would penetrate it if left on.  What do you recommend?  

  3. Oscar,

    I'm not Jeff nor do I have any affiliation with him, but in my experience, it doesn't not leave a fishy smell. My smoker just smelled like smoke! If you are worried about it, after you are done, you can let your smoker stay open to the air for a day and that will wisk away any lingering smells. 

  4. First time smoking salmon not a fan but its a request for my brother inlaw on deployment   Will it leave a fish smell or taste in my smoker or do I not have anything to worry about. 

    Either way gonna do it. 


  5. Jeff, quick question. Do you leave the Salmon on the counter to air dry, or in the refrigerator?