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Salmon and Smoke: how to’s and must tries

Salmon and Smoke

Salmon and smoke make a perfect match made in heaven.

It encapsulates overall what makes barbecuing great, in a single process. From fishing your own salmon to smoking it in various ways, smoked salmon is a milestone in one’s journey of barbecuing that most people from up north partake in. 

There are 2 distinct ways for smoking salmon: hot or cold smoke.

Both treatments will yield different results, but a deep and rich smoke profile is what needs to stay consistent during both processes.

Whichever way you choose to smoke your salmon, you will need a common list of equipment:

  • A smoker
  • Wood
  • Something salty and something sweet

Prepping the salmon:

Often perceived as the most common way to smoke salmon in America, hot-smoked salmon is fairly easy to do and requires very little effort to get good results. Cold-smoked salmon takes more time and effort, leading for a more delicate bite.

Prepping your salmon for either hot or cold smoked salmon is relatively the same.

As with anything else, the better the quality, the better the result. If you are not fishing your own salmon, look for Coho, King Salmon, Kokanee or Sockeye salmon for optimal results. The fatter the fish, the deeper the taste, so quality is never something you should sacrifice. 

The first thing you need to do is prepare a good brine. Brining your fish beforehand will add moisture but will also help preserve the soft texture of your salmon meat as it slowly cooks.

A good fish brine calls for a ⅓ salt, ⅔ sugar ratio per quarter of water. If of interest, you can add aromas and flavors on top of this to add dimension in your salmon. 

Cutting down your salmon in smaller pieces will allow for better penetration and create a bigger surface area. Therefore, you should cut your salmon into 1 ½ inch slices. This will also make for an easy to manage smoking session as all of your pieces should be about the same size.

For hot-smoked salmon, let your slices brine between 4 and 24 hours and cold-smoked salmon will require an extended brining period varying between 24 and 48hrs.

Once you are done brining, remove and pat dry. Hot-smoked salmon does not need to be soaked in water, but we encourage you to let the fillets soak in water and rinse the excess brine if they have been sitting in the cure for more than 24 hours.

In order to get a good texture, it’s important to let your fillets air-dry in a chilly spot for a few hours on a wired rack. This allows the salt from the brine to develop a semi-firm film prior to the smoke bath, which will help the smoke adhere to the fish a lot more.

This step is often rushed or even skipped while it should be one of the most important steps in your process.

From there, you’re faced with a fork in the road.


Hot-smoked salmon:

Even though it’s called “hot-smoked salmon”, we won’t be smoking at a high temperature. Hot-smoking refers to the temperature of the smoke itself, not the bbq. Therefore, this technique is very straightforward.

Just start a small fire, and as needed, build it up throughout the process. Light up your bbq with as big an indirect zone as possible, running at 140F. Cherry and maple wood chips work great with salmon.

Pro tip: add a pan of hot water to boost the moisture inside your smoker. You want to do this with hot or boiling water to make sure it starts evaporating as early as possible once you put it on.

On the flip side, if you are having problems running your smoker at low temperatures, add an ice tray inside it so it cools down the internal temperature of the smoking chamber and helps you be consistent at 140F.

From there, add a light coat of oil on your salmon pieces and throw them in your smoker. 

The first hour of smoke will be run at 140F, which then will be raised to 150F for the second hour, and 175F for the remainder of the cooking time.

Every hour, baste your salmon with maple syrup and soy glaze for a sticky sweet and savory finish.

As you baste, try to remove some of the fatty white protein, called albumin, that will be pearling on the fish. Although you want to keep a little, you want your glaze to be firm and tender as you bite into it. Leaving too much albumin will be over barring take away the focus off of the flavor you’re trying to build. If you’re cooking at 140F, it should not be a problem. If you feel like you’re fighting against that white creamy stuff, chances are you are smoking too hot.

Just keep repeating until you reach an internal temperature of 135F, then remove them from the smoker and let them rest one hour on your wire rack and put them in the fridge. This cool down process will help even out the texture inside your salmon fillets to guarantee the best of bites in each piece. 


Cold-smoked salmon:

Being in the brine for such a long time, part of the “cooking” process of cold-smoked salmon starts early on. As the salts in the brine start breaking down the proteins, they prepare the fish for the actual smoking step. This step also makes sure that the fish cannot develop bacteria as it smokes.

Once patted down and air-dried for 4 hours, your salmon will start to feel tacky and offer some bounce to the touch. That’s good.

Cold-smoking salmon is an art. It requires a lot of control, patience and attention to detail. This method is obtained when the ambient temperature is under 80F throughout the smoking period.

It’s not something most people can do year round at home. It requires some additional variables to consider, which is why you need to max out the opportunity whenever the time is right.

As the name implies, this process requires cold smoke. It cannot be done with a standard smoker alone, as the smoke will be too hot to yield the desired results.

First and foremost, to keep the odds in your favour, you should not attempt to cold smoke on warm days (above 70F). If so, make sure you keep a container filled with ice in your smoker to drop the temperature as much as possible.

Be mindful that if you are ever hitting the 80F mark, your salmon is ruined. 

Pro-tip: use probes with alarms to monitor the internal temperature of your cooking chamber to be advised if your smoker is running too hot.

In order to create and manage your smoke so that it stays under the 70F mark, you can buy a cold-smoke generator, or use specialty accessories such as Blaze’s smoker box or the Fumanizer smoker set. This tool is great and makes it very easy to manage smoke over long periods of time without having too big a risk of the temperature rising.

Using wood chips will provide better results than sawdust or pellets as they release more wood oils as they slowly smoulder.

Add your salmon slices in your smoker and cold smoke them until you get the visual appearance and texture you are looking for. This should take between 6 and 12 hours depending on the smoke flavor profile you like. A good rule of thumb would be to spot check by cutting thin slices once the texture starts to feel leathery.

It’s best to run for a longer period of time with thinner smoke, than trying to rush things with heavy smoke.

Once you’re happy with the product, remove from the smoker, let them rest on a wire rack for a few hours and then vacuum seal for 2 days. This will help remove any unpleasant bitterness that could have developed if the smoke was not stable throughout the smoking session.

From there on, all there’s left to do is slice and feast!

Whether you choose to go hot or cold, smoked salmon is always a people pleaser. Although it takes time, it’s easy to smoke big batches, so you can stock up twice a year and always have some ready in the freezer.

It’s a good trial by fire to see if you are progressing as a pitmaster and will enlarge your arsenal to the various combinations of smoke, brine and glazes there is to play with. This will surely become a nice playground for you to enjoy over the years.