My favorite fish to prepare in an electric smoker is salmon. There are several reasons why salmon is a great fish for smoking.
Salmon is a cold-water fish that is commonly sourced from the waters of the northern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. While this fish is considered a saltwater species, salmon spawns in freshwater rivers and streams. The two distinct habitats give the fish a unique flavor and texture that is similar to both freshwater and saltwater fish.
The flesh of wild salmon is colorful, fatty, and firm. This fish can stand up to the low and slow method of cooking in the smoker. And, it takes on the flavor of the smoke extremely well.
Wild-caught salmon is nutrient-dense. A 4-ounce serving of salmon is approximately 210 calories. Those calories are made up of 22.5 grams of protein, 12.3 grams of mostly unsaturated fat, and 0 carbohydrates. Salmon is a good source of vitamin B-12, vitamin B3, and vitamin D. It also provides selenium, phosphorous, and heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids. You really can’t go wrong with this nutritious protein. Follow this smoked salmon recipe!
There are several varieties of salmon to choose from. My best recommendation is to choose what is in season from your fish market. The firmness of the flesh differs between varieties.
Fresh salmon is preferable but may not always be available. Most salmon has been previously flashed frozen right on the boat as soon as it has been caught. That isn’t a bad thing, as it preserves the fish. But, don’t be tempted to buy previously frozen and defrosted salmon and refreeze it. The texture will be off. Use it right away.
If you can only find farmed salmon, don’t pass it up if it is labeled organic and sustainably raised. To be honest, some farmed salmon is not as nutrient-dense as wild-caught and has been raised on inferior feed pellets that have grains and other meals that salmon would never eat in the wild. Some farms are so crowded that the salmon do not get enough exercise. Don’t be shy about asking about the environment the salmon was raised in.
King or Chinook salmon would be my favorite with its softer and sweeter flesh. It has the highest fat content of the species. King salmon can be found fresh and not previously frozen when in season.
Coho and Sockeye are known for their deep red flesh. These species are firmer and dryer and they actually hold up well when cooked in a smoker.
Pink or Pacific salmon is the most common on the west coast. This fish has lighter colored flesh and lower fat content. Pink salmon is what you might find in cans on the market shelves.
Atlantic salmon is available both wild and farmed. The flesh is orange, oily, and quite soft when eaten raw. It will firm up when cooked in the smoker. This is one of the most commonly available salmon.
When purchasing salmon for smoking, it is recommended that you have the fishmonger remove the skin and bones. If you are fortunate enough to catch your own salmon, you can filet and debone it and then remove the scales. If freshly caught, smoke it as soon as you get it home for the freshest and tastiest results.
Best Time to Smoke Salmon
I love smoking fresh salmon right off the boat when it is in season. This is generally from late April to mid-October with the summer months being the height of the season.
You can smoke salmon in spring, summer, or fall. I like to fire up my electric smoker as soon as the weather starts to warm up in the spring. I also like to smoke fish in the fall so I can put some away for the winter. Smoked salmon can be vacuum sealed and stored for a couple of weeks in the refrigerator and a few months in the freezer.
Sometimes it is a little cool outside when I get the urge to smoke some proteins. You don’t really have to nurse the food, but you do have to replenish the liquid and wood chips periodically. Consider setting up a fire pit or patio heater so you can hang out by the smoker if it is really cold outside. Don’t let the weather discourage you from smoking all year round.
Now let’s get to the method for smoking salmon.
Brine the Salmon
The first step in smoking salmon is to brine it. Brining cures and flavors the flesh. There are 2 methods for brining.
A dry brine is a mixture of dried herbs and spices that draws a lot of moisture out of the fish while adding specific flavors. A wet brine adds a little more moisture. I prefer a combination of both methods. I use fresh herbs and a small amount of alcohol to flavor and moisten the fish. Here are the ingredients for the brine for a 1-1/2 pound whole salmon filet:
- 1-1/2 ounces vodka or tequila (optional)
- 1/4 cup coarse salt
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons cracked black pepper
- 1 bunch of fresh dill, chopped
- 1/2 lemon, thinly sliced
Place the salmon filet in a shallow glass or ceramic baking dish. Pour the alcohol over the filet, if using. If you don’t have a large enough baking dish, you can slice the filet in half and place one filet on top of the other with the brine mixture in-between.
Mix the salt, brown sugar, and pepper, together. Gently rub this all over the salmon. Place the lemon slices on. Cover the salmon with the dill and gently press it down into the flesh.
Cover the salmon tightly with plastic wrap, tucking the wrap down into the dish. Place another layer of wrap over the dish to seal it tightly. Place the seasoned salmon in the refrigerator overnight or for 8 to 12 hours.
Steps to Smoking Salmon
Salmon can be either cold smoked or hot smoked. Cold smoking is achieved at a smoker’s temperature of less than 100°F and takes several hours. Hot smoking is achieved at a smoker temperature of between 225 and 275°F. What I found works well for salmon is to smoke somewhere between the two.
1. Remove the dish of brined Salmon from the refrigerator. Discard the lemon and dill. Rinse the filet under cold water just to remove the salt, sugar, and any lingering dill. Pat the fish dry with paper towels. Set the filet back inside the refrigerator uncovered for approximately 2 hours to allow it to completely dry and to form a pellicle layer. The pellicle layer is a coating of proteins that form on the surface that allows the smoke to stick to the surface of meat and fish.
2. Take one of the racks from the smoker and brush or spray it with olive oil. Place the dry fish on the grate, either whole or cut into 4-ounce portions. Set this aside.
3. Fill the side tray of the smoker with wood chips. Applewood is nice for this recipe. Fill the water bowl halfway with water and add some lemon slices. Open the top vents and preheat the smoker to approximately 160˚F.
You will need to replenish the wood chips and liquid every 45 to 60 minutes. If you stop seeing smoke through the vent, it is time to replenish.
4. Place the rack of fish inside the smoker and cook for 3 to 6 hours. At 2-1/2 hours, check the fish with a digital meat thermometer. And do this again each hour after that. You are looking for an internal temperature of between 135 and 145°F.
Some people like the moist and soft texture achieved at 2-1/2 hours while others prefer the firm and dry texture that you will accomplish in 3 to 6 hours.
5. Serve the hot smoked salmon in individual 4-ounce portions or slice thinly and serve on toasted crostini with capers and chopped red onions.
More Ways to Enjoy Smoked Salmon
Salmon that has been brined and smoked will keep in your refrigerator for a few days and can be used in a variety of dishes. Try some of these ideas and recipes:
- Add smoked salmon to scrambled eggs for a protein-packed breakfast
- Pile smoked salmon high on an everything bagel with cream cheese
- Make fish cakes and serve with a side of aioli with herbs
- Make a smoked salmon dip to serve with veggies
- Top twice-baked potatoes with sour cream and smoked salmon
- Make a smoked salmon niçoise salad with potatoes, green beans, and hard-boiled eggs over a bed of greens
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
1. Do you wrap salmon in foil when smoking?
There is no need to wrap salmon in foil when smoking it. The idea is to allow the smoke to penetrate the flesh to enhance the flavor. If you don’t want the smoke to flavor the fish, you can wrap it in foil and just cook like you might in an oven or over a charcoal grill.
2. What temperature do you smoke fish in an electric smoker?
Salmon can be either cold smoked or hot smoked. Cold smoking is achieved at a smoker’s temperature of less than 100°F and takes several hours. Hot smoking is achieved at a smoker temperature of between 225 and 275°F. This takes less time. I found that 160°F for 3 to 6 hours works well.
3. Can you smoke salmon at 225?
You absolutely can smoke salmon at 225°F. If this is the temperature you choose to smoke your fish at, it should only take between 1-1/2 and 2-1/2 hours. Do keep an eye on it to make sure it gets to an internal temperature of between135 and 145°F.
4. How long does it take to smoke salmon at 200 degrees?
Smoking salmon at 200°F should take between 2-1/2 to 4-1/2 hours. As previously mentioned, check the internal temperature to make sure the fish is fully cooked through.
Note: Each electric smoke is a little different. Some smokers run hotter than others. While most temperature gauges are reliable, some can be calibrated slightly differently than others. It is important to keep an eye on your fish and use your tools and intuition as to when it feels cooked through.
If you love smoked salmon, you will really love doing it yourself. There is nothing more satisfying than hot smoked salmon fresh out of the smoker. It really trumps the packaged varieties you can find at the market. And, it is much easier on your wallet.
There is nothing to fear in smoking this beautiful fish. For the best results, take the time to prep the filet and always keep an eye on both the fish and the smoker. This isn’t as time-consuming as it sounds because your refrigerator and smoker are doing much of the work for you. Grab a cold one and relax.