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Simple Smoked Salmon

Your step by step guide to easily make the best most delicious hot smoked salmon at home. It starts with high quality salmon that is dry brined then smoked with alder for about an hour.
smoked salmon with fork horizontal

Smoke and salmon go together like, well, salmon and smoke. Perfectly smoked salmon is one of those simple exquisite indulgences. If it’s on a restaurant menu, it’s hard not to order it. While smoking salmon is both a science and an art, it’s really much easier to make at home than you might think.

It really comes down to striking the right balance between the flavor of the salmon, the salt, a little sweetness, and the smoke. When those all come together, you get something truly amazing that is not only wonderful to eat by itself, but it can be used as an ingredient for so many other dishes.

If you have high-quality salmon, good quality smoke, and don’t overcook it, you will be enjoying some pretty amazing smoked salmon in just a few hours. 

Now, before we get too far, this recipe is all about hot smoked salmon, and not for lox or cold smoked salmon that you traditionally get on a bagel or on a vacuum-sealed at the grocery store.

The 3 Keys to the Best Smoked Salmon

Don’t overcomplicate it. It’s just smoked salmon after all.

  1. The brine. A simple mix of kosher salt and brown sugar.
  2. Use the right wood chips to pair with the salmon.
  3. Do not overcook the salmon! This is the most important part. The key temperatures are 225 degrees F in the smoker and 140 degrees internal finished temperature. If either of the temperatures get too high, the salmon will dry out.
justin mcchesney holding a copper river king salmon
Copper River Salmon in Cordova, Alaska

What Type of Salmon to Use?

Use 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 for smoking. Just thaw it slowly in the refrigerator.

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 smoked salmon moist as it cooks.

Read about my trip to Alaska to Summer Salmon Camp to learn all about the Copper River Salmon. There is more about all kinds of salmon in my Salmon Guide.

Prepping the Salmon

Very little is required to prep the salmon for smoking. One important step is to remove any pin bones that might still be in the filet. Use a pair of fish bone tweezers (affiliate) starting at the tail end working your way to the head end to pull out all the bones. Use paper towels to wipe any liquids off the filets before applying the dry brine.

smoked salmon brining on sheet pan

Brine for the Smoked Salmon

A simple brine is essential for adding flavor. The dry brine is just brown sugar and kosher salt. There’s really no need to brine the skin side, as it is a waterproof layer that doesn’t get penetrated by a brine. Since we aren’t rinsing this brine off; it’s important not to add too much salt.

The brine will not only help to preserve the salmon so it lasts longer after it is smoked, but it will help to pull some moisture out and intensify the flavors of the smoke and salmon. The sugar adds a hint of sweetness to help balance out the flavors.

This smoked salmon brine is a 2 to 1 ratio of Brown Sugar and Kosher Salt.

How to Smoke Salmon

Smoking salmon can seem very complicated with all the theories out there, but let’s simplify it into 3 main steps. 

  1. Brine it. The first step is to 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.
  2. Prep the smoker for indirect heat smoking at 225° F with alder wood chips for smoke.
  3. Place the salmon skin-side down on a piece of foil and transfer to the smoker.
  4. Smoke it until the internal temperature reaches 140° F.
  5. Rest it for 5 minutes and enjoy.
smoked salmon in smoker

Best Wood for Smoking Salmon

Alder trees are native to the Pacific Northwest, and more specifically along the Copper River in Alaska where this salmon cames from. Alder gives the best mild flavor to the salmon, but apple or cherry can also work.

Use smaller wood chips rather than chunks for smoking this salmon over charcoal, as it is not a long smoke.

Best Wood Choice: Alder chips (affiliate)
Also try: Apple or Cherry
Avoid: Mesquite, hickory and other strong-flavored woods.

Soak the chips in water for 20 to 30 minutes prior to smoking. I don’t usually soak chips when smoking meats, but I do for salmon. The reason for this is to help keep the temperature down and create a milder smoke.

How Long to Smoke Salmon

It can take between 30 minutes and 1 hour to smoke a 2 to 4-pound salmon filet at 225° F. There are a lot of factors that determine the time it will take, including the actual temperature in the smoker, fat content and the thickness of the filet. 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 (affiliate). You can just set the temperature alarm to to the temp right before it’s done cooking and it will start beeping to let you know to head outside to verify.

Tips for Smoking Salmon

smoked salmon filet vertical
  • Temperature control of the smoker is crucial. Don’t trust your smoker’s built-in thermometer. Use a Thermoworks Smoke 2-channel alarm (affiliate) to monitor the temperature of the smoker and the internal temperature of the salmon.
  • Use a drip pan with warm water in it which to help regulate the heat. Ice can be added to the water if the temperature is climbing too high.
  • 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 makes for easy cleanup. 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.
  • Don’t over smoke the salmon. Adding too much wood can add too much smoke flavor to the salmon.

Smoked Salmon FAQ

Is Smoked Salmon Cooked?

Hot smoked salmon is considered fully cooked, while cold smoked or cured salmon is not considered cooked, as it does not reach high temperatures.

Hot vs Cold Smoked Salmon

Hot and cold smoked salmon are very different. Hot smoked salmon (like the one in this recipe) is cooked by heat. Cold smoked salmon and lox is “cured” with salt and sugar over a longer period of time to preserve it rather than cook with heat.

Hot smoking the salmon actually cooks the fish via a heat source that is producing hot smoke. Cold smoked salmon is usually cured, then smoked with smoke that has been cooled down before it comes in contact with the fish so it doesn’t change the texture.

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 the best of both worlds because you get the smoky flavor, crispy skin and perfectly cooked salmon.

How Long Does Smoked Salmon Last?

Hot smoked salmon lasts for about 1 week in the refrigerator if it was fresh when you brought it home and you smoked it right away.

Can You Freeze Smoked Salmon

You absolutely can freeze hot smoked salmon! Just place portions into ziplock freezer bags, remove as much air as possible, and freeze. Defrost slowly in the refrigerator or in a bowl of water (leaving it in the sealed bag). Avoid defrosting in the microwave.

What’s the White Stuff that Appears When the Salmon Cooks?

That’s just a simple protein called albumin 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.

The Best Way 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
  • Accompany on a platter with lemon wedges, quick pickled red onions, capers, bagels, cream cheese
  • Add it to a bright fresh butter lettuce salad 
  • The oh-so-obvious and delicious bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon.
  • Make a cream cheese smoked salmon dip
  • Add it on top of a rice bowl
  • 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
smoked salmon with for horizontal

Equipment for Smoking Salmon

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smoked salmon with fork horizontal

Simple Hot Smoked Salmon

5 from 12 votes
Print Pin Rate
Course: Main
Cuisine: American
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 1 hour
Brine Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 2 hours 10 minutes
Servings: 8

Ingredients

  • 2-4 lb Salmon Filet , pin bones removed
  • 2 tablespoons Brown Sugar
  • 1 tablespoon Kosher Salt diamond brand preferred
  • 2 cups Alder or Applewood chips (soak in water for charcoal)

Instructions

  • 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 and pre-heat according to the manufacturer's instructions to 225° F.
  • While the smoker heats up, dry off any excess moisture from the salmon with paper towels.
  • When 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 then 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.

More Delicious Salmon Recipes

Join the discussion 35 Comments

  • Daniel says:

    How do you get the golden brown color? I followed the recipe and my salmon came out light pink. I am going for that crumbly and dark brown salmon to serve on bagels. It seems the longer I cook the darker it gets but the internal temperature also rises above 140. Thanks

    • justin says:

      Hi Daniel,
      This sounds like smoked salmon candy. I haven’t done it personally, but you could cure it with the brown sugar and sugar for longer and then brush on some maple syrup during the last 15 minutes of the cook. Now that I talk through it, I totally want to try it sometime. Good luck and let me know if you try it.

  • Mogrrl says:

    This turned out amazingly well. When trying to find an easy smoked salmon recipe to use in our new smoker, I found ones that would take 8 – 24 hours. Who has that time? This had only two steps and the result was incredible.

  • Steph K says:

    Easily make the best most delicious hot smoked salmon

  • Jeff says:

    Came out great! Had with zukes, tomatoes onions and melted cheese. Perfect combo. Chocolate peanut butter homemade ice cream for desert.

  • stephen says:

    Hi There – In the recipe section it notes “1 tbsp salt, 2 tbsp brown sugar”. This seems like a very small quantity of brine? Other recipes I’ve seen use about 1 cup salt to 2 cups of sugar. Can you help clarify how much brine is needed for a 2lb filet?

    • justin says:

      Hi Stephen! The reason for the smaller quantity of the brine is that it is not rinsed off before cooking, like many recipes call for. It is just patted dry with paper towels. This is the way I’ve been doing it and it comes out amazing. Let me know if you have any other questions. Happy smoking!

  • david kaczar says:

    Justin

    Hello! Thank you for the wonderful recipe! Followed your instructions exactly and the smoked salmon came out perfect and delicious! Smoked 2 good size fillets, one for me and one for my neighbor. We both loved it! Just finished dinner! You the man!

    Dave

  • Erika says:

    Please give cedar plank some love,would enjoy your take on this and wine pairings,after all pac. nor. west.Love your family!

  • ROBYN says:

    Simple and really good. Cant wait to make it.

  • Bob says:

    I was so inspired by this that I have salmon thawing to cook tonight. I have two issues, though.

    First, you said, “ Since we aren’t rinsing this brine off; it’s important not to add too much salt.”. This implies that you leave the brine on for cooking. But later you discuss wiping the liquids off after brining which would essentially wipe the brine off, also. Can you please clarify?

    Second, I am forced to vary from the recipe in two ways. I do not have an whole salmon and will have to use small portions. This will make checking on the internal temperature a must. Also, I cannot change the pellets in my pellet grill. There is no hole to empty the current pellets so I will be using stronger wood flavors. I use a mix pellet so there are several types of work in them

    Do you have any suggestions for dealing with these differences.

    I realize that this is a Sunday morning and that since I am cooking tonight, I probably won’t be able to get a response, but it would be helpful for next time.

    • justin says:

      Hi Bob! So awesome to hear that it inspired you! You are right. I must have mis-typed it. We aren’t going to rinse the fish with the dry brine like this. Though if it were wet brined, like a lot of people do, then I would rinse it and get it very dry. I don’t love adding water to fish to rinse it if I don’t have to as it can make it soggy.

      Small portions – this is totally fine. Like you said, they will likely cook faster so you will need to keep a close eye.

      Pellets – if the wood smoke flavors are going to be strong; I would suggest not adding smoke the whole time. This isn’t really optimal but should work. Better to have less that overpowering smoke.

      Let me know how it turned out!

      Cheers,
      Justin

      • Bob says:

        It turned out great. It was not too over-smoked at all. That may have been because since the pieces were fairly small, it did not cook for more than 30 minutes.

        Definitely, one that we will do again. I’ll probably try it with other types of fish, but if I do, I might use different seasonings rather than just salt and brown sugar.

  • Lori says:

    After smoking instead of freezing it can you can it ? My dad use to do this with his smoked salmon and it was delicious but he didn’t leave his recipe,so I’m in the dark .

    • justin says:

      Hi Lori! Yes, you definitely can and that’s a great idea. I haven’t done this myself, but just did a few minutes of research. Seems like you would smoke it for a shorter period of time as to not fully cook the fish. The fish would then be fully cooked during the canning process in a pressure cooker. Do a little googling and you should be able to find a recipe. Let me know if you do need help finding something. Cheers!

  • Anna says:

    Q: I’ve read several recipes and it’s my understanding that high Temperatures dry the fish. So why Some People preheat the smoker, some do not? Some start at low temps 140-150 F? And don’t go higher than 175F? Some smoke for long hours, others just a couple? Some rinse the brine, some wipe it? Some baste the fish with sweets during the smoking process. It’s extremely confusing. Any thoughts, recommend, explanation? Appreciate your help.

    • justin says:

      Hi Anna,
      Thanks for reaching out and for your questions. I can’t tell you why others do what they do, but I can try to give some more insight on why I do mine the way I do. A lot of it comes from experience of trying different method experimenting to find what I think works best for the result I am looking for.
      So why Some People preheat the smoker, some do not? – I recommend pre-heating the smoker, especially for cooking fish. If you don’t pre-heat, there is a huge variable of how long it takes to come up to temperature. It could be 5 minute or 30 minutes while it pre-heats that you are cooking at a temperature that isn’t what you are trying to cook at. If it’s a long smoke, like a pork shoulder or a brisket, then pre-heating is less important because it will be in the smoker for such a long time.

      Some start at low temps 140-150 F? And don’t go higher than 175F? – I haven’t done much experimenting with low temp smoking with fish. This can be called “cold smoking” where you are just infusing the fish with smoke and not actually cooking it. I do plan on doing this soon during salmon season. There can be safety issues when smoking at low temperatures, so that’s something to look into and be careful of.

      Some smoke for long hours, others just a couple? Some rinse the brine, some wipe it? Some baste the fish with sweets during the smoking process. It’s extremely confusing. Any thoughts, recommendations, explanations? – The longer you smoke it, the more it will cook. If it gets smoked at a low temperature, then likely it will smoke for a longer period of time.
      For mine, I am trying to get the internal temperature of the salmon to an optimal 140° F, so the time it takes to do that depends on a lot of factors. I don’t want to cook it too quickly, or it can make the fish tough and also not give it enough time to infuse the wonderful smoke flavors. A lot of it comes down to texture and achieving what you like.
      I like to wipe the brine off as apposed to rinsing because I don’t want to get the fish wet as it can become soggy and change the texture of the end result.
      When people baste the fish, it is likely to make it more candied, but I can’t see why you would want to baste salmon while you are smoking it.

      I would recommend following this recipe or another that you are comfortable with. If it comes out how you like then keep going with it. If something is different than your preference, change something or try another recipe.

      I’m happy to try and help if you smoked the salmon and can tell me how it came out.

      Best of luck and happy smoking!

      Justin

    • Judy says:

      I bought salmon from Sam’s A friend smoked it for only one hour. I cut it up, vacuum packed it and froze it. It’s mushy and I think under smoked. What can I do?

  • JACK says:

    I personally think this is an excellent article. Thank you.

  • I made this for my whole family and a few friends and everyone loved it. It was a really good tasting and simple recipe. Would recommend to anyone who to anyone who doesn’t like fish and wants to “test the water”. 😉

  • Jerry says:

    Made this a few times and it’s awesome!

  • Andrew Smith says:

    Smoked a pound filet on my new Weber SmokeFire last night. It took about 1 hour and was absolutely delicious.

  • Stacy says:

    Melts in your mouth! This is phenomenal alone, with a salad, bagel…endless options if you ask me!

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