My First Hot Smoked Salmon
This is a sponsored post written by me on behalf of Char-Broil. All opinions are 100% mine.
Ever since I read and reviewed Aaron Franklin’s manifesto on smoked foods, I’ve wanted to dive into the hugely in-depth (and sometimes intimidating) world of smoking. So, when Char-Broil offered to send me their Deluxe Digital Electric Smoker, I jumped at the chance.
The smoker came basically assembled and I’ll get into some of the cooler features that it has in this post. The instructions were easy to follow and after I seasoned it and pre-heated it, it was ready to use! I actually tried a small brisket on it first just to get a feel for it (turned out great), but I wanted to try something a bit more delicate also.
Enter smoked salmon! I’ve never smoked fish before so I was excited to try it. After doing some research (I ended up roughly following Hank Shaw’s method), I bought some really nice fresh salmon and dove in!
1) Mix together water, salt, sugar, syrup, and cayenne pepper. Pour over salmon in a shallow container. Brine should cover the salmon. Cover the salmon and refrigerate in the brine for 24-36 hours. For thicker filets of salmon, you definitely want to shoot for 36 hours. I also recommend flipping the salmon halfway through just to make sure it is brining evenly.
2) Drain brine from salmon. Place salmon in a cool dry clean place and let it dry for 2 hours. This will form a light, sticky surface on the salmon. You can smoke the salmon at this point or refrigerate it for later smoking (you should smoke it within a day or two of brining and drying it.)
3) Prepare smoker according to instructions. Be sure to season the smoker or preheat it with soaked wood chips in place and water pan filled.
4) Smoke salmon at the lowest temperature you can manage (hopefully around 120 degrees F.) for 2 hours. Check the temperature of the salmon frequently to make sure it isn’t cooking too quickly. Then you can slowly raise the smoker temperature to get to the desired temperature.
5) The salmon should take 3-4 hours to get to the desired temperature of 140 degrees F. If it cooks too fast, you’ll see white liquid being pressed out the top of the salmon. If there’s a lot (some is okay), it means the salmon is cooking too fast. You can always turn off the smoker completely to slow the cooking process. Keep the door closed to keep the smoke circulating.
6) When salmon is done smoking, remove it from the smoker and serve it immediately by flaking it off or let it cool.
For storage, cool completely, wrap in plastic and store in the fridge for up to 10 days. You can also vacuum seal the fish and freeze it for up to 6 months. I recommend eating it immediately though!
Hot Smoked Salmon
Brining the Fish
You don’t have to brine salmon before smoking it. You can just toss it in the smoker, I guess, but brining adds a lot of good things to the fish. It pulls out some of the liquid and gives the fish good color and flavor. It gives the salmon more flavor and the sweet/salty components of the brine go really nicely with the smoked flavor.
The downside, of course, is that it basically adds two days onto your cooking time. Plan ahead!
You could use any salmon for this, but if you’re taking the time to smoke salmon, buy really good fresh salmon. I bought a two pound filet of really good salmon and hoped that I would be able to do it justice.
For my version, I decided to leave the pin bones in the filet to keep the fish more intact. Since I knew I would be flaking it apart for serving, the pin bones wouldn’t be a huge deal to pick out later.
Mix up the brine until the salt and sugar is dissolved and pour it over the fish.
I let mine sit for about 36 hours in the fridge.
Drying the Salmon
After you’ve brined the salmon, it needs to dry out. What you don’t want to do is pat it dry with paper towels. On the surface of the salmon, a thin layer of syrupy liquid will form if you let the salmon dry slowly in a cool, dry place. This time of year, I just dried mine in my kitchen next to an open window on a cool night.
After a few hours, the salmon will be dry and a bit sticky to the touch. At this point you an smoke the salmon or store it in the fridge and smoke it later (within a day or two). The salmon is basically cured at this point thanks to the salt and sugar in the brine so it will preserve okay for a few days.
Hot Smoking the Salmon
There are two types of smoke when it comes to salmon. Cold smoking salmon is tough to do unless you have a really specific setup. Hot smoking salmon is a little easier although the word “hot” is tough. You don’t want to HOT smoke salmon. Intense heat will destroy it. So even when you are applying heat, it’s a gentle heat.
When I was ready to smoke, I added some soaked wood chips (sweeter woods like cherry or apple go well with salmon) to my smoker box.
Then I just put the salmon on the top level of the smoker and inserted the probe thermometer. I set the temperature in the smoker to a pretty cold 120 degrees F.
Yea… that’s right. I said probe thermometer. One of the things I love about this smoker is there is a built in probe thermometer. It hooks into the digital settings on the smoker so you can set a finished temperature that you want and the smoker will automatically shut off (and switch to warm) when the probe thermometer hits that temperature.
There’s also a digital remote so you can monitor the smoker temperature and probe temperature anywhere that the signal reaches (mine reached into my house without a problem).
Very cool features and made smoking really easy!
Controlling Temperature for Salmon
The absolute hardest thing about smoking salmon is controlling the temperature. Ideally, you want the salmon to slow smoke and take 3-4 hours to get to the desired temperature of 140 degrees F.
This can be tricky even with the digital controls on a smoker like this. One indicator that your fish is cooking too fast is if it gets a lot of white liquid accumulating on top. That means that the proteins in the salmon are contracting quickly and pushing out liquid.
I was able to get pretty good temperature control with this model of smoker though. After about 90 minutes and again around 3 hours, I actually switched off the smoker for 10 minutes to cool it down a little bit. It felt like it was getting a bit too hot. But I don’t hold this against the device really. It’s very tough to keep a low temperature like that for an extended period of time.
I was also playing it safe by taking more time. Slower is definitely better here.
My finished salmon picked up some light smoke color but had really amazing flavor.
It was perfectly salty and sweet and had nice hints of smoke. It would be great on crackers as an appetizer or on a bagel with some cream cheese obviously!
For my first attempt at smoking fish, I was really happy with how this turned out.
If you’re in the market for an electric smoker, definitely check out the Char-Broil Digital Electric Smoker. It has some really fantastic features and makes smoking good food very accessible.