There are as many methods for brining and smoking salmon as there are people who have attempted it.
Secret methods and ingredients abound, and I'll confess to having tried more than a few of them. I've brined in fruit juice and soy sauce, basted with honey and maple syrup, marinated in crushed pineapple, garlic, fresh dill, and attempted all manner of exotic flavor combinations. I've used everything from a light to fully saturated wet brines (26% salt by weight) as well as pure salt dry brines and just about every ratio of salt/sugar. All of them can be made to work, but many require that you be very particular with brine time to avoid over salting.
A flexible brine allows a loose schedule, which translates to more time spent catching fish.
The simple truth I've arrived at 30 years since smoking my first fish is this:
Simple is better.
Salmon doesn't need to be dressed up. Salt and and smoke is all it needs, and sweet is a personal preference that also adds some antimicrobial properties and helps pull moisture. These complement the unique salmon flavor instead of competing with it.
A simple dry brine of 1 part salt to 4 parts brown sugar, spread 1/4 inch deep on the flesh side and layered is all you need. If you catch a giant King with 3-4 inch thick center cut pieces, just double the amount of brine on the thick pieces. Using this method, it's impossible to over-brine your fish. You can brine it overnight or for 3 days (refrigerated), and your fish will not get too salty. Don't worry, almost all of the sugar stays in the brine. Your fish will NOT be excessively sweet. If you want sweeter, baste with honey during smoking. So why use so much sugar? It pulls more moisture from the fish which concentrates flavor, improves preservation and also prevents excessive saltiness by diluting the salt.
- 1 cup kosher Salt. (NOT iodized salt)
- 4 cups (packed) Brown Sugar
- Fresh salmon filet, portioned.
This amount of dry brine will be enough for about 30 lbs of filet, so use what you need and save the rest, or subtract/multiply as needed for the amount of fish you have.
1. Portioning Salmon:
Why: Cutting your filets before brining/smoking increases the surface area, improving brine penetration and smoke contact so you get more flavor. It also allows you to transform a filet of very UN-uniform thickness into thin belly/tail pieces and thicker center cut pieces. When the time comes to start drying and smoking, arrange pieces of similar thickness together on smoker racks so whole racks can be removed as soon as they reach temp. Pro Tip: Portion immediately after cleaning/filleting to minimize cleanup.
How: You can portion into whatever size is convenient for you, but try and cut pieces of uniform thickness. I typically cut filets into roughly .75 lb pieces, and the brining/smoking process will remove about 25% of that weight via moisture loss-or as I prefer to call it: flavor concentration.
I'll end up with approximately 0.5 lb pieces which is a convenient size for sealing/thawing/eating/giving away. The smaller you cut them, the faster they will brine.
How to filet and portion salmon:
2. Dry Brine
How: Mix 1 cup of kosher salt and 4 cups of packed brown sugar. You don't have to use it all at once. Sprinkle a thin layer of dry brine in the bottom of a nonreactive brining container that fits in your refrigerator. Place filets skin side down until you have one layer, then cover flesh side of the filets with 1/4 inch dry brine. Repeat to create layers of salmon and dry brine until all the filets are covered. Allow to brine refrigerated for at least 12 hours and up to 36 hours, mixing twice so that all the meat is exposed to the brine. After a few hours your brine will be dissolved in the water pulled from the fish, making it quite easy to mix. Mixing is important because there will be pieces pressed together or against the container sides that the brine has not penetrated. Pro Tip: After 2 hours, cover the fish/brine directly with plastic wrap and push out large air bubbles, because fish skin exposed to air for many hours will start to smell.
Why: Dry brining using this method removes moisture faster than wet brining. Also, diluting salt with sugar allows you to leave fish brining longer without risking over-salting. It's dead simple, easy to remember, and produces exceptional results.
3. Dry (pellicle formation)
Why: When you see salmon covered in a white pasty substance (it's a protein called albumin and it's perfectly safe to eat) it is because the salmon was not dried long enough to form a pellicle (tacky "skin" on exposed flesh). This can also happen even with a properly formed pellicle if you cook it at too high a temperature, so don't let your smoker get over 225F.
How: Remove fish from brine and wipe off excess liquid with your hands. Do not rinse. Arrange salmon on smoker racks by thickness (thinner tails and bellies racked together, thicker center cuts racked together) in a cool (under 60F) well ventilated fly-free area and blast with your largest fan until the flesh feels tacky. If it's wet, you're not there yet, and if it's dry, you've gone too far. It should feel like tacky paint. Depending on the temperature and strength of your fan, it should take 1-3 hours. Pro Tip: Spraying smoker racks with cooking spray before placing fish on them will make them much easier to clean.
OPTIONAL: If you like black pepper, add it while the pellicle is still tacky so it stays adhered.
4. Cold Smoke with Alder
Why Alder: Alder is the only hardwood that grows natively in Alaska. It lines the banks of nearly every salmon stream and just so happens to possess a light flavor that pairs perfectly with salmon without overpowering it. I've used cherry, apple, oak, hickory, mesquite, and others. Alder is my preference.
Why Cold smoke: You begin with cold smoke so the smoke has a chance to penetrate the meat. Smoke won't penetrate the fully dried surface of salmon, and heat causes it to dry quickly.
How: Transfer racks into your smoker once the pellicle is formed. Arrange racks so the thicker pieces are nearest the eventual heat source. Smoke without heat (smoker temp under 100F) for 2 hours, adding dry alder as needed and adjusting airflow to maintain blue smoke.
Note: You should have separate heat and smoke units for best results. If you don't, and are using something like a Big Chief, you can get OK results by propping the door open for the first 2 hours.
A brief word on Smoke: Salmon is not Brisket. The temps are MUCH lower, the time is shorter, and salmon and brisket are on opposite ends of the tenderness spectrum. Thin blue smoke is ideal, but you must keep your temps below 100F for those first two hours, which is difficult to do on smokers built for beef and pork. Try your best to get thin blue smoke, but know that clouds of white smoke won't ruin your salmon due to the relatively short smoking time.
On the left is thin blue smoke, on the right is white smoke.
Why: This recipe is for hot smoked salmon. We want tender, moist, smokey, lightly sweet, salty, flaky Salmon. When you're finished with this step, your smoked salmon is ready to eat.
How: Raise the temp of your smoker to 200F and cook for 1 hour. If you raise the temperature too rapidly, it will cause the protein fibers to contract, forcing Albumin to the surface -even through a properly formed pellicle. Albumin is fine to eat, but it's better inside the smoked salmon than on the surface.
OPTIONAL: If you like sweet, basting the smoked salmon with honey, maple, or birch syrup during the cooking phase will tickle your fancy.
The thin pieces might be done after 1 hour. Check internal temp with a meat thermometer and remove salmon when it hits an internal temp of 125F. Carry over cooking will bring it to about 130F. Yes, you've been told that 130F is not hot enough to be safe. FDA recommends 145F internal temp. I can't guarantee you won't die prematurely if you remove it at 125F, but I can guarantee that if you cook it to the recommended 145 F internal temp it will be overcooked.
Consuming raw or undercooked meats, poultry, seafood, shellfish or eggs may increase your risk of foodborne illness.
Increase smoker temp to 225F and cook remaining thick pieces until internal temp is reached.
Eat a few chunks warm from the smoker because you've earned it.
Allow the rest to cool, then seal and store in the refrigerator for up to 10 days or in the freezer for up to one year. You'll eat it before it spoils.
Pro Tip: The easiest time to remove the pin bones is when salmon has finished cooking because the heat renders the sinew that attaches the bones to the skin into gelatin, and the meat shrinks back so the pin bones are exposed and easy to grasp. Removing pin bones before sealing and storing makes them easier to eat and reduces the risk of a protruding pin bone puncturing a bag and causing freezer burn.
There are many methods to make amazing smoked salmon. Share your experiences and tips in the comments, and feel free to ask questions if you got 'em.
Great info, with level-headed and practical tips.