Hot smoking is such a versatile way to prepare salmon.
You will not only love the rich omega 3 flesh of a hot smoked salmon, but also the delicate way it flakes and how it can complement so many dishes from pasta to salads.
If stored correctly it is also a great way of preserving salmon for longer shelf life. Keep reading to find out how you can create your own hot smoked salmon at home.
Hot smoking versus cold smoking
Essentially the heat at which you smoke the salmon is the main difference.
Cold smoking is done using temperatures below 90°F and hot smoking is created by smoking at temps above 120°F.
Once cooked, the textures are also completely different. Cold smoked salmon has a more silky smooth feel to it, as opposed to hot smoked salmon that is flakier.
As the name suggests, cold smoked salmon is best consumed cold. Use it on grazing platters to be eaten with crackers or on a bagel. Hot smoked salmon is perfect for reheating and using in hot dishes like pasta or quiches but equally good on a bagel.
What type of salmon works best
So what are our options? These days we have so many choices readily available to us. Wild, farmed, fresh, frozen, whole or portioned salmon fillets and all at our reach any day of the week.
Wild or farmed?
If you are looking for the healthiest type of salmon to use, there are some differences between wild and farmed. While they both contain good omega 3 fatty acids, farmed salmon wins out as it does tend to have a slightly higher content than wild salmon, but it also has around 20% more saturated fat according to USDA data.
This is the fat you don’t want to consume too much of. So while either salmon is good for you, wild salmon might be a better choice if you are watching your saturated fat intake.
Fresh or frozen?
The biggest issue you have here is a lot of places advertise fresh fish, meaning it isn’t frozen now. The fact is it could have and most likely was frozen when they received it and it has been sitting in a counter for hours before being sold.
Now I’m not suggesting all fish markets do this, but a lot do as the fish are frozen as they are caught on the boats.
The best thing you can do to guarantee you’re getting the freshest fish is to ask the fishmonger to show you the actual salmon. Smell it, it should smell like the ocean but not overly fishy. The gills should be dark red or pink and the eyes should be clear and moist, not cloudy.
Full side of salmon or portioned fillets?
With this recipe, you will get great results using either.
I do tend to use larger pieces when I hot smoke salmon. I find not only does it make it easier to handle as one whole piece, but once smoked I tend to cut mine down to the portion sizes I like, which is roughly 7oz and then I vacuum seal them and store in the fridge.
By smoking the salmon as one large piece, you only need to use one temp probe to monitor the internal temperature.
Salmon definitely doesn’t fare well if you overcook it, so if you were to smoke half a dozen smaller 7oz pieces of salmon, you should have an internal temp probe in each piece to monitor it throughout the smoking process.
The last but not least reason you should look at smoking larger pieces is the brine time differs. Smaller pieces need around 4 to 6 hours, yet a whole side, even if cut into two large pieces can be brined overnight. So splitting up the cook over two days and not being forced into a long cook all in one day.
Items that will help you cook these are:
- A smoker (I used a 22” Weber Smokey Mountain)
- A container
- Sharp chef’s knife
- An internal meat thermometer (I used a Thermoworks Smoke X4)
How to hot smoke salmon
1.Brining the salmon
There are two ways you can brine salmon, either a dry brine or a wet brine.
- Dry brining is when you use a mixture of salt and sugar and cover the fish for a certain amount of time to cure it.
- Wet brining is adding dry brine ingredients into a water solution and submerging the fish in this for a certain length of time.
There are two schools of thought on both of these methods, some prefer one over the other. I personally prefer the texture that a wet brine creates when smoking salmon. The end result being flakey and delicate.
You should always select herbs and spices to suit what you are cooking. No matter if it is a rub, sauce, glaze or brine.
Salmon has a lovely delicate flavor and we don’t need to overpower it with strong flavors. A little goes a long way.
Brines always start with salt and water and usually have a sugar compound of some sort in there to balance out the saltiness. Then it is up to your own personal preference really.
I like to keep my brine simple. I feel throwing in large quantities of different flavors just creates a bit of mayhem in the end. I like each flavor to stand on its own and compliment what other herbs and spices I am using.
To really compliment the salmon a mixture of maple for sweetness, the bite of some black peppercorns, lemon zest for some tang and fresh dill all help produce a really flavorful end product.
2. Prepping the salmon
When buying your salmon, you will find most places will remove the pin bones that are located about the middle of the side of the fish and run along the length. In saying this, you should always double-check your fish for pin bones yourself, it is easy, just run your fingers gently down the length of the fish and you will feel the bones.
The pin bones are easy to remove, either with a pair of tweezers or some needle nose pliers.
I always ask for skin left on as well. I find this just protects the flesh a little while smoking and also removing from the cooking grates. The flesh pulls away from the skin quite easily once smoked, and if any skin sticks to the cooking grate, you do not lose any flesh.
Once the salmon has been soaking in the brine overnight, you will need to do a couple of things to prepare it before it is ready for the smoker. Firstly you need to rinse it under some cool running water. Be careful though, salmon is a delicate fish.
Once you have rinsed the fish, place it skin side down on some racks and pat the flesh dry with some paper towel.
Now place the salmon fillets back into a fridge for 4 hours. This is going to help form what is called a pellicle on the fish. It is a tacky film that starts to build up within 20 minutes, but to get the full effect you need to leave it for 4 hours.
It is effectively a protein build up on the outer layer of the fish. You will see a distinct color change and the texture will take on a matte finish with a tacky feel to it. This is going to help the smoke stick to the fish a lot better than if you were to just pat the fillets dry and put them straight into the smoker.
You can build a pellicle in front of a fan on a bench top if the weather is cool enough and also in the fridge as long as there is plenty of room for airflow and you have the fish raised up on a cooling rack. I prefer to always put mine in the fridge as I do not like the thought of any food sitting on a counter for four hours before I cook it.
Setting up your smoker
You will need an indirect heat source, I chose to use a 22”
They are easy to light and they are stable once the temp is dialed in.
Start by filling the charcoal ring with unlit charcoal, add one fire lighter in the center and light it up. Add a couple of chunks of smoking wood, I chose to use one piece of nectarine and one of cherry.
Assemble the smoker and add an ambient temp probe to the cooking grill now and also feed through a couple of internal temp probes for the fish now, it just makes it easier than trying to remove the grill later to do this.
Put the lid on and set the ambient temp probe for 225°F and as the temperature nears 175°F, start closing down the bowl vents to just less than a matchstick width open.
Give the smoker about 30 minutes to settle and for the smoke to settle from white to a thin bluish color.
5. Smoking the salmon
Once your smoker has reached 225°F and you’ve got your salmon in, it will take around 2 to 3 hours for a big piece of salmon, 4 to 5lb, to get to temperature.
Once ready to come off the smoker, you will see some white milky type substance that is called Albumin. It’s a naturally occurring protein that is in salmon. It is in a liquid form but when heated it coagulates and sits on top of the skin. It is totally harmless and perfectly fine to eat.
You do not need to let it rest before you start to eat it. In fact, I recommend you try it while it is warm as it will soon become one of life’s little luxuries you will do over and over again.
You will however need to let it cool down before storing. The best way I have found is to portion it out to around 7oz pieces and then vacuum seal them. The vacuum-sealed portions will last like this in a fridge for 2 to 3 months.
Any unsealed portions that you may wish to have ready to eat will keep in a plastic container in the fridge for 4 to 5 days.
Hot Smoked Salmon
- 4.5 lbs salmon (cut in half)
- 1 cup apple juice
- ¼ cup maple syrup
- ¼ cup kosher salt
- ¼ cup brown sugar
- 1 tsp whole black peppercorns
- Zest of 1 lemon
- A few sprigs of fresh dill
- 1 quart cold water
- Check the salmon for pin bones, remove any if found. Cut the salmon in half.
- Add all of the brine ingredients, except for the water, into a saucepan and heat stirring constantly until boiling.
- Once boiled, remove from the heat and let cool completely. The sugars and salt should have dissolved.
- Once cooled, add to a container along with the water.
- Place the salmon, flesh side down, into the brine and put in the fridge overnight for 12 hours.
- In the morning, remove the fillets from the brine and carefully rinse under cool running water.
- Place skin side down on a cooling rack and pat the skin dry.
- Place back in the fridge uncovered for 4 hours to allow a pellicle to form.
- Get the smoker ready to smoke at 225°F.
- Remove the salmon from the fridge and place into the smoker, adding an internal temp probe to each piece of salmon and set them to 145°F.
- Once the salmon reaches 145°F internal temp, remove from the heat and you can enjoy it straight away.
- On a fresh bread roll or bagel with cream cheese and capers.
- In a pasta.
- In a salad.
- On its own.