Smoked salmon is fish that’s been cooked by either hot or cold smoke rather than over direct heat. It can take the form of a lox topping or a main entree depending on the smoking method and preparation.
The difference between cold- and hot-smoked salmon is the cooking temperature and time. Cold-smoked salmon is smoked over the course of a few days at about 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Hot-smoked salmon is cooked at a higher temperature like any other meat. Cold-smoked salmon is similar in texture to lox but has a smokier flavor. Hot-smoked salmon has a meatier (but flaky) texture.
While you don’t have to brine salmon before smoking, you probably want to! Brining your salmon will add a greater depth of flavor and results in a juicier, slightly firmer piece of fish. More on how to do this below.
Alder is a great choice for smoking salmon for a mild flavor, especially if you’re cold-smoking salmon over a few days. Maple is another good choice for smoking salmon. It produces a mild and sweet flavor that complements salmon well and won’t overpower your salmon if you’re smoking it for a long period of time.
Though not strictly necessary, brining salmon before smoking it will add flavor to the end result. Plus, will give you a firmer texture because it pulls extra moisture out of the fish that will otherwise make it soggy. But don’t worry about your smoked salmon being too dry. The smoking process will leave just the right amount of moisture in your smoked salmon.
Smoked salmon brine doesn’t have a lot of ingredients. At the minimum, you’ll want to add about 4 tablespoons of salt per 4 cups of water. However, depending on the flavors you want in your smoked salmon, you may want to add brown sugar, maple syrup, soy sauce or wine, and other seasonings to your brine.
When it comes to salmon, you can have a traditional wet brine or a dry brine. For a wet brine, you’ll mix your brine ingredients in a pan (not a bag) and place the salmon in the solution. For a dry brine, you coat the salmon in the mixed brine ingredients (salt, sugar, and seasonings, similar to the wet brine but without liquid), wrap in plastic, and refrigerate.
The amount of time you brine your salmon will depend on the thickness of the salmon filet. With thinner filets, you can get away with just four hours of brine time. Larger filets can be brined for 8 hours or overnight. Large pieces of salmon might even be brined for 24 hours or longer.
If you give your salmon a nice, long brine, you may not have to season it before cooking. However, you might want to add a spice rub with seasonings of your choice just before smoking or grilling. A few seasonings that go with salmon include dill, basil, thyme, rosemary, parsley, and tarragon.
King salmon is generally considered the best salmon to smoke. It’s easily available, has a deep color and flavor, can be found in large cuts, and has a high oil content.
To cure your salmon, you’ll either use a wet or dry brine, ideally overnight. A wet brine, as the name implies, uses liquid such as water, vodka, or cider, in tandem with salt and sugar to cure your salmon. A dry brine removes the wet ingredients and is more like a rub of salt, sugar, and seasoning that the salmon is wrapped in overnight.
Whether you use a dry or wet brine, you need to rinse the brine mixture from the salmon before cooking. Otherwise, the salmon will be too salty. After rinsing your salmon, pat it dry and let it completely dry out on a baking sheet for a few hours or overnight. You need to make sure the salmon is dry to get the pellicle film to form on your fish -- which helps the smoke flavor "stick".
If you want to watch the experts show you how to smoke salmon on a Traeger, check out our videos. We walk you through the process one step at a time.
Your smoked salmon is the undisputed star dinner, but the supporting cast is equally important. Here are a few of our favorite dishes to pair with Traeger smoked salmon.
Our Fin & Feather rub is uniquely seasoned to be the perfect go-to rub for your smoked salmon, Alder wood pellets is perfect for smoking salmon for long periods of time without overpowering the flavor of the salmon itself, and our Traeger Timberline WiFi pellet grill will help you keep tabs on your salmon while it smokes, so you get the perfect result every time.