Perfectly smoked salmon is one of those simple exquisite indulgences that is so satisfying. Salmon and smoke are just meant for each other. While smoking salmon is both a science and an art, it's really much easier to make at home than you might think.
The process is simple. The results are decadent.
The goal is to strike the right balance between the delicate flavor of the salmon, the all-important smoke, salt and a little sweetness. When those elements all come together in harmony, you get something truly amazing, not only wonderful to eat by itself but fantastic as an add-in for numerous dishes.
Now grab some beautiful salmon, make some quality smoke and don’t overcook the fish. You'll be enjoying some amazing smoked salmon in just a few hours.
Before we get too far, this recipe is all about hot-smoked salmon, and not for cold-smoked salmon (often called lox), the thinly sliced, almost transparent, salmon you get on a bagel. Hot-smoked salmon is cooked all the way through with smoke and has a delicate, flakey, succulent texture.
The 3 Keys to the Best Smoked Salmon
Let's not overcomplicate things. It's just smoked salmon after all.
- The brine. A simple mix of kosher salt and brown sugar.
- Use the right wood chips to pair with the salmon.
- Do not overcook the salmon! This is the most important part. The key temperatures are a 225° F smoker and 140° F finished internal temperature. If either of the temperatures get too high, the salmon will dry out. Always use a thermometer; I use the Thermoworks Thermapen ONE instant-read probe thermometer.
What You'll Need: Equipment and Ingredients
Three simple ingredients, and a few tools, will get you on your way.
- Salmon - Go with fresh wild-caught salmon when it is in season and available. If wild salmon is out of season, fresh frozen wild salmon will still work great.
Use a whole filet (half of the fish) rather than individual portions. The whole filet makes it a little easier to handle and keeps the fish moist as it cooks.
- Salt - Diamond kosher salt is what I recommend. If using another, be sure to use the ratios in this salt post to make sure you're seasoning properly.
- Brown Sugar - Just enough to add a hint of sweetness for balance.
- Fish tweezers for removing pin bones from the salmon.
- A smoker such as a Big Green Egg, a Pellet Smoker like a Traeger or an electric smoker like a Masterbuilt.
- Alder wood chips (or Alder pellets for a pellet smoker).
- Sheet pan or plastic bag for brining.
- Aluminum foil for easy transfer to and from the smoker, as well as easy cleanup.
- Probe Thermometer: Thermoworks Thermapen Instant Read Probe Thermometer and an optional Thermoworks Smoke Alarm to remotely monitor the temperature.
How to Smoke Salmon
Quick step-by-step overview or you can skip down to the full recipe card.
- Brine it. First, brine the salmon with a simple 2-to-1 ratio of brown sugar and kosher salt for 1 to 2 hours, then wipe off excess liquid with paper towels.
- Prep the smoker for indirect heat smoking at 225° F with alder wood chips for smoke and a water drip pan in place.
- Place the salmon skin-side down on a rimmed piece of foil and transfer to the smoker.
- Smoke it until the internal temperature reaches 140° F.
- Rest it for 5 minutes and enjoy.
Brine for Smoked Salmon
A simple brine is essential for adding flavor and keeping the salmon moist and tender. This dry brine is just brown sugar and kosher salt. It will pull some moisture out and intensify the flavors of the smoke and salmon.
The sugar adds a hint of sweetness to balance out the flavors. There’s really no need to brine the skin side, as it is a waterproof layer that doesn’t get penetrated by a brine.
This simple smoked salmon brine is a 2-to-1 ratio of brown sugar and Diamond kosher salt.
A note about rinsing after the brine: With this brine using Diamond brand kosher salt, which has less sodium by volume, I have never had the need to rinse the brine off. If you are using a different type of salt, you might want to rinse the brine and pat the fish dry before smoking so it isn't too salty.
Pro Tips for Smoking Salmon
- Temperature control of the smoker is crucial. Don't trust your smoker's built-in thermometer gauge, as it might not be calibrated. Use a 2-channel thermometer so you can remotely monitor the temperature of both the smoker and the internal temperature of the salmon.
- Use a drip pan with warm water in it, which helps regulate the heat and maintain a humid environment. If your smoker is getting too hot, you can add some ice to the water to cool it down.
- Place the salmon on a sheet of foil with a folded rim. This makes for easy transportation to and from the smoker, as well as making cleanup super easy. While this does prevent smoke from getting to the skin, the skin isn't actually permeable and won't transfer smoke flavor to the flesh anyway.
- Don’t over-smoke the salmon. Adding too much wood can add too much smoke flavor to the salmon.
Hot- vs Cold-Smoked Salmon
The techniques for making hot- and cold-smoked salmon are quite different, and so are the results. Hot-smoked salmon (like the one in this recipe) is cooked via a heat source that is producing hot smoke.
Cold-smoked salmon (often called lox, though officially lox is not smoked) is "cured" with salt and sugar over a longer period of time to preserve it rather than it being "cooked" with heat, and then it is smoked with smoke that has been cooled down before it comes in contact with the fish. The texture remains similar to the raw salmon used in sushi.
It is also possible to cold-smoke salmon and then cook it over direct heat, like in a skillet or on a grill. This is a great option if you don't have a smoker, because you get the smoky flavor, crispy skin and perfectly cooked salmon.
Smoked Salmon FAQs Answered
Hot-smoked salmon is considered fully cooked, while cold-smoked or cured salmon is not considered cooked, as it does not reach high temperatures. Both methods make the fish safe to eat.
Wild-caught salmon is always preferred when it is in season and available. Fresh-frozen wild salmon will still work great.
Alder trees are native to the Pacific Northwest and along the Copper River in Alaska, where my preferred wild salmon comes from. Alder gives the best mild flavor to the salmon, but apple and cherry also work great.
Use smaller wood chips rather than chunks for smoking this salmon over charcoal, as it is not a long smoke time.
Best Wood Choice: Alder chips.
Also Try: Apple or Cherry or a combination of them.
Avoid: Mesquite, hickory and other strong-flavored woods.
Soak the chips in water for 30 minutes prior to smoking. I don't usually soak chips when smoking meats, but I do for salmon. The reason for this is so the wood doesn't all burn up and it will add a little humidity to the environment.
It all depends on the thickness of your salmon filet. At 225° F, it can take between 30 minutes and 1 hour for a 2- to 4-pound salmon filet to reach a finished 140°F internal temperature. There are a lot of factors that determine the time it will take, including the actual temperature in the smoker, the starting temperature of the fish, fat content and the thickness of the filet. Wild salmon is leaner and will generally cook faster than farmed salmon.
It's always better to go off of the internal temperature to determine when it has reached 140° F.
The best tool for monitoring the temperature of the smoker and the fish is a Thermoworks Smoke 2-channel alarm. You can just set the temperature alarm to the temp right before it's done cooking and it will start beeping to let you know to head outside to verify.
Yes, salmon itself is one of the healthiest proteins you can indulge in. It is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, lots of protein and essential vitamins. When it is smoked, it often contains higher sodium levels from the brine, so it's not something you would want to eat every single day.
Sources: Livestrong and Eating Well
Albumin. It's just a protein that can seep out of the fish as it cooks. The protein is liquid when the salmon is raw and coagulates when it comes in contact with heat. It is completely harmless, and you can either eat it or wipe it off with a paper towel prior to serving.
If the fish was fresh when you cooked it and stored properly, hot-smoked salmon can last up to 1 week in the refrigerator and 6 months in the freezer.
Yes, you absolutely can freeze hot-smoked salmon! Just place portions into vacuum-sealed or Ziplock freezer bags, remove as much air as possible, seal and store in the freezer for up to 6 months. Defrost slowly in the refrigerator or put the bag in a bowl of cool water.
The Best Ways to Eat this Smoked Salmon
Besides simply eating hot smoked on its own, there are so many ways to use it in your favorite dishes. Here are a few ideas for tasty inspiration:
- Salmon and scrambled eggs is classic.
- Serve on a platter with lemon wedges, quick pickled red onions, capers, bagels and cream cheese.
- Add it to a bright fresh butter lettuce salad.
- Make a cream cheese smoked salmon dip.
- Add it on top of a rice bowl with fresh green veggies.
- Use it as the protein on eggs benedict (even better with a croissant).
- Use it in pasta with a creamy lemon vodka sauce.
- Eat it with grilled bread, olive oil, shallots and fresh herbs.
- Make a rich and creamy smoked salmon risotto with creme fraiche.
Simple Smoked Salmon
- 2 tablespoon brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon Diamond kosher salt
- 2-4 lb salmon filet (skin on and pin bones removed)
- 2 cups alder or applewood or cherry smoking chips (soaked in water for charcoal)
- Create the dry brine by mixing the sugar and salt together in a small bowl.
- Place the salmon filet skin-side down on a wire rack on top of a rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle the brine mixture over the entire filet to coat. Place in the refrigerator uncovered for 1 hour to 2 hours before smoking.
- Set up your smoker for indirect cooking with a water bath drip pan in place, and preheat according to the manufacturer's instructions to 225° F.
- While the smoker heats up, remove the salmon from the refrigerator and dry off any excess moisture with paper towels.
- When the smoker starts smoking and reaches 225° F, place the salmon skin-side down on a sheet of foil and transfer to the smoker.
- The salmon is finished smoking when the internal temperature reaches 140° F. Begin checking for doneness after 30 minutes using a probe thermometer.
- Remove from the smoker and rest for 5 minutes before serving, or cover and chill in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
- Use wild-caught salmon when available.
- Use pellets for a pellet smoker. For charcoal, soak the wood chips in water for 30 minutes prior to use.
- You don't need to rinse the brine off if using Diamond brand kosher salt, but if using a different type of salt that has higher sodium by volume, you might want to rinse.
- Cook time: It can take between 30 minutes and 1 hour to finish cooking the fish depending on the type and thickness of the salmon and your specific smoker. Wild salmon cooks more quickly because it is leaner.
This recipe was originally published Published July 26, 2019. It has been updated in March 2022 with new information and instructions.