Hot smoking salmon at home takes a bit of time and effort, but if done correctly, the results make it all worthwhile. If you're able to follow a few simple steps, and be patient, it's actually pretty easy once you get the hang of it.
There are many different types of salmon, and their quality ranges from
being dry and mediocre to being exceptionally rich and oily. It's not
necessary to use the best salmon for smoking, but you don't want to use
the lowest quality of fish either.
The different types you see include Atlantic salmon, which is farm raised and usually good quality. Pacific species include (from lowest grade to best) chum or silverbrite salmon, pink salmon, coho salmon, sockeye salmon, and king salmon. Often you'll see salmon for sale labeled as "Pacific" salmon, which can be any of the previous five, but usually one of the first two, chum or pink salmon. And marinated right, either one would make decent smoked salmon.
The worst quality salmon are fish that are nearing their spawning waters. The flesh becomes mushy and begins to disintegrate, and the skin loses its shine. If the salmon looks shiny, it's fine.
The steps include:
Salmon brine contains a high percentage of salt, and often a lot of
sugar or other sweetener too. Additional flavorings can be added to the
brine for specialty smoked salmon products. The salt changes the protein
structure, making the salmon less likely to lose moisture as it smokes.
Sugar attracts and holds moisture.
Salmon is brined for several hours, and often overnight, depending on the thickness of the salmon and the particular brine recipe being used.
After brining, a thorough rinsing is usually necessary. Depending on the brine used and the thickness of the fish, it could be as simple as a quick rinse under cold water. Or with heavily brined salmon, they could require soaking in fresh water for hours.
Salt and sugar are concentrated near the outer surface of the brined filets, especially with thicker pieces. The curing step is basically a resting period, in the refrigerator. During this time, the salt and sugar absorbs deeper into the flesh, making the concentration equal from the outer surface in to the center. After this step, the salmon is fully transformed from fresh to brined and cured.
The salmon has been in the refrigerator overnight, curing, and the
surface is still wet and sticky. Before being smoked, the outer surface
of the fillets need to be dried. This can be done at room temperature,
on raised racks. A fan blowing onto the fish speeds the drying. A skin
of sorts forms on the outer layer, and that's called the pellicle. It
acts as a barrier, holding moisture in as the salmon smokes.
Right before the salmon is dried, herbs or pepper can be sprinkled on, and the sticky surface will hold them tight. I like to use dried dillweed or lots of cracked, black pepper. Those go great on smoked salmon.
It's time to smoke! Even though it's called "hot" smoking, the
temperature is relatively low. Ideally, the smoker should be between
160-190 degrees Fahrenheit, with plenty of air flow to prevent moisture
buildup on the salmon.
It's not necessary to have smoked constantly rolling out of the smoker. The amount of wood used depends on the type of smoker you have. A sealed electric smoker will require less wood, since there's little airflow. The smoke is pretty much trapped inside. A charcoal smoker will need more, because the smoke rushes past the smoking salmon, and goes right out the top.
Smoke the salmon until it's slightly flaky. The internal temperature should reach just 150 degrees for perfect smoked salmon. When it reaches that point, remove and let it cool in a open spot. Don't immediately put it into sealed containers or moisture could build up, messing up the nice look of the outer surface.
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