Perfectly smoked salmon is one of those simple exquisite indulgences that is so satisfying. Salmon and smoke are just meant for each other. While the process is both a science and an art, it's really so 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 smoke, salt and a little sweetness. When those elements come together in harmony, you get something truly amazing. It's not only wonderful to eat by itself but fantastic as an add-in for numerous dishes.
Now grab some beautiful salmon, fire up your smoker, and you'll be enjoying some amazing smoked salmon in just a few hours.
Before we get into all the details, 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: Ingredients & Equipment
Three simple ingredients, a smoker and a few tools, will get you on your way.
- Salmon - Go with fresh wild-caught salmon when 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, which will make 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. Granulate sugar can be substituted, but brown sugar will add a hint of caramel flavor from the molasses.
- Wood Chips or Pellets - Alder wood chips or Alder pellets for a pellet smoker give a great flavor to the salmon.
- 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.
- 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.
Step 1: Dry 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.
Step 2: Prep the smoker
Set up your smoker for indirect heat smoking and bring the temperature up to 225° F. Use alder wood chips for smoke and a water drip pan in place.
Step 3: Place in the Smoker
Place the salmon skin-side down on a rimmed piece of foil and transfer to the smoker.
Step 4: Smoke the Salmon
Cook in the smoker until the internal temperature reaches 140° F.
Begin testing the temperature after 30 minutes. It can take between 30 minutes and 1 hour to cook, depending on the thickness of the filet.
Rest it for 5 minutes and enjoy.
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 a few inches of water in it, which helps regulate the smoker's temperature 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.
The Dry Brine
A simple brine is essential for adding flavor and keeping the salmon moist and tender as it cooks with the smoke. 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 isn't 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 than Morton brand kosher salt, 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 doesn't come out too salty.
Learn more about salmon in my Salmon 101 Guide and read about my trip to Cordova, Alaska, to Summer Salmon Camp to learn all about Copper River Salmon.
Hot vs Cold-Smoked Salmon
The techniques for making hot-smoked salmon and cold-smoked salmon are quite different, and the results are totally different as well. 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 flavored with smoke that is first cooled down before it comes in contact with the fish, to keep it from actually cooking it. 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.
Depending on the thickness of your salmon filet. In a 225° F smoker, 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.
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.
Alder wood is the preferred wood for smoking salmon. Alder trees are native to the Pacific Northwest and along the Copper River in Alaska, where some fo the best wild salmon comes from. Alder gives a wonderful mild flavor to the salmon, but sweet fruit woods like 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 Great: 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 is a liquid protein called Albumin that coagulates as it comes into contact with heat and becomes visible. It is completely harmless, and you can either eat it or wipe it off with a paper towel prior to serving.
Hot smoked salmon should last up to 1 week in the refrigerator and is best within 6 months if frozen, as long as the fish was fresh when cooked and it was stored properly.
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 the bag 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.
Inspiration for Enjoying 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:
- Make creamy Smoked Salmon Pasta.
- Salmon and scrambled eggs is classic.
- Salmon tacos
- Serve it cold on a platter with lemon wedges, quick pickled red onions, capers, bagels and cream cheese.
- Add it to a bright fresh butter lettuce salad with a lemon vinaigrette.
- Make a cream cheese smoked salmon dip.
- Add it on top of a rice bowl with fresh veggies.
- Use it in eggs benedict with a croissant as the base.
- Eat it with grilled bread, olive oil, shallots and fresh herbs.
Smoked Salmon Recipe
- 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.
- The recipe can also be used for steelhead trout.
This recipe was originally published Published July 26, 2019. It has been updated in November 2022 with new information and instructions.
It takes way longer the 30 mins to 1 hr to smoke 2-4 lbs of salmon. Not sure about the favor bc it’s been 1.5 hr and my 2 lb of fresh salmon is just at 100 degrees. Temp has been constant between 220 and 240.
Hi James. How thick was your salmon filet? What type of thermometer? I've made this so many times and that's the time it always takes. Happy to try to troubleshoot with you.
David Rising says
I’ve been smoking salmon for 50years and have my own guarded recipes. Tried your recipe and I LIKE IT ! Simple is always good. Does not take away from the flavor of the fish, it just gives it a kiss.
SO glad to hear it, David. And I'd love to hear a few of your secrets. 🙂
Your recipe looks great. The instruction's easy to do, but what should I do if I can't find kosher salt? Could you recommend me another choice?
Sure, you can definitely use a different kind of salt. What do you have on hand? Just have to do a conversion for the amount of sodium so it's not too salty.
S. C. says
I used coarse salt. Same amount. wipe the salmon with a humid paper towel (did not rinse). They were still a few grains embedded in the salmon. It was good, but slightly oversalty.
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
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.
From my personal experience, a couple of things may be happening:
1) Dry brine in refrigerator -- the purpose of the brine is not only to penetrate the salmon with flavor but also to form what is called a "pellicle" on the salmon. When you take out of the fridge, make sure you just barely pat it dry. The outside should be sticky/tacky to the touch -- this is what the smoke clings to.
2) Make sure you have airflow in your smoker. My first smoker mistake was to close off the vents to keep the smoke trapped inside. Instead, make sure you open the vents and get lots of airflow -- not only is there more smoke passing by the salmon there is also a drying effect that helps create that golden brown color.
3) The recipe here is more for a succulent, smoked salmon you would serve at dinner. If you want more of the "crumbly and dark brown", I think a slightly longer dry brine and a higher internal temperature would help create that texture.
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.
I totally agree. This one comes out perfect and is a lot less time. So glad to hear it was incredible for you. 🙂
Steph K says
Easily make the best most delicious hot smoked salmon
So glad to hear it was the best, Steph! Thanks!
Came out great! Had with zukes, tomatoes onions and melted cheese. Perfect combo. Chocolate peanut butter homemade ice cream for desert.
Sounds absolutely delicious, Jeff! And chocolate peanut butter ice cream? Umm, yes please. 🙂
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?
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
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!
So glad to hear it, David! And you are the best neighbor ever! 🙂
Please give cedar plank some love,would enjoy your take on this and wine pairings,after all pac. nor. west.Love your family!
Simple and really good. Cant wait to make it.
Thanks, Robyn. I hope it turns out fantastic!
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.
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!
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.
Great to hear, Bob! Happy 4th of July to you.
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 .
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!
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.
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!
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?
Was the salmon you purchased fresh or frozen? Was it mushy before you froze it or after your froze it and thawed?
If the texture of the salmon isn't optimal; you can still use it in some salmon pasta or make some delicious crispy salmon cakes.
I personally think this is an excellent article. Thank you.
Micah Donaghey says
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”. 😉
So so glad to hear that everyone in your fam loved it. And even those who don't love fish. Great to hear!
Patricia OHare says
So glad to hear your smoked salmon came out perfect! One of my favorites for sure!
Made this a few times and it's awesome!
Wonderful to hear. Thanks for letting me know. Salmon season is almost here!
Andrew Smith says
Smoked a pound filet on my new Weber SmokeFire last night. It took about 1 hour and was absolutely delicious.
So glad to hear it was delicious. Can't wait until Salmon season to smoke some more. The best!
Melts in your mouth! This is phenomenal alone, with a salad, bagel...endless options if you ask me!