Scoot over canned/vacuum packed smoked salmon! This homemade Smoked Salmon is going to jolt you right out of your seat!
I decided it was time to actually post my approach to Smoked Salmon. It is a classic 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, some batches that were near perfection and it was gobbled up in one sitting and everything in between.
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!
Cut the fillet into manageable pieces that are of uniform thickness. This is critical for brining as you will see in the next section.
How to Make a Smoked Salmon Dry Brine
The first step is to create a brine. I prefer dry brining for salmon. The brine is a sweet and salty mixture that liberally covers the fillets of the salmon to draw out the moisture.
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.
If you think the salmon is too salty, reduce the salt to brown sugar ratio next time. I prefer it at 1:3. You’ll see a lot of recipes that recommend a 1:1 ratio, but I have always found that to be way too salty, especially along the edges and thinner parts of the salmon.
See above when I mentioned cutting the salmon into uniform sections by thickness. 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 will have turned to a soupy mess. All that moisture was pulled from the salmon. How cool!
Rinse and Pat the Salmon Fillet Dry
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.
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
How to Hot Smoke Salmon
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.
I used a Big Green Egg, but any smoker will work. 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.
As you can see in the picture, I used two different tools to help with the smoking. The first is the Half-Moon Raised Grid. This adds another layer to your grill and lets you get even more on. It is perfect for smoking. When that fillet was done, I just lifted the whole assembly off and brought it in to cool.
The other tool is my absolute favorite grilling accessory. It is a non-stick copper grilling mat. This comes in especially handy when smoking salmon. The skin will inevitably stick to the grill. I have tried everything I can think of, but using the copper mat is the only way I have been able to avoid having the salmon skin stick to the grill. Best of all, it is easy to slide on to a baking sheet to transport inside. My copper mats were a little big, so I used a pair of scissors to cut it down to fillet size. It’s reusable, so it will forever be my smoking mat.
What is That White Stuff on the Salmon
“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.
Basting Smoked Salmon
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, I brushed 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 smoked salmon. It causes the skin of the salmon to harden a bit more and leaves a fantastic sweet taste that complements the salty/smoky flavors of the fish.
How Long to Smoke Salmon
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 150 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.
How Long Does Smoked Salmon Last
Smoked salmon will last for three of 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!
Can You Freeze Smoked Salmon
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.
How to Serve Smoked Salmon
You’re going to see a lot of recipes that will use smoked salmon. Smoked salmon is typically used as part of an appetizer served with crackers. You can also incorporate it into deviled eggs, pasta dishes, salads and on platters.
Can Pregnant Women Eat Smoked Salmon
Yes. 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 salmon while pregnant!
What Do You Think?
I’d love your feedback! Please leave a comment!
Smoked Salmon with a Dry Brine
Dry Brine For the Smoked Salmon
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1/3 cup kosher salt don't substitute
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 salmon fillet
- 1/3 cup honey
Preparing the Dry Brine
Combine all of the Dry Brine ingredients together in a bowl and mix well. Yes, 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 disk 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 8-10 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 8-10 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 and place back in the refrigerator 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 had to 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 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.