How to Smoke Salmon at Home – Learn From My (almost) Fail

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Smoked salmon that looks much better in pictures than it was on our table.
Smoked salmon that looks much better in pictures than it was on our table.

While I had visions of tender, delicious smoked salmon as we had remembered it from Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish, it didn’t quite hit the mark, so I learned a few lessons the hard way.

How  Do I Smoke Salmon?

First, I referenced the handy smoking guide that came with my Brinkmann Smoke ‘N Grill bullet-style smoker. That gave me a 2-3 hour cooking time, plus some seasoning suggestions. I also researched online and found quite a few instructions for smoking salmon, and even more seasoning ideas. I decided to keep this simple, and proceeded to get started.

Prepare Salmon

First, the filets were thawed and rinsed, then placed on a pan, skin side  down, to air dry for 30 minutes. Afterwards, they were lightly salted. Rather than use any fancy seasoning mixes, I opted to just rely on salt and smoke for flavor.

Salmon after rinsing, air drying, and lightly salted
Salmon after rinsing, air drying, and lightly salted
Soak Wood Chips

While the salmon was drying, I started soaking a few handfuls of alder and apple wood chips. They typically need at least 30 minutes to absorb some of the water.

Smoked_Salmon_201407_03

Smoker Set-Up

About half a pan of charcoal was poured, then the center section was carefully removed and started in a charcoal starter similar to these models.

These are really convenient, as they allow you to use paper rather than lighter fluid, so there’s no risk of adding unwanted flavors to the charcoal, and therefore, your fish. Also, they prevent the other charcoal in the pan from starting too early. I highly recommend them.

This method of setting up charcoal, by the way, with only the center portion started, is a technique for making it all burn longer by delaying the start of the outer coals. Eventually, they all do burn, but slowly, from the center outward.

Charcoal pan with only the center started (separately, in a charcoal starter)
Charcoal pan with only the center started (separately, in a charcoal starter)
Load Smoker and Tend to the Process

I smoked these salmon filets on my Brinkmann Smoke ‘N Grill bullet-style smoker. The charcoal pan sits in the bottom of the unit. Above it is the water pan, to which I added one whole lemon, sliced, so it would steam a little flavor up through the salmon filets. Those filets, by the way, were placed skin side down on two wire grills directly above the water pan.

Smoke 'N Grill bullet-style smoker with mild smoke from wood chips on charcoal.
Smoke ‘N Grill bullet-style smoker, with mild smoke from wood chips on charcoal.

With everything in place, instructions for smoking salmon are pretty straightforward:

  • Toss some wood chips on the charcoal every 20 minutes or so for the first hour or more (each time the smoke stops rolling). It doesn’t seem like much but this will add plenty of smoke flavor.
  • Keep an eye on the water level in the pan. I had to add some partway through.
  • You shouldn’t need to add any charcoal to this 2-hour smoking process.
  • Check the salmon filets after 1-1/2 hours, and keep an eye on them every 15 minutes afterwards. You want the meat to be done, but not over-done.
Smoked salmon dinner is served.
Smoked salmon dinner is served.

And dinner is served. However, it was far from perfect.

Mistakes I Made

I did several things wrong, which I’ll detail here so you can avoid them when trying this yourself:

  1. I bought frozen salmon filets. They were individually vacuum packed, so freezer burn wasn’t a problem, and I thawed them slowly in the refrigerator for 24 hours. However, I just know they would have been much better had they been fresh.
  2. I only used salt to season. A light seasoning blend would have added more flavor.
  3. I smoked them too long. This was originally planned as a 2-hour smoking process, but I made a planning mistake. A quick trip to the store ran longer than I thought it would, and I didn’t make it back until the 2-1/2 hour mark. Big mistake, as the smoked salmon filets were over-done. Edible, but way past the tender stage. Had I stayed home and checked them sooner, as I should have, I’m guessing they would have been done at 1-1/2 hours.
Unexpected Bonus

The next day, we pulled out the leftover filets, separated them into bite-sized pieces, and tried them cold, on crackers with cream cheese.

Wow, what a difference. We couldn’t stop eating them.

The salmon was best the following day, on crackers with cream cheese.
The salmon was best the following day, on crackers with cream cheese.

 

So my mistakes the day before didn’t carry over to day two, which was quite a relief. Two great lunches made up for a so-so meal, and we were all very happy. So happy, in fact, that my oldest daughter swiped one while I was taking photos!

Oldest daughter swiping delicious smoked salmon.
Oldest daughter swiping delicious smoked salmon.
Checklist for Next Time
  • Start with fresh salmon filets
  • Soak salmon in a salt brine (maybe)
  • Add a light seasoning blend
  • Monitor the smoking process closely
  • When done, remove them immediately

When I figure out how to smoke salmon at home, AND have great results that match or exceed Ted Peters, I’ll create a permanent page on the recipes menu, above. Until then, it will be a trial and error process to get this right.

Have I overlooked anything? Do you have suggestions for my next attempt. Just comment below.

Bart's Signature
Bart

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12 thoughts on “How to Smoke Salmon at Home – Learn From My (almost) Fail”

  1. I’ve always wondered how smoked salmon actually became “smoked salmon”! 🙂 I thoroughly enjoyed reading this while learning a lot in the process!

    1. Smoking salmon is a pretty simple process, Katie, as long as it’s not over-cooked, which is what I did, above. I learned my lesson, though, and expect it to be perfect next time.

      Bart

  2. Great writeup! One of my goals is to learn how to smoke salmon. I had a co-worker who made his own, and really impressed me with how good it can be.

    1. Smoked salmon isn’t really that hard, Wendy. Give it a try, and just make sure you don’t over-cook it.

      Bart

  3. Hi Bart,
    Great post and another means for me to make my salmon more palatable. Just reading this helps me avoid the trial and error process as well. I shall have to try this soon enough. Thanks for the info and great way to prepare.
    Michael

    1. Let me know how yours turns out, Michael. When made right, smoked salmon is surprisingly tender and moist.

      Bart

  4. As a Salmon lover myself, I would definitely see myself doing this one day. Really love the tips on your mistakes and sharing how to avoid them, really makes it easier to make a perfect smoke salmon!

    1. I hope you do learn from my mistakes, Terence. The key is to pull smoked salmon as soon as it’s done, so it’s still moist.

      Bart

  5. Thanks for the great tutorial! A coworker turned me on to smoked salmon with his own homemade recipe. I hope to try yours some day!
    Ethan

    1. Ethen, smoked salmon is fantastic when smoked properly, so just be sure to keep an eye on it and pull it as soon as it’s done. That’s the key. You should do fine.

      Bart

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