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Perfectly smoked salmon is one of those simple exquisite indulgences that is so satisfying. Salmon and smoke are just meant for each other. While smoking salmon is both a science and an art, it’s really much easier to make at home than you might think.
The process is simple. The results are decadent.
The goal is to strike the right balance between the delicate flavor of the salmon, the all-important smoke, salt and a little sweetness. When those elements all come together in harmony, you get something truly amazing, not only wonderful to eat by itself but fantastic as an add-in for numerous dishes.
Now grab some beautiful salmon, make some quality smoke and don’t overcook the fish. You’ll be enjoying some amazing smoked salmon in just a few hours.
Before we get too far, this recipe is all about hot-smoked salmon, and not for cold-smoked salmon (often called lox), the thinly sliced, almost transparent, salmon you get on a bagel. Hot-smoked salmon is cooked all the way through with smoke and has a delicate, flakey, succulent texture.
Let’s not overcomplicate things. It’s just smoked salmon after all.
- The brine. A simple mix of kosher salt and brown sugar.
- Use the right wood chips to pair with the salmon.
- Do not overcook the salmon! This is the most important part. The key temperatures are a 225° F smoker and 140° F finished internal temperature. If either of the temperatures get too high, the salmon will dry out. Always use a thermometer; I use the Thermoworks Thermapen ONE instant-read probe thermometer.
What You’ll Need: Equipment and Ingredients
Three simple ingredients, and a few tools, will get you on your way.
- Salmon – Go with fresh wild-caught salmon when it is in season and available. If wild salmon is out of season, fresh frozen wild salmon will still work great. Use a whole filet (half of the fish) rather than individual portions. The whole filet makes it a little easier to handle and keeps the fish moist as it cooks.
- Salt – Diamond kosher salt is what I recommend. If using another, be sure to use the ratios in this salt post to make sure you’re seasoning properly.
- Brown Sugar – Just enough to add a hint of sweetness for balance.
- Fish tweezers for removing pin bones from the salmon.
- A smoker such as a Big Green Egg, a Pellet Smoker like a Traeger or an electric smoker like a Masterbuilt.
- Alder wood chips (or Alder pellets for a pellet smoker).
- Sheet pan or plastic bag for brining.
- Aluminum foil for easy transfer to and from the smoker, as well as easy cleanup.
- Probe Thermometer: Thermoworks Thermapen Instant Read Probe Thermometer and an optional Thermoworks Smoke Alarm to remotely monitor the temperature.
Brine for Smoked Salmon
A simple brine is essential for adding flavor and keeping the salmon moist and tender. This dry brine is just brown sugar and kosher salt. It will pull some moisture out and intensify the flavors of the smoke and salmon.
The sugar adds a hint of sweetness to balance out the flavors. There’s really no need to brine the skin side, as it is a waterproof layer that doesn’t get penetrated by a brine.
This simple smoked salmon brine is a 2-to-1 ratio of brown sugar and Diamond kosher salt.
A note about rinsing after the brine: With this brine using Diamond brand kosher salt, which has less sodium by volume, I have never had the need to rinse the brine off. If you are using a different type of salt, you might want to rinse the brine and pat the fish dry before smoking so it isn’t too salty.
Pro Tips for Smoking Salmon
- Temperature control of the smoker is crucial. Don’t trust your smoker’s built-in thermometer gauge, as it might not be calibrated. Use a 2-channel thermometer so you can remotely monitor the temperature of both the smoker and the internal temperature of the salmon.
- Use a drip pan with warm water in it, which helps regulate the heat and maintain a humid environment. If your smoker is getting too hot, you can add some ice to the water to cool it down.
- Place the salmon on a sheet of foil with a folded rim. This makes for easy transportation to and from the smoker, as well as making cleanup super easy. While this does prevent smoke from getting to the skin, the skin isn’t actually permeable and won’t transfer smoke flavor to the flesh anyway.
- Don’t over-smoke the salmon. Adding too much wood can add too much smoke flavor to the salmon.
Learn more about salmon in my Salmon 101 Guide and read about my trip to Cordova, Alaska, to Summer Salmon Camp to learn all about Copper River Salmon.
Hot- vs Cold-Smoked Salmon
The techniques for making hot- and cold-smoked salmon are quite different, and so are the results. Hot-smoked salmon (like the one in this recipe) is cooked via a heat source that is producing hot smoke.
Cold-smoked salmon (often called lox, though officially lox is not smoked) is “cured” with salt and sugar over a longer period of time to preserve it rather than it being “cooked” with heat, and then it is smoked with smoke that has been cooled down before it comes in contact with the fish. The texture remains similar to the raw salmon used in sushi.
It is also possible to cold-smoke salmon and then cook it over direct heat, like in a skillet or on a grill. This is a great option if you don’t have a smoker, because you get the smoky flavor, crispy skin and perfectly cooked salmon.
The Best Ways to Eat this Smoked Salmon
Besides simply eating hot smoked on its own, there are so many ways to use it in your favorite dishes. Here are a few ideas for tasty inspiration:
- Salmon and scrambled eggs is classic.
- Serve on a platter with lemon wedges, quick pickled red onions, capers, bagels and cream cheese.
- Add it to a bright fresh butter lettuce salad.
- Make a cream cheese smoked salmon dip.
- Add it on top of a rice bowl with fresh green veggies.
- Use it as the protein on eggs benedict (even better with a croissant).
- Use it in pasta with a creamy lemon vodka sauce.
- Eat it with grilled bread, olive oil, shallots and fresh herbs.
- Make a rich and creamy smoked salmon risotto with creme fraiche.
This recipe was originally published Published July 26, 2019. It has been updated in March 2022 with new information and instructions.
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