Scoot over canned/vacuum packed smoked salmon! This homemade Smoked Salmon is going to jolt you right out of your seat! It is so good, it will become a family classic.
I decided it was time to actually post my approach to this classic dish. It is a grilling rite of passage, but can be notoriously difficult to master unless you have some tips and tricks to help you along the way. I’ll share with you all I’ve learned as I’ve been smoking salmon for a little over 10 years. We’ve had some batches taste too salty, and some batches that were near perfection and it was gobbled up in one sitting.
Don’t get me wrong, even the worst of my smoked salmon recipes is still delish. I can honestly say that we’ve never let a single bit of this go to waste. It can be summarized in three steps: 1) Brine; 2) Dry; and 3) Smoke. That’s it!
🍽️ Why You’ll Love This Recipe
You only need a handful of ingredients. The brine imparts a subtle sweet and salty flavor, but serves primarily to pull some of the moisture out of the fillet.
The sweet and smoky flavor is hard to resist. The brown sugar in the brine leaves just a hint of sweetness that can’t be beat! The follow on honey glaze does the rest. Don’t worry, this isn’t an overly sweet dish, but the salmon works so well with them.
You can adjust the wood chips to change the flavor. Hickory provides a bold smoke flavor, but alder or a fruitwood will work as well, even though they have a lighter smoke profile.
It’s fancy enough to serve to dinner guests. Your friends and family will devour this dish! My son has a sixth sense for when it is coming off of the grill and stands at the end of the counter eating it before it is prepared for dinner.
The ingredients are really simple and you don’t need anything fancy.
Salmon | Start with a skin-on salmon fillet. I prefer farm raised for smoking. They are typically fattier and stay moist and flaky when completed.
That is not my typical recommendation. I normally lean to the wild caught.
I am always drawn to the Copper River Salmon when they are out, though. That deep red flesh is out-of-this-world gorgeous!
Wild caught salmon is caught in oceans and rivers vs the farm version that is raised on fish farms and fed a processed diet to make them bigger and fattier. Farm raised salmon has 15 g of fat per serving vs wild caught which only has 5 g.
Brine | Brown Sugar and Kosher Salt are the key ingredients. The salt helps to cure the fish overnight and the brown sugar pairs just perfectly with the salmon. Add some garlic and bay leaves for an added depth to the flavor.
Honey | We like to finish making the salmon with a little bit of honey. It makes it extra sweet and delicious. You can skip adding it or swap it with maple syrup if you’d rather.
⏲️ Equipment and Tools
Baking Dish – Use a large 9×13 baking dish for brining the salmon. I always grab the large Costco Salmon packs and use the larger dish to let the salmon cure overnight.
Copper Grilling Mat – These mats are one of my favorite grilling tools. Check out my full post on using Copper Grilling Mats. They are thin enough to be cut with scissors and rest straight on the grill grates. Clean up is a breeze too!
Basting Brush – Grab a long handled brush for basting the salmon with honey. We have a few short handled ones, but it keeps our hands uncomfortably close to the heat source. Spend a couple of bucks and get one with a long handle – you’ll thank me later!
Wood Chips – I used hickory this time, but have also used lighter woods like alder, apple, and cherry. If you aren’t sure which woods work best, check out my handy (free) Smoking Cheat Sheet.
Smoker – Don’t forget the main method to get this done. You can use any type of smoker you have to make this fish simply amazing.
We have had our Big Green Egg for about 14 years now but have smoked on Traeger and Masterbuilt and they all work fabulously. Ceramic style is always going to be harder to keep the temperature vs a pellet version that you can dial in the temp and leave it.
🍲 Brining Instructions
I prefer dry brining for salmon. It is a sweet and salty mixture that liberally covers the fillets to draw out the moisture.
Step One: In a large bowl, combine the brown sugar, kosher salt, garlic, pepper and bay leaves.
Step Two: Cut the fillet into similar thicknesses. Place the cut pieces into a baking dish and fully cover it with the dry brine.
When you put the salmon fillet into the dish, note the texture and stiffness of the salmon. It is light, soft and easily pliable. After it has had several hours in the brine, it will be harder and much more firm. That is because the brine has drawn the moisture out of the meat.
Step Three: Cover and place the baking dish in the refrigerator for six to eight hours. I typically keep the thinner pieces of salmon in the dry brine for about six hours, and the thicker pieces in the brine for about eight hours. You’ll see the nice dry brine has turned to a soupy mess. All that moisture was pulled from the salmon. How cool!
Step Four: After you remove the salmon from the brine, rinse it thoroughly. I do mean THOROUGHLY. If you think you rinsed it enough, do it some more. I gave it a light rinse one time and really regretted it. Too much salt remained on the meat and it was too salty for eating straight off the grill. I ended up mixing it in with some pasta and it worked great.
⚠️ Be careful here. The most common mistake in smoking salmon is to keep the dry brine on the fillets too long or not washing all of the brine off the flesh. It may result in an overly salty piece of fish. If you wash off the brine real quick…stop…allow the water to flow over the salmon for a bit and rub the salmon to help any stray brine come off.
Step Five: Pat the salmon fillet dry with a paper towel and set it on a cooling rack uncovered in the fridge for two to three hours. It will develop a pellicle which is when the proteins work their way to the surface of the fillet and forms a tacky surface. Not only does this protect the meat, it gives the smoke a place to stick to the salmon
🔥 Smoking Instructions
We will be hot smoking the salmon. Cold smoking, as the name implies, is a much cooler smoking process that is used to make lox.
Step One: Set the temperature to 225 degrees using the plate setter for indirect heat and add in your favorite wood chips. I prefer a light smoke of hickory.
You don’t want to “grill” your salmon. You want to smoke it. So, be patient and let the low and slow smoking add the flavor to the fish.
Step Two: You do not have to baste salmon as it is smoking. In fact, I have only recently started using honey to add an extra sweetness. About every 45 minutes, brush local organic honey on top of the fillet. The heat will cause the honey to liquify quickly and drip down the sides, so I recommend keeping a drip tray underneath. That’s another reason I like the Half Moon Raised Grid – it has a built in drip tray.
Alternatively, brush a Grade B maple syrup or even a mix of a sweet syrup/honey and spicy cayenne pepper flakes for a surprising kick. I want to try a bourbon glaze next. We have a local distillery that makes a great bourbon (I used it on our homemade bacon)
My son favors the honey basted option. It causes the skin of the salmon to firm up a bit more and leaves a fantastic sweet taste that complements the salty/smoky flavors of the fish.
Step Three: At 225 degrees, it took two hours for the thin fillet to be cooked through. It took almost three hours for the thicker fillet to be done. You want the internal temperature of the salmon to be at least 160 degrees. I’ll be frank, do this a couple of times and you can just look at the deep, rich coloring of the smoked salmon to know when it’s done.
Step Four: Let it rest a few minutes and then serve.
💡 Recipe Tips
You’re going to see a lot of recipes that will use smoked salmon. It is typically used as part of an appetizer served with crackers, but you can also incorporate it into deviled eggs, pasta dishes, salmon dip, stuffed mushrooms, salads and on platters.
Hot smoked salmon that reached a temperature of 160 degrees is safe for pregnant women to eat. There is debate about cold smoked salmon as it never reaches 160 degree and might not kill all of the bacteria. I recommend playing it safe and enjoy this hot smoked variety while pregnant!
The best items to customize your dish is with the brine. Consider adding fresh cut herbs to the mix, like rosemary and thyme. The earthy herbal notes work so well with the rich salmon.
Instead of honey, consider basting with maple syrup or even sprinkling with a bit more brown sugar. If you don’t like the sweetness, let a few fillets go without this additional step. I bet you’ll love it just the same!
Add a little bit of heat to complement the sweet and salty brine by adding some red pepper flakes. It will impart a mild peppery flavor that works so well with the brown sugar.
🥕 Serving Suggestions
Typically, I will make smoked salmon for a game day where I have friends and family coming over. Here are a few other game day recipes that you may consider adding.
👨🍳 Recipe FAQs
“That white stuff” is formally known as albumin. While it is unattractive, it is not harmful. It is just a protein that coagulates when it is heated. It will always make its way to the surface of the meat.
I use the amount of albumin rising to the surface as a gauge to see how quickly the salmon is cooking. Remember, we are trying to go slow and slow, so you shouldn’t see a LOT of albumin, but you will always see some.
One way I address it is to baste the surface with honey. The brush wipes the albumin away, and the honey quickly forms a protective seal. Another tip I tend to use if I’m serving this to guests is to sprinkle parsley on it, as it makes all the whiteness “go away” in their eyes.
Smoked salmon will last for three or four days in the refrigerator. Of course, with a teenager who loves fine grilling meals, we have never actually had salmon last that long. In fact, I just set it on the counter, and he magically appeared with a fork and a grin. I had to cut off the salmon we planned on using for other recipes and put it out of reach. Darned kids!
Smoked salmon can be frozen easily and will last for several months. Wrap it in Press-N-Seal first and then put it in a freezer-safe Ziploc bag. Squeeze as much air out as possible. I am extra cautious when it comes to freezer burn with foods that I spent so much time and effort creating.
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Smoked Salmon with a Dry Brine
- Copper Grilling Mat
- Big Green Egg Half Moon Raised Grid
Dry Brine For the Smoked Salmon
- 1 cup Brown Sugar
- ⅓ cup Kosher Salt coarse, don't substitute
- 2 cloves Garlic minced
- ½ tsp Black Pepper
- 2 Bay Leaves
- 1 Salmon fillet
- ⅓ cup Honey
Preparing the Dry Brine
- Combine all of the Dry Brine ingredients together in a bowl and mix well. I broke the bay leaves up so they were more evenly distributed.
- Rinse off the salmon fillet and pat it dry. I keep the skin on for the smoking process as it makes it easier to move the salmon from the grill or smoker when it is completed.
- Lay the fillet in a glass or ceramic dish with the skin side down.
- Liberally coat the salmon with the dry brine. Make sure to cover the edges of the salmon as well. If you miss this step, the edges won't start to cure properly.
- Cover the dish with Saran and let sit in the refrigerator for 6-8 hours. The kosher salt will pull moisture from the salmon and the other ingredients will provide a sweetness to the fillet.
Prepare the Salmon for Smoking
- After 6-8 hours, remove the salmon from the dry brine mixture and rinse it extremely well. This is critically important. I have made the mistake of not rinsing it thoroughly and the end product was way too salty.
- After rinsing, pat it dry and lay the salmon on a cooling rack. Place it back in the refrigerator, uncovered, for two to three hours. This extra time will help the salmon develop a pellicle. A pellicle is protective coating of proteins that become tacky to the touch. It not only protects the meat, but its tacky texture will help the smoke adhere better.
Smoking the Salmon
- Finally, it is time to smoke the salmon. Set up your grill for indirect heat at 200-225 degrees. Add a few blocks of hardwood (I used Hickory)
- Place the salmon on a non-stick copper mat skin side down and place it above the indirect heat. I cut the copper mat to fit on the grill, but it is washable, and I smoke a lot of salmon, so it was not a problem.
- Keep the temperature of the grill down to 200-225. If it starts to get hot, reduce the airflow.
- Smoke the salmon until the internal temperature reaches 145-150 degrees in the thickest part. It took me about three hours to reach that.
Basting the Smoked Salmon (optional)
- If you want a sweeter salmon, baste it every 30-45 minutes with either pure honey or maple syrup. The honey will liquify very quickly and drip down the sides, so make sure you have a drip pan underneath otherwise you will get an unpleasant smoky flavor.