Smoked salmon is a perfect snack on its own, but it also goes perfectly with a freshly toasted bagel and some of your favorite cream cheese. The salmon is flaky, smoked, and even perfectly preserved. By following this recipe, you’ll learn the difference between store-bought and homemade smoked salmon. Not to mention, you’ll save some money by smoking it yourself!
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In the past when there was no refrigeration, people would smoke salmon to preserve it for later use. Fresh salmon that is smoked goes through a curing process and slight dehydration, which halts bacteria from ruining the food as quickly. Food that is fresh is more susceptible to bacteria and will spoil quickly, but dehydrating it actually keeps bacteria from forming easily. Salmon preservation is popular globally, appearing in cuisines such as Native American, Polish and Greek dishes.
Luckily for you, smoked salmon is available in most larger grocery chains and even in local chains. Trader Joe’s and Costco have smoked salmon of different varieties you can try. The most popular brands that people can’t get enough of are Russ and Daughters, Wexler’s Deli, and Honey Smoked Fish Co.
Hot vs cold smoked salmon
The age-old question among smoked salmon eaters is whether or not to have cold or hot smoked salmon. The primary distinction between hot smoked and cold smoked salmon is the temperature it’s exposed to during the smoking process. The main temperature difference between hot smoked salmon and cold smoked salmon is that the former is typically smoked at a minimum of 120°F, whereas the latter is only exposed to smoke at 90°F or lower.
Hot smoked salmon has a stronger smoky flavor than regular smoked salmon because it is burned at a higher temperature. Another key difference between hot and cold salmon is the texture difference. Hot salmon tends to be flakier in texture and breaks away easily. Cold smoke salmon, on the other hand, is smoother and silkier and has a shine to it when it’s cut up.
Type of salmon to use for smoking
Nowadays, you can find multiple types of salmon at your local grocery store. You’ll have to experiment with the different types to understand which is your favorite, but here are a few tips to help guide you along through the process.
- Atlantic salmon: This type of salmon is easy to find and usually raised on a farm. You’ll typically find this type of salmon to have a stronger flavor than others. The bright orange coloring and high-fat content help deliver a stronger profile. What’s nice about Atlantic salmon is that it is usually more affordable than other types.
- King salmon: Many smokers prefer King salmon because of its high-fat content, bright red color, and flaky texture. It’s a great choice for hot salmon because of its texture. You might also find this type called Chinook salmon in some stores.
- Sockeye salmon: Sockeye salmon is a popular type of fish to smoke, second only to King salmon. This cut of salmon is ideal for hot smoking because it won’t fall apart and has the perfect balance of leanness and firmness.
Seasoning salmon for smoking
There are only two real options when you are looking to season salmon for smoking: wet brine and dry brine. Wet brining is a process of soaking salmon in a mixture of saline water and other seasonings. This method allows the fish to absorb flavor and retain moisture, resulting in a more delicious and succulent smoked salmon brine. Dry brining salmon involves completely covering the fish with salt, pepper, lemon garlic, or other seasonings. You’ll put everything directly on the fish skin so it absorbs into the meat. Dry brining tends to be a much easier process and doesn’t create nearly as big of a mess as wet brining. It’s also much quicker to dry brine than wet brine, but the flavor might not be as intense in your smoked salmon recipes.
Forming pellicle on salmon for smoking
One of the key steps to smoking salmon (whether hot or cold smoked) is creating a pellicle on the skin after brining. The pellicle is a protein-based coating on the skin that allows smoke to adhere to salmon during the smoking process. Without it, you wouldn’t have the classic smoky flavors that go so well with a bagel and lox.
The first step to creating the perfect pellicle for your salmon filet is to rinse off all the extra brine material and pat the fish down with some dry paper towels. You want the fish to be as dry as possible after the brine. After that, put the salmon back on the wire rack uncovered and let it rest in the fridge for about four hours. You want to make sure the skin has a glossy and somewhat tacky texture after you’re finished.
Make sure the room temperature is colder than 65 degrees Fahrenheit and then let your fish rest on the counter. For added circulation, keep a fan nearby that can help keep circulation regular for your salmon. Although it’s easier to find cooler temperatures in Southern California during the winter, I’ve discovered that the fridge is perfectly suitable if the room temperature is not ideal.
Using an electric smoker
You can use a Traeger smoker for your salmon if you want a more even method. Just make sure it is set at the lowest setting. This ensured that the meat was cooked slow and low, resulting in a more tender, flavorful finished product. We frequently check the internal smoker and salmon temperatures to avoid overcooking, since the lowest setting on the Traeger is only 165°F. Alderwood pellets provide an understated flavor that doesn’t overpower the delicate taste of salmon.
Proper cook time for smoked salmon
There are many things that affect how long it takes to smoke salmon. Consider the thickness of the cut and how much salmon you’re planning on smoking. You’d be surprised but even how moist your salmon is will affect how long it takes to smoke and cook fully.
To be safe, set the smoker at its lowest temperature setting possible. You don’t want to overcook your salmon and ruin it before you even get a taste! Check the salmon about every 20 minutes or until it reaches the desired internal temp. You can also adjust the actual temperature of your smoker throughout the process if you feel it’s not strong enough.
I set my smoker to the lowest setting and smoke salmon for about 1 hour or until the fish reaches an internal temperature of 110-120 °F. Set the temperature to about 180°F and cook for an additional 15 minutes. Keep checking the food’s internal temperature to make sure your cooking is making progress without going too far. As soon as you see the internal temperature reaches 145 degrees Fahrenheit, put it out of the oven because it is done. Before eating or serving, you want to wait about 15 minutes for the fish to “rest.” This helps redistribute all the juices and smoke flavor evenly throughout the meat.
Temperatures to smoke salmon
If you’re using a Traeger, the lowest setting you’ll have is around 165 degrees. You’ll need to check the temperature about every 20 minutes to ensure things are going smoothly. Raise the temperature to 180°F after an hour and wait until the salmon reaches 145°F. This is when the cooking process will be completed.
The final hour of smoking will cause the salmon fillet to cook faster than it did during the prior hour. Instead of checking the salmon every 20 minutes, keep an eye on it every about 10 minutes. It will be more work but you’ll have much better Traeger smoked salmon when you’re done. As you track the internal temps and the physical appearance of the salmon, look for white spots. If you see any of these, it means the internal fats are starting to seep out of the salmon and you’ll need to lower the temperature of the smoker. The white spots are essentially proteins on the skin and they are called albumin. It’s a clear sign the salmon is overcooking and adjustments are required.
Is smoked salmon raw?
Unless you are eating sushi and have very high-quality cuts of salmon, it’s never safe to eat it raw. Smoked salmon is not raw if the internal temperature has reached 145 degrees. Once the temperature of your salmon reaches 145 °F you can remove it from the smoker. Check the fish’s internal temperature with an instant-read thermometer to ensure it has cooked properly. This type of tool is incredibly accurate and you’ll never have to guess if your smoked salmon is done smoking or not.
How to eat smoked salmon
Probably the most famous and most consumed way of eating smoked salmon is called lox and bagel. It involves eating smoked salmon on top of a toasted bagel with some sort of cream cheese. This classic breakfast dish is delicious and can be found in nearly every deli across the United States. You’ll also get salty capers, tomatoes, and onions.
If you want to mix it up a bit, try making a smoked salmon frittata. This is a great dish for brunch or even dinner. You can even add fresh dill to give it a more herbaceous flavor.
You can even try mixing smoked salmon onto your salads or rice bowls and it will give the dish a smoky and savory flavor.
How to Smoke Salmon: Easiest Smoked Salmon Recipe
- Small bowl
- Paper towel
- Baking sheet and wire rack
- Aluminum foil
- Smoker of your choice
- 1 lb. King salmon
- 2 tbsp Himalayan salt
- 2 tbsp brown sugar
- Alderwood wood chips
- Gently dry the salmon with a paper towel and place it on a rack above a lined sheet pan.
- In a bowl, whisk together the brown sugar and kosher salt until combined. Take ¼ of the mixture and coat the skin side of your desired salmon. Tilt the salmon so that the meat side is facing up, then pour the rest of brine over it until the fish is fully coated. Next, set the salmon back onto rack and ensure that none of its body is touching the bottom of the pan. Cover the entire fish with foil.
- After you mix the desired ingredients together, place in fridge for 8 hours or overnight to marinate. This will allow the flavors to blend together.
- Use water to remove the brine, and then pat the salmon dry. Put the salmon back onto the rack without a cover.
- Put the fish back in the fridge for at least 5 hours for a pellicle to form. Before cooking, let the fish sit out at room temperature for 30 minutes. The skin should be tacky and glossy when it's ready.
- Before you start, heat the smoker to 140-150 °F. Then put the fish inside and close the lid.
- Every 20 minutes, check both the temperature of the smoker and fish.
- After cooking the fish for 1 hour at a temperature of 110-120 degrees Fahrenheit, raise the temp to 180 degrees and cook for another 15-20 minutes. Once the internal temperature of the fish reaches 145 degrees, remove it from the heat.
- Rest the fish on the counter and leave it uncovered for around 10-15 minutes.
- Serve the fish immediately or store it in an airtight container in the fridge until you're ready to eat.