How to Smoke Salmon
Smoked salmon is one of the most amazing seafood preparations on the planet, but, if you've never tackled this project, it can be intimidating. Relax, you've got this. Here's your step-by-step guide for how to smoke salmon, the super-delicious, omega-3-rich fish.
What Type of Salmon Should You Smoke?
Hundreds of years ago, salmon was smoked by native Americans as a way of preserving the fish. Some tribes in the Pacific Northwest carry on that tradition by arranging seasoned fish fillets on wooden stakes and smoking them over white hot coals in a pit.
Most backyard grills can achieve similar results, and fish can even be smoked on the stove top or in the oven. But before turning on the heat, it's important to consider the key ingredient. Here's a quick rundown of the basic salmon species available in supermarket seafood departments or in the frozen food section:
- Sockeye is also known as red salmon because of its brilliantly colored flesh. It's rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and a whole fish typically weighs around five pounds when it's caught, though it can get as large as 15 pounds. It's considered a very good fish to smoke.
- King salmon has a high fat content, and is also a prime candidate for smoking, though many prefer to grill, poach, or bake it, serving it barely seasoned to enjoy its delicate flavor.
- Keta (also known as chum) was once considered a bottom-of-the-barrel species, destined for pet food. It's even sometimes called "dog salmon." But in recent years, the tide has turned and keta is now prized as a good value, typically priced at under $10 a pound. It is the leanest salmon, so when it's smoked, the cooking time is shorter. (During the cooking process, the fat is rendered and overcooking can result in dry fish, something you want to avoid). If you do end up with dry smoked salmon, you can consider using it in chowder, tossing pieces of it in a little olive oil, or rebranding it "salmon jerky."
Related: 6 Types of Salmon to Know
How to Smoke Salmon at Home
1. Season and Cure
Your options for seasoning include a wet brine for smoked salmon, a dry rub, or some combination of both. A brine infuses a salty flavor while also drawing out any impurities from the fish. Many dry rubs contain a smidge of sugar, which caramelizes on the surface of the fish during the smoking process, giving it a bronzed glow. Note that the fish will need to cure in the fridge for at least four hours, or overnight.
Once your fish has cured, you need to let your salmon dry out so that it forms what's called a pellicle. This is a thin, sticky layer on the surface of the salmon that will help the smokey flavor to adhere to the fish.
To dry your salmon, rinse the cure mixture off and pat dry. Place your salmon on a cooling rack on a sheet pan and place in the refrigerator. Allow it to dry overnight.
3. Prep the Grill
The preferred method of smoking salmon is confusingly referred to as "hot smoking," though it involves cooking it at 200 degrees F or above, a comparatively low temperature for grilling meat. Cold smoking is not recommended unless you have a commercial kitchen because when cold smoking at a lower temp, the fish doesn't get hot enough to kill potential pathogens.
To hot smoke salmon at home, build a fire or heat on one side of the grill, leaving the other as the "cool" side of the grill — which is where the fish will be smoked. The gas or charcoal fire needs to be hot enough to fire up wood chips, which impart the flavor.
4. Soak Wood Chips or Cedar Planks
Wood chips for smoking are easy to find at hardware stores, some grocery stores, and online. Many people prefer alder or applewood chips when smoking salmon, as they don't overwhelm the fish's delicate flavor.
Barbecue Bible author Steven Raichlen recommends soaking chips, or/and cedar planks in water for at least 30 minutes. Then place wood chips directly on the coals of a charcoal grill, or on a piece of foil on top of a gas flame or in a smoker. Some people swear by soaking chips in bourbon or vinegar, though those ingredients might be difficult for most palates to detect. Better to save the bourbon for your Manhattan!
Place the salmon skin-side-down on the cool side (if you're using a cedar plank place the salmon skin-side-down on the cedar plank on the cool side), where it will cook very slowly while smoking, and cover with the lid. It typically takes between 30 and 45 minutes for fillets to fully cook. The internal temperature of the thickest part of the fish should be 140 degrees F.
- Chef John suggests smoking salmon on top of sliced fennel to prevent the fish from sticking to the grate.
- Cookbook author Meathead Goldwyn advises placing each fillet, skin side down, on a piece of paper cut to roughly the same size of the fish. When it cools, the skin peels off when the paper is removed. Neat trick!
How to Store and East Smoked Salmon
Once salmon has been smoked, it can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 10 days. It likely won't last that long because it's impossible to resist, especially when used in pasta preparations, as the key player in a winning Eggs Benedict, or in an amazing spread guests can't stop eating at your next dinner party.
Experiment with your fish by trying one of these Smoked Salmon Recipes.