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How to Smoke Salmon

How to Smoke Salmon

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest has given me a lot of experience with the outdoors. My Father was always hunting or fishing whatever was in season with my grandfathers. So for me, that meant a lot of camping trips to unique places and then the processing and the preserving of the catch.

We used several simple methods like freezing and canning but my absolute favorite will always be smoking. This is not a long time preservation method but it's by far the tastiest!

My father's smoked salmon recipe is incredibly simple in fact the only things you might not have on hand would be the smoker and some wood chips. I like to use Mesquite or Alder most of the time but there are many choices in wood chips.

Dad gave me his Little Chief Electric Smoker years ago when he upgraded to something else and I used it like crazy until I needed something bigger for some larger batches of venison jerky that I was smoking at the time. My husband and I were very lucky and ran across a Big Chief electric smoker second hand for nearly nothing so we decided to upgrade and gave the Little Chief to our daughter and son-in-law so they could carry on the tradition.

The Big Chief still works great but then we found a new glass door smoker on clearance at Cabelas and couldn't pass it up. That's the one we're using for this lovely batch of smoked Chinook Salmon from the Columbia River.

We get our salmon from a local Indian tribe with a friend who purchases and processes a lot of salmon. I really should see if I can get him to let me write about him and take pictures of his processing set up. It's really well done!

This batch of smoked salmon was made from 3 fillets that were cut into large pieces from one and one half approximately 6 lb. Columbia River Chinook Salmon. It had been frozen for a few weeks and thawed in the refrigerator overnight.

Brining mixture for smoked salmon

I mixed up the brining ingredients: Brown Sugar, Salt & Pepper. We like pepper but it's not essential.

Brining mixture for smoked salmon

Chinook Salmon Pieces

Next I applied the brining mixture to the large pieces of cut up salmon and turned it over several times taking care not to damage the delicate flesh until the fish was evenly coated. Then I put the lid on the container and put it in the refrigerator to do it's thing.

Having skin on the fish makes it a lot easier to handle without damaging it and it helps keep the fish from absorbing too much salt or losing too much moisture in the overnight brine.

After an hour or so I turned the fish to mix the brine more evenly and distribute it throughout the fish.The liquids in the salmon are leached out by the sugar and salt to create a slightly syrupy brine, no need to add liquids. You could do this in a large freezer bag too if you like and turn it over periodically. I leave the salmon in the brine overnight and start the smoking process in the morning.

And we're ready for smoking! The pieces of salmon have firmed up considerably overnight and shrank just a bit from the brining process losing much of it's moisture into the brine itself. Many people including Dad I think, like to rinse the brine off of the salmon but I don't. I let it drain off of the fish and back into the bowl until it stops dripping and then I set it on the grill in the smoker. The salt content of the brine is pretty low so it never comes out too salty for us and we like the light sweetness of the brown sugar that almost gets lost if it's rinsed. Of course to rinse or not is completely up to the chef right?

Into the smoker it goes on the lowest setting for as long as it takes. In my new Cajun Injector electric smoker the lowest setting is 200 degrees and with this smaller batch on a warm day it only took 2.5 hours. When using my Little Chief smoker I often put the storage box back on the smoker placing it over the top for extra insulation if it was a cool day. Big and Little Chief smokers don't regulate heat the way a glass door electric smoker does but they will do a great job of smoking at a lower temperature. It will take more time so you'll have to take the ambient air temperature into consideration if you don't have a temperature regulating smoker. The thickness of the fish will also play into how long it will take.

The salmon is done when it will break into a flake like this and peel easily off of the skin.

If your salmon is not skin on it will absorb more of the brine and you may want to rinse it and pat it dry before smoking it.

If you have skin on salmon and you have dogs that get some people food sometimes, they will love you even more than they do now if you feed it to them. It's great for their skin and coat and our dog's think it's the very best thing on earth!

I should wrap up this post now with a very short story that my husband likes to tell about my Dad and his smoked salmon.

While my husband and I were dating in high school he would bring me home from a date or whatever we were up to and often my dad would be smoking salmon on the porch near the back door. After saying goodbye he would always leave out the back door and snitch a piece of salmon out of the smoker even readjusting the fish so it wouldn't look like anything was missing! It was his favorite thing about bringing me home; driving away with a bit of that salmon. So funny...I'm sure Dad would have given him some!




How to Smoke Salmon


3 large salmon filets ( 1 and 1/2 fish) cut into large pieces preferably with the skin on

1/2 Cup Brown Sugar (dark or light)

1/4 Cup Salt (whatever you like to use) I use morton table salt or fine sea salt

3 tablespoons or as much black pepper as you like

I have played around occasionally with different seasonings but most of the time this is our favorite, just black pepper. My second seasoning of choice is always powdered ginger.


In a small bowl mix the sugar, salt and pepper together to make the brining mixture.

In a large container with a lid, gently turn and coat the salmon pieces with the brining mixture and then cover and store in refrigerator.

After an hour or so, carefully turn the fish to redistribute the liquids that have leached from the salmon and evenly coat the fish with the brine that has developed. Cover it again and let it brine in the refrigerator overnight.

In the morning, remove the salmon from the brine by holding each piece over the container until it stops dripping then place the fish directly on the grill in the smoker. Add some wood chips and smoke according to your smokers directions until the salmon will flake.

Looking for more smoked fish recipes?

My brother makes this killer smoked tuna that he cans and sends to me sometimes. Check out my recipe for Smoked Tuna Masago Sushi Roll.

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