Smoked salmon is a delicious and luscious treat that you can usually find either at your local deli or at the frozen seafood section in your supermarket. However, smoked salmon can be a bit pricey and you can’t really tweak the flavors of store-bought smoked salmon to your own preferences.
For those who love smoked salmon, you can save a bit of money and get high-quality smoked salmon if you learn how to smoke salmon at home. For smoking salmon, the best cut to use is the salmon fillet because you get a nice cross-section of the fish (flesh and fat), as well as some of the skin to help protect the flesh while it is being smoked. The skin will also prevent your salmon from falling apart during the smoking process.
Are There Different Ways of Smoking Salmon?
Yes, there are (two ways) of smoking salmon: cold smoke and hot smoke.
For cold smoked salmon, the fish is exposed to smoke that’s below 80⁰F. The low heat doesn’t actually cook the flesh and this process results in a raw-like texture. Cold-smoked salmon is what you would generally find in the frozen food section. The fish is sliced thinly and laid out in flat, vacuum-sealed packs. Due to the low heat, cold-smoking salmon takes around 8-12 hours.
For hot smoked salmon, the fish is exposed to smoke that’s above 120⁰F (usually around 225⁰F). The resulting texture of the fish is firmer, and is similar to baked salmon. Due to the hotter temperature, hot-smoking salmon is faster and will only take around 1-2 hours, depending on the temperature and the size of the salmon.
Brining vs. Curing
One of the most essential steps before you smoke salmon is preparing the fish by brining or curing the fillet. While most people interchangeably use brining and curing, there are some significant differences between the two processes.
Curing is a process where the fish is salted. The salt both imparts flavor and helps draw out moisture from the fish. Curing can either be a dry cure (wherein you only use salt, or mix salt with other dry ingredients such as sugar, spices, and herbs) or a wet cure (which is salt and water). Technically, a wet cure is, in fact, a brine.
Brining is the process where you submerge the fish in a solution of liquid saturated with salt. The brine imparts flavor, tenderizes the meat, and injects the liquid solution into the flesh of the meat via osmosis. If you are going to hot smoke your salmon, it is important to brine your fillet to prevent the salmon from drying out too much and becoming jerky rather than hot smoked salmon.
Whether you are using a dry or wet cure, you need to be careful: the longer you leave your fish in the curing agent, the saltier it will become. For smaller cuts, you can cure it in as little as 4 hours, but even the thickest fillets should not be cured for longer than 48 hours.
Never Forget to Air Dry!
This is an essential step that a lot of first-time smokers neglect: air-drying the salmon! Air-drying the salmon helps form the pellicle, a thin, lacquer-like layer on top of the fish that helps seal in the flavor and creates a sticky surface that traps the smoke and gives it that delicious smoky taste!
To air-dry your salmon after curing, place the fillet on a rack and put it in a cool, dry place with good air circulation. You can place a fan in front of the fillet to help ensure the air flow. Allow the fillets to air-dry for around 2-3 hours.
Now for the Fun Part: Smoking Your Fillets!
To smoke salmon properly, you want to invest in a smoker. However, you can still smoke salmon by using a kettle grill or even your regular charcoal grill. You also need a grill thermometer to help monitor the temperature of the smoke.
Next, choose the type of wood that you want to use. The best kind of wood to use is oak, hickory, or alder for that smoky, earthy taste, but you can also use apple, maple, or pecan if you want slightly sweet notes in your fish. You should avoid using pine or treated wood because these contain resins that will make your fish bitter and unappetizing.
Make sure that you prep the smoker for indirect heat smoking. Place the salmon skin-side down on a piece of foil and place into the smoker. You can now smoke your salmon depending on whether you want to produce cold or hot smoked salmon.
For beginners, hot smoked salmon is quicker and easier to make. Smoke the salmon until it reaches an internal temperature of 140⁰F. You can use a meat thermometer to check for doneness. Allow the salmon to rest for 5 minutes before serving.
What if I Don’t Have a Smoker?
If you don’t have a smoker or grill, you can still make smoked salmon by home. During the curing process, add 1-2 T. of liquid smoke to get that smoky flavor, then remove the fillet from the curing liquid, pat dry, and bake, uncovered, at 350⁰F for around 30 minutes. Allow to cool to room temperature, cover, and refrigerate for at least 8 hours before serving.
How do I Add more Flavors?
When it comes to flavoring smoked salmon, you can experiment to see what herbs, spices, or ingredients you want to add to tweak the taste! For the brine, you can add some garlic, lemon zest, and brown sugar. Before placing the salmon on the smoker, create a quick rub from mixing powdered garlic, freshly cracked black pepper, dill, and olive oil.
How to Serve Smoked Salmon?
There are so many ways to serve smoked salmon, but our favorite is the simplest one: on a bagel with a schmear of cream cheese. You can also add some tomato slices, capers, and a squeeze of lemon on top.
Now that you know how to smoke salmon at home, you’re probably going to buy a whole fish just to be able to make it regularly! Homemade smoked salmon is delicious, cheaper, and you can adjust the flavors to your particular taste.
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