Salmon has come full circle in the last few hundred years, from a cheap and plentiful source of protein that needed to be preserved, to a high-priced delicacy, and now a food that can be bought at any supermarket. Salmon is certainly here to stay and, whether paired with scrambled eggs for breakfast or caviar in a canape, this versatile fish can elevate any meal.
Buy it smoked, or smoke your own?
Getting the best salmon possible is critical in making a great smoked salmon. It’s certainly possible to salt or brine freshly-caught salmon and smoke it yourself (over a very, very low heat), but most people will be using pre-smoked. This, however, does not mean that you have to peel open a resealable pouch from the refrigerated section of your nearest grocery store. Many higher-end supermarkets today will have a fish section boasting both fresh and fresh-smoked salmon.
If you do have the time and inclination to smoke your own, however (and I highly recommend it), let’s have a look as to how you should go about it.
Learn how to store your wild-caught salmon in the freezer with the best vacuum sealer for fish and game!
Preparing the fish
Rinsing the salmon under cold water is the first step, followed by a pat down with these eco-friendly paper towels to give a clean, fresh fillet with which to work.
After drying, run your hand down the length of the salmon to find any little bones that may be protruding from the flesh. No one wants a bone stuck it their throat, and it can be quite embarrassing as a host to watch a guest politely move a bone from their mouth to the side of their plate, however discreetly. If you do find a few rogue bones, use tweezers or needlenose pliers and they will come right out.
You can portion the salmon however you see fit, but quartering has always worked for me. Start at the middle, then halve the halves. This ain’t rocket science—just good old-fashioned cooking!
Make sure your fillet knives are sharp with the best fillet knife sharpeners.
Brining the salmon
Wet brining is one option, but dry brining can also yield excellent results when you are smoking your own salmon. Combine 2 cups of dark brown sugar with 1 cup sea salt (any high-quality salt works, but sea salt seems appropriate). Add a tablespoon of fresh cracked pepper and mix it up with your hands. The first taste is not always with the eyes—sometimes it is with the fingers! Spread some of the mixture on the base of a baking pan and press the salmon into it, then cover the fish with more of the dry brine mix to draw out as much moisture as possible. Be sure to treat the sides in the same way so that none of the flesh is exposed. Wrap the salmon and the pan with saran wrap and store in the fridge for at least eight hours, preferably overnight.
Our article on the best smoked salmon brine has more information about this process.
Smoking the fish
You will be surprised at how much liquid has been drawn out by the dry brine mix. Your salmon should have taken on a deep, rich color. Rinse the juices off the cuts under cold water to firm up the flesh. Don’t worry—the flavor is now infused into the meat itself. Pat dry and place onto a drying rack that has been lightly oiled (to keep the meat from sticking). Let the salmon rest at room temperature for an hour or two to develop a microfilm skin (the pellicle) that will absorb smoky flavor when it is finally time to crank up the grill.
At this stage it is nice idea to slice the pieces into serving-sized portions. This will allow a crust to develop around every side of the salmon that you’ll be serving to your guests.
The grill should be set to no more than 150° F. You’ll want to leave the salmon in there for 2 hours. Keep it simple—there is no need to add olive oil, extra spices, rubs, or to wrap the fish in foil. Just let the smoke do the work, prepare the BBQ appetizers or have a frosty, ice-cold mug of beer or two, and tell some jokes. After all, at the end of the day, having fun is what good food is all about.
Once your smoked salmon is finished, let it rest for at least fifteen minutes. You can eat it as is (it will be hard to resist), or use it to add a decadent fishy flavor to soups and pasta (preferably homemade, of course!). The only limit is your imagination!
There’s no reason to let the coals get cold! See our other recipes that will give your smoker something to do.