If you love nothing more than a bagel smeared with cream cheese and layered with silky orange salmon strips, then you should give this easy cold smoked salmon recipe a go.
Admittedly, you need a bit of dedication when cold-smoking salmon, as it takes a bit of time. But on the flip side, the effort is minimal. Once you try this delicious salmon with its beautiful smoky flavor, you’ll realize the time was well spent.
What is cold smoked salmon?
Cold smoked salmon is a type of cured salmon that has been salt cured and smoked at a low temperature, below 90°F. Some Northern Hemisphere cultures have been cold-smoking their salmon for centuries.
Usually, this process takes anywhere from 12 to 24 hours, depending on the thickness of the salmon and how much smoke flavor you want to infuse into the meat.
Traditionally, cold smoking involves a smokehouse where the salmon hangs away from the heat source and is smoked. The smoke helps with flavor and preservation. Cold smoking does not actually cook the fish.
What’s the difference between hot and cold smoked salmon?
There are a few key differences between cold and hot smoked salmon. When cold-smoking salmon, we salt cure and smoke preserve. When hot-smoking salmon, we use a wet brine before cooking it in a smoker.
As mentioned, cold smoking can take up to 24 hours. Meanwhile, hot smoking takes about 2 to 3 hours, as we smoke it at a high temperature.
This results in a different texture. Cold smoked salmon is thinly sliced with a firm yet silky texture. On the other hand, hot smoked salmon is flaky, and you can eat it with a fork.
If you ask us which is the best smoked salmon recipe, it depends entirely on how you plan to serve it. Cold smoked is delicious on bagels with cream cheese, while hot smoked is perfect for dinner with a side salad.
Is it safe to eat cold smoked salmon?
The curing and smoking of the salmon help with preservation, so it is perfectly safe to eat. However, those with weakened immune systems or pregnant women may want to avoid the dish. Instead, try hot smoked salmon.
Cold smoked salmon recipe
Ingredients you’ll need
- Salmon filet – a piece at least 3-4 lbs that’s fresh and of high quality for best results. King salmon has always been my top choice, followed by Atlantic salmon.
- Kosher salt – you want to use a course salt; don’t use table salt.
- Brown sugar – I’m using light brown sugar, but you can use dark in a pinch.
Equipment you’ll need
- Baking dish – big enough for the whole filet to lie flat.
- Plastic wrap
- Wire rack – to place the filet on to dry out after the brine.
- Baking sheet – to place under the wire rack.
- Grill – one with air vents and enough space to smoke a salmon filet.
- Smoke tube – I used a pellet smoker tube, but you can check out some other options here.
- Smoking wood pellets – apple and cherry wood are always good options for smoking fish as they are mild and offer a slightly sweet flavor. Only use wood that is suitable for smoking food and avoid any that might contain toxins or harmful chemicals.
How to make cold smoked salmon
1. Curing the salmon
Before smoking the salmon, you need to cure it. This acts as both a seasoning and a way to prevent bacteria growth. I keep it simple with a 50-50 mix of Kosher salt and brown sugar. Mix the two to combine.
If you want to add some extra flavoring to the salt cure, here are some options:
- 2 tablespoons of lightly crushed coriander seeds and 2 tablespoons of chopped fresh dill.
- 1/4 cup of lemon juice with 1 tablespoon of lemon zest.
Put some plastic wrap into a baking dish large enough to fit your raw salmon. Leave enough plastic wrap on each side and the ends to wrap the filet.
Spread half the salt and brown sugar mix on the bottom, then place your salmon skin side down on top.
Place the remaining salt mixture on top and wrap the salmon tightly with the overhanging plastic wrap.
Place the salmon in your fridge for 24 hours to cure.
The sugar and salt mixture will draw the moisture out of the salmon, and you will see juices leaking out. That is completely normal.
Once you remove the salmon from the fridge, gently rinse the salt-cured fish completely under cold water to remove the excess salt. Then, place it onto a wire cooking rack with a rimmed baking sheet underneath.
You will also notice that the salmon has firmed up and probably slightly changed color.
Pat dry with paper towels and get it as dry as possible. Then, place the salmon back in your fridge for about 4 hours. You can also leave it in there overnight, up to 8 hours. This will help the salmon get a pellicle or tacky surface for the smoke to adhere to.
2. The grill
To cold-smoke salmon, you can use any grill that you want. Since the grill will not be fired up, just used as a cold smoker, it really doesn’t matter which one you choose. You just need one with air vents and enough space to smoke a salmon filet.
3. Cold smoke generator
The choice of wood used to cold-smoke salmon directly impacts the flavor. In the Pacific Northwest, Alder pellets are traditional, imparting a mild, sweet, and slightly nutty taste.
Woods like hickory and oak should be used in moderation but add depth and complexity to the overall flavor of the fish.
Experiment with different blends to make your own style based on your favorite flavor profile.
Light one end of the smoke tube until it flames up, and shut the lid. Once the oxygen is cut off, the smoke tube will start smoking and provide hours of smoke.
If you need more instruction on getting your smoke tube up and running, check out our article on How to use a Smoke Tube.
After the smoke tube ignited and started to produce good smoke, I placed my salmon next to it and let the smoke roll!
Depending on the length of the smoke tube and how long you need to smoke, you may need to reload the smoking chamber a few times. I bought some longer tubes online, and 1 tube gave me about 4 hours of smoke time.
I used my Camp Chef Woodwind Pro because it has a built-in fan for cold smoking. That’s the only function of the grill that I ended up using just to keep the smoke flowing through properly. It will still work fine if you don’t have access to a grill with that option.
I smoked my salmon for about 12 hours as it wasn’t a very thick fillet. But if you have a thicker salmon fillet, it might need up to 24 hours. You’ll know it’s done when the finished product is a translucent pinkish-orange color that’s firm to the touch.
4. Slicing the salmon
Place your salmon fillet in the fridge and let it cool completely before slicing. Cut your salmon into paper-thin slices with a sharp knife. It should have a smoky and salty flavor with a velvety, firm texture. The salmon should last for about 3-5 days refrigerated.
How to serve cold smoked salmon
You can eat the salmon just as is, or here are some other serving suggestions:
- Serve it on top of bagels with cream cheese (remember to add a few capers and red onions as well).
- Serve it with scrambled eggs topped with chives for breakfast.
- Enjoy it as a garnish for salads.
- For lunch, make a smoked salmon sushi roll.
- Have it as a snack on rice crackers.
- Top a pizza with it.
- Put it in a pasta dish.
Other ways with salmon
- Hot Smoked Salmon
- Smoked Salmon Burnt Ends with Honey Glaze
- How to Grill Cedar Plank Salmon
- Horseradish Sauce is a great condiment with salmon
Cold Smoked Salmon
- 4 lb salmon filet
- 1 cup Kosher salt
- 1 cup brown sugar
- In a bowl combine the salt and sugar together.
- Line the bottom of a baking dish with plastic wrap, leaving enough overhang on each side and the ends to be able to wrap the salmon filet up.
- Sprinkle half the salt/sugar mixture onto the plastic wrap and place your salmon filet on top. Sprinkle the remaining salt/sugar mixture over the entire top of the salmon filet.
- Wrap the salmon filet tightly in the plastic wrap.
- Refrigerate the salmon for 24 hours then rinse well with cold water to remove all the salt/sugar mixture.
- Pat the salmon dry with paper towels and place it on a wire rack with a tray underneath. Place in the refrigerator for another 4 hours to form a pellicle.
- Fill up a smoke tube with wood smoking pellets and ignite one end.
- Once the smoke tube is properly ignited and producing smoke, place your salmon onto your grill.
- Smoke the salmon for 12-18 hours depending on the thickness of the filet. When done, the salmon should be a translucent pinkish-orange color and firm to the touch.
- Serve salmon cold and cut thin slices.
- The salmon should last for about 5 days refrigerated.