The Idiots Guide to Smoking Salmon

by alec on May 23, 2005

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. 


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.


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. 


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.


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