All About Making Salmon Brine

It's what makes smoked salmon so good! Salmon Brine! This magical liquid reacts with the flesh of the fish, changing its structure. That change, in turn, improves the texture and helps the fish retain moisture.

And when seasonings are add to the brine, the smoked salmon absorbs those wonderful flavors. A good brine does a lot for salmon.

Benefits of Brining Salmon

The two ingredients that cause the flesh of the salmon to transform are simply common salt and sugar. The proper ratio dissolved in water has these effects on the salmon:

  • Modifies protein structure
  • Acts as a preservative
  • Pulls out excess water
  • Retains water

The salt alters the proteins in the salmon, which allows more water to enter. Along with the salt and water, sugar and flavorings are absorbed into the flesh. When the salmon is smoked, the heat causes the loosened-up proteins to contract. They bind together and trap some of that extra moisture that was absorbed during brining.

Salt and sugar are natural preservatives that inhibit bacterial growth, extending the freshness of the smoked salmon. Meats that are cured with a high concentration of salt and/or sugar need no refrigeration. The smoked salmon made with the recipes on this site are not, and must be refrigerated to prevent spoilage.

The salt causes the salmon to lose some of its moisture, but sugar causes the salmon to hold onto moisture. Sugar is hydrophylic, meaning that it attracts water and holds onto it, helping the smoked salmon remain moist.

Use The Right Salt For Brining

Don't used iodized table salt, and for that matter, don't use non-iodized table salt. The iodized table salt contains iodide, which can impart a metallic flavor to brined foods. It also contains an anti-clumping agent that prevents the salt grains from binding together when exposed to moisture.

Non-iodized salt contains no iodide, but does contain the anti-clumping agent.Kosher salt is often recommended for use in brines, but it usually contains an anti-clumping additive too.

I did a side-by-side taste test of iodized table salt, non-iodized table salt, kosher salt (with anti-clumping agent) and canning salt. The two table salts had definite off flavors. The kosher salt tasted more "salty", but of the four, the canning salt tasted purest. It had a clean, salty taste.

That's why I recommend using canning salt in brine, and for all cooking uses. It's pure, containing no additives. It may lump together, but it won't add off flavors to your foods.

A Basic Salmon Brine Recipe

Good smoked salmon is cured by the brining process. A basic brine contains only water, salt and sugar. There needs to be a dense concentration of salt and sugar in the water, or the salmon won't cure properly. Other ingredients can be added to contribute flavor to the salmon.

Salmon Brine - A Basic Brine Recipe

  • 1 gallon water
  • 2-1/2 cups canning salt
  • 1-1/2 cups sugar (white or brown)

The sugar and salt needs to be completely dissolved in the water. The best way to accomplish this is to boil the brine. Continue boiling the brine for 5 minutes after the sugar and salt seem to be dissolved.

Cool the salmon brine to room temperature, then refrigerate it down to below 40°F. The best temperature for brining is between 34-36°F.