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The Idiots Guide to Smoking Salmon

Smoked salmon is one of those delicacies that everyone loves.  There is a misconception that smoked salmon is difficult or expensive to make, however. Neither is true. I smoked some salmon yesterday, and chronicled the event so you can try this at home too!  This post is the Idiots Guide to Smoking Salmon ™.

First, you have to start with some nice, fatty, salmon. It’s important to have a fatty piece, because the fish will be cooking for a long time, albeit over a very low heat. The fat will keep the fish moist while it’s cooking. Besides, fatty salmon is healthier for you, and tastes better too!  What’s not to love about that?

Because Manotick is far far far from any natural source of salmon, we had to substitute a saturday afternoon trip to the Barrhaven Loblaws,  where we got some very nice skinless, boneless atlantic salmon filets.   Here they are, cut into pieces, and stuffed into a one gallon zip-loc freezer bag for marinating.

picture of salmon filets on a cutting board

There are many ways to marinate salmon for smoking. Generally speaking, though, you are trying to add some sweet and some salt flavour, because the smoke adds bitter flavour.  One of the easiest marinades is simply soy sauce and brown sugar.   A cup of soy, and a tablespoon of brown sugar works perfectly.  Pour the mixture into the zip-loc bag, evacuate as much of the air as you can (a straw is a great tool for this) and seal it.  Work the marinade around the bag with your fingers and by inverting the bag, until the fish is evenly coated.  Then put the whole thing into the refrigerator overnight, and turn it over every 7 or 8 hours to ensure that the marinade is distributed evenly. 

Here’s what the fish looks like stuffed into the bag, and ready to go in the refrigerator.

marinating fish

The next day is smoking day.  To prepare to smoke the fish, set up the water smoker according to the manufacturers directions. Your smoker may be a little different from mine, but these are simple devices and don’t vary much from one manufacturer to another.   Usually they have two pans, and two racks in them.  The lower pan is for charcoal, while the upper is for water.  The racks both mount above the upper pan.  Set your smoker up with the racks and the water pan removed at first, so that you can start the fire.

The type of fuel you use when smoking food has a dramatic impact on the flavour of the food.  Hickory wood, for instance, is traditionally used to smoke bacon.  If you smoke salmon with hickory, you will find that it tastes like fishy bacon.  Charcoal also has an impact on the flavour of the food.  Do not, under any circumstances, smoke food with charcoal briquettes.  Briquettes are sawdust and wood particles, bound together with glues, charcoaled and then impregnated with fuel to make them easy to light.  The last thing you want is to be eating fish smoked in glue and lighter fluid.  Use only "old-fashioned", or lump charcoal. 

Here’s a picture, if you haven’t seen this type of charcoal before.

lump charcoal

Use a couple of pieces of newspaper as a starter for the fire.  Crumple them into a ball, and then put small pieces of charcoal on top of them, and some of the larger pieces on top of that.  If you’ve been a boy scout, this is a tipi fire, not a log cabin.  Light the newspaper. When the fire is obviously started, place the empty water pan above the charcoal pan, and put some hot water into it.  Then let the fire burn for 15 or 20 minutes to ignite all the charcoal.

While the fire is starting, oil the racks.  Remove the salmon from the marinade bag, drain any excess marinade from the fish, and place the pieces on the oiled racks.  When the fire is ready for cooking, place each of the racks of fish into smoker, and then replace the lid.  Open the side door, and add whatever fuel you are planning to smoke the food with.  For smoked salmon, I use alder chunks, and twigs.  Split larger chunks into smaller pieces so that they can fit into the small fire pan.  You can also soak the wood in advance so that it doesn’t burn as quickly on the fire. 

This picture is my jealously guarded supply of alder from the west coast. 

alder

At this point, it’s simply a matter of watching and waiting. The trick with smoking food is low heat, and no flames.  Flames will coat the food in soot, raise the heat too high, and cook the food too quickly. So, be careful how much fuel you add at any one time.   

You may also find that your heat falls too low.  Try opening the side door of the smoker a little to allow air in.  You may also have to add more fuel. 

Here’s a picture of my smoker in action, with the side door open just a crack to allow a little air in.

smoker

In about one hour, the fish will be done.  Using a pair of oven mitts, remove the racks from the smoker, and take the fish inside to cool.  You can eat some now, too, while the fish is warm.  It’s similar to the guilty pleasure of eating cookies hot from the oven.

Here’s a picture of what mine looked like when it was done. This fish doesn’t have the deep red colouration you see on some smoked salmon.  Those fish are coloured with dyes, which I don’t use.  The fatty accumulation on the surface is because I allowed the heat to rise too quickly, which wouldn’t happen in a commercial operation, or if I had been paying more attention as additional fuel was being added. 

salmon 

Now it’s ready to eat or store.  We ate a piece of it right away — sweet, smoky, delicious. Fish smoked like this will keep for a week in the refrigerator.  For longer storage, I recommend freezing, which is what we did.  We stored the rest by freezing the individual chunks, and they will keep for some time like this.

The impact?  I smoked $20 of salmon myself.  It was a couple of hours of effort to do it.  The end result probably cost me a third of what commercially smoked salmon would cost.  In addition, because it’s not packed in oil the way commercial fish would be, the flavours are more pronounced, and the fish is less greasy tasting.

Yum!

{ 42 comments… add one }

  • MUM May 24, 2005, 5:44 am

    It seems an awfully long recipe!! Gravlax is much faster. Do you want me to bring some when I come next week?

  • Alec May 24, 2005, 7:13 am

    Sure. Better yet, let's make some here, and I will take photographs and post them on the BLOG!

  • MUM May 25, 2005, 6:12 am

    OK – then I won't stink up my suitcase.

  • JDS April 21, 2006, 12:26 am

    It all sounds delicious!
    Do you know or have you heard of salmon 'senteur des sous bois'. Literally means smelling of undergrowth? Have you ever cooked/tasted seen it? If so is there a better name than 'Undergrowth smoked salmon? Mnay thanks

  • Alec April 21, 2006, 2:06 am

    Never seen or cooked it! How's it done?

  • Ryan July 30, 2006, 6:10 am

    Nice job. I too enjoy smokin salmon (that I catch). I have a brinkmann charcoal smoker that works just fine. The only thing that I do different is i use regular charcoal, with a chimney starter. I also use chunks of mesqite.Good stuff!

  • Phil February 20, 2007, 3:49 pm

    Deep red colored salmon may in fact be dyed…IF it's Atlantic or farm-raised. A natural deep red comes free with Wild Alaskan Sockeye (red) and Chinook (king)! Eat the real thing!

  • Paul May 30, 2007, 10:50 am

    At what temperature did you have your smoker at?

  • Alec May 30, 2007, 11:10 am

    Paul, the optimum temperature is around 200F. At that temperature, the fish cooks very slowly, and the fat melts through the flesh, keeping it nice and moist. Naturally, with a wood smoker, it's hard to be exact.

  • jet lear September 9, 2007, 4:35 pm

    Your recipe is alot like mine,but not quite. Tell you what if you make some of your salmon and send it to me I will make a batch of mine and send it to you and we will see who's is the best. DEAL?????

  • Alec September 9, 2007, 6:32 pm

    Hey Jet, looks like you're in the US… doubt I could get mine across the border to you! Thanks for the offer though.

  • Adam October 20, 2007, 11:10 pm

    Thanks for posting this. I have a book here on smoking salmon and trout and I was almost intimidated to even try after looking at it since the author seems to have, in the interest of showing pretty much every possible way to smoke fish, made a little bit of a complicated manual.

    I have a Brinkmann charcoal smoker and I am going to try smoking some fish tomorrow as a test batch and see what happens. If it turns out well, will be smoking a whole lot more and giving it as gifts for the holidays.

  • Alec October 21, 2007, 7:49 am

    You’re welcome Adam. It’s easy to do, and very very delish.

  • Derek April 13, 2008, 4:22 pm

    The reason its not a deep red color is because you used farm raised salmon, not wild alaskan salmon. King can have good color but south east alaskan sockeye is the best.

    Plus, Atlantic salmon is surprisingly devoid of high omega 3 fatty acids. In 2005 the Surgion General warned women against eating farmed salmon from birth to menopause (or until you are done giving birth because you will pass on the PCB's and mercury found in Atlantic Salmon).

  • marcia August 29, 2008, 4:04 pm

    I love the pictures. I've been smoking salmon for years. (I live in Alaska) But I'm always looking for new ideas. Thanks for sharing. My salmon is marinating right now. I also added ginger, garlic, a little fresh dill, a couple squirts of habanero pepper sauce, and a few drops of sesame oil. It seems that no matter what is in the recipe, it is all GOOD!

  • Keith Hogan January 3, 2009, 10:57 pm

    Thanks for the info,I like simple methods.

  • sara May 7, 2009, 8:17 am

    hahaa wow all of you guys are weird!

  • Will & Judy May 25, 2009, 12:34 pm

    Thanks for taking the time to share the process and pictures. We pulled out our smoker this weekend and obviously needed a refresher course on how not to over cook. Looking forward to trying your method.

  • Lamont G August 21, 2009, 9:47 am

    As this is going to be my first attempt- appreciate all the comments- have approx 80 lbs of fresh caught coho and spring salmon from the West Coast

  • Chris August 21, 2009, 11:36 am

    I have to agree with everyhting said about the Alaska Salomon, there's nothing that compares to it, as long as it processed correctly.

  • Mary October 12, 2009, 6:29 am

    Help – We brined our Alaskan Salmon in 1 cup salt, 1 cup sugar and 8 cups water overnight. Smoked it with hickory chips until the filets were firm to the touch. The texture and smoky levels are great but it is so salty we can't eat it.

    Is there any fix? I sure hate to toss it out.

    Thanks.
    Mary

    • Alec October 13, 2009, 9:35 am

      I wish I could offer a suggestion, Mary. When I've over salted fish, I've saved it and used it sparingly for cooking. If you have a recipe that calls for smoked fish (goes well with pasta, I find), flake your salty fish and reduce the amount of salt that the recipe calls for overall.

    • Trent December 22, 2010, 1:09 pm

      Mary,

      Did you table salt instead of kosher salt? It is a lot saltier.

    • alan April 2, 2012, 3:07 am

      use 1 cup kosher salt/canning salt 2 cups dark brown sugar 12 cloves of garlic minced (10 tsp jared minced garlic). wrap in plastic, then foil and refrigerate 6-8 hrs. rinse off and dry for 4-6 hrs. smoke at 200 – 250 for 3hrs or till firm at about 150 – 165 degrees. keep an eye on it and try not to flame up the wood, it causes soot.

  • Rosemary Chait October 17, 2009, 3:29 pm

    I just filleted my salmon (atlantic) and tomorrow we will smoke it. we only have a regular grill, is this a problem?

    • Alec October 17, 2009, 3:33 pm

      It's tougher with a regular grill Rosemary. Try to do it on indirect heat, and with a very small fire. You're going to have to watch the heat very closely, and it's likely to be done faster than it will be a regular smoker. Good luck!

  • Kimbko November 10, 2009, 4:12 pm

    This is a great primer. Do you know how to smoke a turkey? My brother used to do it for Thanksgiving every year but now we live on different coasts.

    • Alec November 12, 2009, 3:23 am

      I've tried smoking turkey with very mixed results. The best I've done is not the whole turkey, but a lightly brined and then smoke cooked turkey breast. Sliced thinly it makes amazing sandwiches.

  • squicker December 22, 2009, 9:56 am

    That crap is not smoked salmon. A European wouldn't feed that rot to a cat.

    You are basically cooking the fish in a smoky environment, not preserving it as smoking was developed for.

    Proper smoked salmon is cold smoked, in essence "raw" as it must never get above 100-110 degrees during the smoking process.

    The fish is first soaked 24 hours in a brine solution. This causes the flesh molecules to rupture allowing moisture to escape. Also, the brine kills any micro-organisms that may be present.

    After draining for several hours, The fish should then be smoked 12 to 24 hours, at low temperatures in a very smoky environment. this low temp stops any fat and oil that make the taste so wonderful.

    This is how fish has been smoked for thousands of years so that it could be kept through the winter without spoiling.

    • Alec December 22, 2009, 10:46 am

      Hey Squicker — There is more than one way to smoke a fish. West coast style smoked salmon is brined and smoke cooked (essentially kippered) over a fire. That's the way that the native people on the Pacific coasts of North America have smoked their fish for… thousands of years.

      • dan May 24, 2011, 4:34 pm

        Alec, yours, though no doubt really tasty, is not what most people think of when they think of smoked salmon. Neither is gravlax. To me, lox and gravlax are mushy stuff. I would qualify your method as hot smoked, or smoke grilled.

    • DJ in VA September 3, 2011, 10:06 pm

      Wow, what a snobby, dismissive attitude. Try it before you insult it!

    • Simpsonsmovieblew January 13, 2012, 1:23 pm

      You do realize you have posted your opinion on an "idiots guide to smoking salmon" right? Personally I am glad this site exists — at last I can hopefully find out what brand of rolling papers I'll be needing.

  • jones December 23, 2009, 6:30 pm

    I'm smoking right now. This is how I happened upon this site. It's been smoking for about 8 hours now and I'll put it in another 2. Thankfully squicker won't swipe my bounty from the smoker because I do mine Native American style. The cold smoked stuff taste like it's still swimming

  • DecalDude January 25, 2010, 6:25 am

    Going to smoke my first salmon tonight. THANKS for all the info. ;)

  • Bev H March 22, 2010, 8:21 am

    native style is preparing the fish by removing the spine from the back, called butterflying the salmon, thinning it a little and making salmon jerky in the process, then hanging the butterflied fish on cedar sticks over the fire made of alder, no brine, no flavour, maybe alittle bit of salt. meanwhile the thin strips can be marinated in soy and brown sugar if you like the flavoured jerky, then hung up on cedar sticks in the smokehouse for up to 6 days, the butterflied fish for maybe 4 days depending on if you want half smoked or fully smoked,dry fish. this is how my mom taught me, except the flavour jerky, because she made her salmon jerky just plain, but it was still good.

  • Donna Kolo May 29, 2010, 7:52 pm

    I've been smoking fish for 26 years and my fish (salmon, trout, blue fish, King salmon, chinook, etc.) comes out great each time. The basic brine is 1 cup of Kosher salt and 1 cup of sugar to 2 quarts of water. (Just to check yourself, drop an egg into the salt water and the egg should bob to the surface and just show a dime sized top of the shell, that way you know you have enough salt to kill any bacteria!). You can eat the salmon raw after letting it marinage after 8 to 12 hours. If the meat is 1/2 " thick, that's about 8 hours or so, if the meat is 2" thick, I leave it in for up to 14 hours. Then I put newspapers under the racks and lay the fillets skin side down for about 2 to 3 hours. You'll see what they call the pelicle shine from the fish, it a little bit whitish, and appears like a film on the meat. That tells you it's at the best time to absorb the heat. Then I throw it on the greased racks of my smoker. My smoker is a Little Chief smoker. It has a small pan on the bottom. For the first 3 to 4 smokings, I use hickory, apple, alder, cherry or any fruit or nut tree wood chips. Cherry wood is more for game birds and deer. I like to mix my first pan with hickory then the last 2 pans with apple and if I have a piece of fish that's 2" I'll smoke an extra pan of hickory. Each pan smoke for about an hour, then you have to dump out the hot burnt down wood chips and fill the pan again. After the smoking part is finished, the salmon stays in for at least another few hours,depending on the temperature outside. On a cold October or November day, I've smoked for up to 20 hours on a big piece of salmon! You can tell it's done by putting your finger on top of the meat and pushing down. If it leaves an indent, keeping cooking. Alto the fish will look likes it's done, it take time to judge when it is done. I've pressed my finger down a few times, thinking it was done, brought it into the house and forked off a piece to realize that it's still "wet" and needs more time in the smoker. I have a book and every time I smoke, I write down every thing – what kind of fish, what kind of brine, the temperature, if it was windy, how long it was brined, how thick it is, how long it took to cook, etc. This book is like my bible, now I only have to look under salmon, 1& 1/2" thick and I know how to cook it from all the information I have written down. You can use all kinds of things in the brine; orange juice, soy sause, fresh ground peppercorns, garlic, any seasonings you like. You just have to remember for every salt you use, you have to also use a sugar. I've eaten my salmon right out of the brine, that's how safe I know my brine is. As far as smoking a turkey, I brine it (aobut 24 hours) then I'll use 4 pans of smoke. Then when the smoking process is done, I turn off the smoker and finish the turkey in the oven. Put it on a rack in the pan and tightly cover with foil. You can cut the time by 20% if you cook it this way. Just remember to keep that foil very tight over the turkey. At the last 15 minutes, pour some maple syrup over it or Karo syrup over it and stick it in the boiler for some nice crisp skin. It's the best!! We don't cook a regular turkey for Thanksgiving any more, we smoke our turkey. This way works great for Cornish Game Hens and chicken – there's never any leftovers! Hope this helps

  • Earl August 19, 2011, 6:27 pm

    Farmed salmon may need red dye, but wild salmon is naturally red. What you have there is farmed salmon, a decidedly inferior (as far as environmental, nutritional, and flavor).

  • WMC September 26, 2011, 6:24 pm

    DID YOU EVER HEAR OF USING MILK TO RID THE "FISHY SMELL"?

  • Gus October 2, 2011, 11:58 am

    I haven't used milk on salmon, but have been soaking venison in milk for years, especially the older bucks. No need to do anything with the younger deer, but the 3+ years and older are a little gamey depending on the habitat. It works well, and I would guess that the same would be true with salmon. And I agree about Squicker – he sounds a little unsure of himself – too bad :(

  • Dean Anders July 12, 2012, 3:53 pm

    I have to agree mostly with poster from Europe, with the exception that there are other ways to prepare other than cold smoking…hot smoking (done properly) is a good method as well, and it's how it's prepared and done for the North American market.

    Brining (which is easy to do) is a key step that is missing in this post, even for hot smoked salmon. Although, the original post may argue that some brining occurred with the soy sauce and sugar. Once properly Brined, it should be dried in a cool spot (65F/18C) for 2-3 hours to form a pellicle (lacquer like) layer on it…then you can hot smoke it…cooking at a temp of 200F, and stopping when the meat is between 140-160F.

    Here's another good link I found on the topic http://fishcooking.about.com/od/smokebrine/ss/smo

    It at least acknowledges that cold smoking may be indeed be better but you need special equipment to pull it off….the point of all this is that people like to smoke their own fish rather than paying 2-3 times the fish cost to get it already smoked.

  • neil January 31, 2014, 6:07 pm

    hi, mrs Alec. thanks by your recipe was owesome make it. do you have another where just to be different, you know the amount of fat containing. send you hi from nicaragua. the land of the lake and vulcanos

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