How to Smoke Salmon That's Cooked to Perfection

Smoking Sockeye Salmon In a Masterbuilt Electric Smoker

A while back my buddy wanted to know how to smoke salmon. I asked him if he wanted to know an easy way to smoke salmon, or if he wanted an in-depth description of salmon smoking. He said "I think I know how to brine the salmon. I need to know how the actual smoking part works". Here's what I told him...

There are several steps to making smoked salmon. The first involve preparing the salmon, and have nothing to do with the actual smoking of the fish.

  • Buy quality salmon
  • Thaw it, if frozen
  • Fillet the salmon, if whole
  • Remove the pin bones
  • Cut the salmon into sections
  • Brine the salmon
  • Rinse the salmon
  • Dry the salmon, forming the pellicle

It's only after those steps that you can smoke the salmon. Let's start there.

How to Smoke Salmon - Hot Smoking Salmon

Once the pellicle is formed on the surface of the salmon, it's time to smoke. Set up your smoker so the smoke chamber temperature is between 160-170°F.

Even though this is considered hot smoking, it's done at a lower temperature than you'd normally smoke meats.  Some aspects of salmon smoking that you need to know about are:

  • How to place the salmon in the smoker
  • The correct smoker temperature for salmon
  • Providing airflow through the smoker
  • Using smoke woods
  • When is salmon done?
  • How to check salmon internal temperature
  • Resting the salmon after it's smoked

Whether smoking small pieces or whole sides, place the salmon in the smoker skin side down. The skin protects the flesh from the rising heat, traps moisture in that side of the fish, and helps hold the fillet together. The fish never needs to be turned over as it smokes, but it may need to be moved around on the grate.

It's important to smoke the salmon with gentle heat. If exposed to high temperature, the salmon will:

  • Lose moisture
  • Not get enough smoke flavor
  • Cook unevenly
  • Weep whitish looking liquid

At a normal smoker temperature of 225°F, much of the moisture will evaporate from the fragile fish. You'll see white colored beads of liquid forming on the surface of the salmon, a tell-tale sign of too-hot smoking.

When salmon is smoked at the correct temperature, the surface will usually remain dry and glossy.

Occasionally liquid will build up on the surface of salmon smoked at the correct temperature. All is not lost - if you see droplets forming, use a clean towel to dab them off.

Airflow Keeps Smoking Salmon Dry

This Salmon Was Dry Brined Before It Was Smoked

It's inevitable that water will evaporate from the salmon. That's why it's important that your smoker has adequate airflow. Horizontal pit smokers, gas smokers and charcoal smokers all have vents allowing the hot, smoky air to circulate up and out of the smoker. Keep the top vents wide open, and use the bottom vents to adjust the temperature.

Many electric smokers have no venting. The stagnant air allows moisture to build up on the fish, causing it to have a soggy surface when done...which is not what you want.

Cock the lid of the electric smoker so there's a small gap. Keep the gap small enough to maintain the correct smoker temperature, while large enough to allow adequate airflow.

If the salmon is cooked in too hot of a smoker, the outer layer of the fish will be overdone when the inside reaches the ideal temperature of 140-145°F.

A shorter time in the smoker means there's less exposure to smoke, hence, less smoke flavor in the fish. And the smoke helps preserve fish, making it safer to eat.

Most smokers have hot spots and cool areas. Move the salmon a few times during the smoke. If using a round vertical smoker the rack can simply be rotated. Otherwise, you'll have to move the fish around with a spatula.

Try to leave the skin intact when you move the fish. Rotate the pieces from one side to the other, and from the middle to the outer edges to ensure even cooking. As an option you can check the temperature of each piece of fish, removing them when they're done.

How to Smoke Salmon - Smoke Wood, Done Temperature and Resting After Smoking

Using Smoker Wood Chips and Chunks When Smoking Salmon

Light flavored smoking woods are best for smoking salmon. Alder is a favorite in the Pacific Northwest. It's available just about everywhere smoking supplies are sold.

Other woods can also be used. Don't use a lot of wood since too much smoke will cover up the flavor of the salmon and its seasonings.

Excess smoke can also cause a bitter flavor on your fish. Use several small additions of wood throughout the smoke cooking process for best results.

Smoked Salmon Done Temperature

Brine cured and smoked salmon is perfectly done when it reaches 140-145°F. Salmon that hasn't been cured needs to be cooked to 155°F. If you prefer your smoked salmon to be a little more on the "done" side, by all means smoke it to a higher temperature.

You can use an instant read thermometer to check the internal temperature of the salmon. I prefer to use a remote cooking thermometer. By leaving the probe inserted into the center of one of the fillets, I can monitor the temperature constantly, and without opening up the smoker.

Resting The Smoked Salmon Before Serving

One last step in the salmon smoking process is the resting period. When the salmon is removed from the smoker, put the platter on the kitchen counter.

Cover the whole works with a tent of aluminum foil and let it just sit there. A 20 minute rest will allow the juices to gel, improving the taste and the texture of the salmon. It's an important step.

My buddy listened to my tips on how to smoke salmon and nodded his head. He's put it all to use now, and can smoke salmon with the best of 'em!