Perfectly smoked salmon is one of those simple indulgences that is so satisfying. Salmon and smoke are just meant for each other. While the process is a little bit of science and a little bit art, it is super easy to make at home.
The process is simple and the results are decadent.
The goal is to strike the perfect 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 is fantastic as an add-in for numerous dishes and dips.
Now get some beautiful salmon, fire up your smoker, and get ready to enjoy some seriously delicious smoked salmon in just a few hours.
Before we get into all the details, this recipe is all about making hot smoked salmon, and not for lox or cold-smoked salmon, which is the thinly sliced, almost transparent salmon you get on a bagel. Hot-smoked salmon is cooked all the way through with hot 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.
- Brine. A simple combination of kosher salt and brown sugar.
- Use the right wood for smoke that pairs with 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 gets too high, the salmon will dry out. Always check the temp with a thermometer; I recommend the Thermapen instant-read probe thermometer.
What You'll Need: Ingredients & Equipment
Three simple ingredients, a smoker and a few smoker accessories, will get you on your way.
- Salmon - Go with high-quality 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) if possible. Individual salmon filet portions can also be used, but a whole filet is easier to manage on the grill and stays juicier.
- Salt - Diamond Crystal kosher salt is what I prefer. If using Morton brand, use half the amount of salt. Learn more about the types of salt and conversions to make sure you're seasoning properly.
- Brown Sugar - Just enough to add a hint of sweetness for balance. Maple syrup, honey or granulate sugar can be substituted in the same amount as is called for.
- Wood Chips or Pellets - Alder wood chips for a charcoal smoker or Alder pellets for a pellet smoker like a Traeger will give a great flavor to the salmon.
- A smoker such as a Big Green Egg, a Pellet Smoker like a Traeger or an electric smoker like a Masterbuilt. Learn more about the different types of smokers.
- Fish tweezers for removing pin bones from the salmon. If you don't have tweezers, a clean pair of needle nose pliers will also work.
- Sheet pan or a ziplock 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.
The Smoked Salmon Dry Brine
A simple two-ingredient dry brine is essential for adding flavor and keeping the salmon moist and tender as it slowly 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 dry brine is a 2-to-1 ratio of brown sugar and Diamond kosher salt.
Why brine the salmon? Similar to meat, brining the salmon will both season the flesh, bringing out its natural flavor, and it also helps prevent it from drying out as it cooks.
Should you rinse the salmon after the dry brine? With the dry brine in this recipe using Diamond brand kosher salt, which has less sodium by volume than Morton brand kosher salt, you do not 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.
How to Smoke Salmon
Quick step-by-step overview for hot smoking salmon, or you can jump down to the full recipe card.
Step 1: Dry Brine the Salmon
Brine the salmon with a simple 2-to-1 ratio of brown sugar and kosher salt. Refrigerate 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 drip pan with water to add moisture to the smoker.
Step 3: Place the Salmon 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.
Tip: Begin testing the temperature after 30 minutes. It can take between 30 minutes and 1 hour to come to temp, depending on the thickness of the salmon filet. Error on the side of taking it out a few degrees before rather than overcooking it.
Step 5: Rest the Smoked Salmon
Rest the smoked salmon for 5 minutes before serving.
Pro Tips for Success
- Temperature control of the smoker is crucial. If the smoker gets too hot, it will cook the salmon too quickly and it won't get as much smoke flavor.
- Use a drip pan with a few inches of water in it will help 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, along with making cleanup a breeze. 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, which will be a turn-off for a lot of people.
- Don't trust your smoker's built-in thermometer, as they are often not accurate. Use a 2-channel thermometer so you can remotely monitor the temperature of both the smoker and the internal temperature of the salmon.
The Best Wood for Smoking Salmon
Alder wood is widely preferred as the top choice with a delicate mild, slightly sweet smoky flavor that pairs wonderfully with the natural taste of salmon. It's truly a n natural pairing as Alder trees are native to the Pacific Northwest and along the rivers in Alaska, where some of the finest wild salmon comes from.
Other wood options include fruitwoods like apple and cherry, or even a combination of the two.
- Best Choice: Alder Wood.
- Also Great: Apple or Cherry or a combination of them.
- Avoid mesquite, hickory and other strong-flavored woods.
Use wood chips rather than chunks for smoking this salmon over charcoal, as it is not a long smoke time. 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 smoker environment.
How Long to Smoke Salmon
In a 225° F smoker, it will take between 30 minutes and 1 hour for a 2 to 4-pound salmon filet to reach 140° F finished internal temperature, depending on the thickness of the salmon filet. I will usually pull the salmon out of the smoker a few degrees before it hits the target temp, as there can be some carry-over cooking.
Always rely on a quality instant-read thermometer and cook to temperature rather than by time because of the numerous factors that determine how long it will take, including the actual temperature in the smoker, the starting temperature of the salmon, its fat content and the thickness of the filet. Wild salmon is leaner and will generally cook more quickly than farmed salmon.
Hot vs Cold-Smoked Salmon
The techniques for making hot-smoked salmon and cold-smoked salmon are very 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 "cure" and preserve it rather than it being "cooked" with heat. Then it is placed in a cold smoker flavored with cold smoke, keeping the fish from actually cooking. The texture of cold smoked salmon is similar to the raw salmon used in sushi.
Salmon can also be cold-smoked without curing, and then cooked like normal 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.
Storing and Reheating
To store smoked salmon, allow it to cool completely and then wrap it tightly in plastic wrap or place it in an airtight container. Store it in the refrigerator for up to 3 to 4 days. For longer-term storage, you can vacuum seal and freeze it for 3 to 6 months.
When reheating, it's best to do so gently to prevent drying it out. Drizzle a little olive oil on it and wrap in foil. Place in a 300° F oven until warmed through.
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 produce fish that is safe to eat.
It is a liquid protein called Albumin that coagulates as it comes into contact with heat and becomes visible. Albumin 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-seal 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.
What to do with Smoked Salmon
Besides simply enjoying smoked salmon 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 satisfying 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.
More Delicious Salmon Recipes to Try
Simple Smoked Salmon Recipe
- 2 tablespoon dark brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon Diamond kosher salt (2 teaspoon if using Morton brand Kosher salt)
- 2-4 lb salmon filet (skin on and pin bones removed)
- 2 cups alder, applewood or cherry wood smoking chips or pellets
- Make the dry brine by combining the brown 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. Evenly sprinkle the brine mixture over the entire salmon filet to coat. Place in the refrigerator uncovered for at least 1 hour to 2 hours before smoking, but you can brine it overnight.
- Set up your smoker for indirect heat cooking with a water bath drip pan and smoker chips (or pellets), and preheat it to 225° F according to the manufacturer's instructions.
- While the smoker heats up, remove the salmon from the refrigerator and dry off any excess moisture with paper towels.
- When the smoker is ready, place the salmon skin-side down on a sheet of foil and transfer it to the smoker.
- Begin checking for doneness after 30 minutes using a probe thermometer. The salmon is finished when the internal temperature reaches 140° F.
- 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.
- Soak wood chips in water for 30 minutes prior to adding.
- There's no 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.