Smoked salmon is fantastic for a brunch or party appetizer. Learn how to smoke salmon on any smoker with this recipe and video tutorial!
Looking for a recipe for brine for smoked salmon? You can find that in my smoked salmon brine post!
For a weekend or holiday brunch, not much beats lox and cream cheese on a toasted bagel. Or for an impressive and delicious party appetizer, put out a platter of hot smoked salmon with pumpernickel bread and pickled red onions. Then stand back and watch your guests scramble to the table!
How to smoke salmon – video and instructions
To see the process of making smoked salmon, watch the video located in the recipe card at the bottom of this post.
- Purchase the fish and wood chips.
Any variety of salmon may be smoked, but it’s important to purchase a fresh, skin-on filet. Although some people do smoke previously frozen salmon (and it can be done), the end result isn’t quite the same. The texture isn’t as firm.
If you are unable to source fresh salmon and plan to use frozen salmon filets, purchase the ones that are individually wrapped. The packaging eliminates excess moisture from getting into the fish, and it helps prevent freezer burn as well.
Before I jump into the remaining instructions, I have answers to some commonly asked questions about making smoked salmon.
The length of time to smoke salmon depends on the thickness and size of the filet. After brining, it typically takes 4-6 hours for it to cook.
If you want moist salmon with the best flavor, definitely spend the time to brine it first. Another reason to brine is that the drying process afterward creates a tacky substance on the skin called a pellicle, which seals the moisture into the fish and gives the smoke something to adhere to.
Completely sealing salmon in foil prevents the smoke from reaching the fish. It’s best to place the salmon directly onto a smoker rack that’s been oiled to prevent sticking.
When properly smoked, the internal temp of salmon should be 145°F at its thickest part. It’s also a good idea to allow the fish to rest for at least 20 minutes before serving. This helps the fish retain its moisture and allows a few minutes of carryover cooking to eliminate any remaining bacteria.
Best wood chips for smoking fish
Do you know that there are over 25 different varieties of wood that can be used for smoking foods? Some varieties are better suited for seafood than others. I think it’s important to know how to smoke salmon using the right type of wood for the job.
You can learn about which wood chips are best for which meats in my post on smoker boxes and wood chips. Also, be aware that to avoid serious illness from poison and toxins, there is wood that should never be used for smoking.
I think the best wood for smoked salmon is alder. Alder is a delicate hardwood with a mild flavor. This is a completely different wood than elder and elderberry, neither of which should ever be used for smoking.
- Brine the salmon.
I have a post with a recipe for smoked salmon brine and instructions on how to brine the fish. Feel free to use a different brine recipe if you’d like.
Plan ahead! The fish should sit in the brine for a minimum of 2 hours and up to 8 hours.
- Dry the fish to create a pellicle.
What is a pellicle?
A pellicle seals moisture inside of the fish and creates a sticky surface for the smoke to adhere to. You’ll know the pellicle is present when the salmon flesh appears shiny.
To create a pellicle, place the brined fish in front of a fan, or leave it uncovered on a baking sheet in the refrigerator. This process takes about 4 hours, and it is vital to do for the best smoked salmon.
- No need to Soak the wood chips.
Put 1 to 2 cups of wood chips in a smoker box, in an aluminum loaf pan, or even a bowl made out of aluminum foil.
When you are ready to smoke, put the container of chips over the hottest part of the smoker/grill.
Do Wood Chips Have to be Soaked?
It isn’t necessary and probably does more harm than good. It certainly makes getting consistent and delicious results more challenging, and that’s not something anyone is trying to achieve when smoking. If you are going to soak wood chips, try using juice, beer, or whiskey to add flavor.
The truth is that soaking your wood chips can actually prevent your grill or smoker from working correctly, leading to longer cook times and potentially drying your meat out. ~ Bearded Butchers.
- Cut the salmon horizontally into 3 smaller pieces for easier handling.
- Place the filets directly on the smoking rack, Spray it with oil first, to prevent sticking.
If your fish does not have a pellicle, place the brined salmon on aluminum foil to keep the smoke moving around the fish rather than moving through the racks.
What temp to smoke salmon?
I recommend starting the smoking at a temp of 100°F for 2 hour on a grill with soaked chips.
Then increase the heat to 140°F and continue smoking for the next 2 hours. Then, increase the heat to 175°F for the final hour, or until salmon internal temp is 145°F. at the thickest portion.
Feel free to baste with brine mixture each time you bump up the heat if you like.
If you have a Traeger pellet grill/smoker or other smoker that doesn’t go lower than 165°F, it may take about 5 hours (depending on thickness) for the salmon to cook. This is what I did, and it came out beautifully. Most filets I use are 3/4″ to 1-inch in height in thickest part. As with everything, times may vary, so check periodically – looking for internal temperature of 145°F.
After removing smoked salmon from the smoker, allow it to rest on a cooling rack for an hour. Serve immediately or cool slightly, then refrigerate until ready to serve.
Refrigerate the fish wrapped in plastic wrap or in a sealed container and use within 8-10 days.
Other easy smoking recipes
How to Smoke Salmon + How-To Video
- 3 lb skin-on salmon brined (See Note 1)
- After brining for 8 hours remove salmon from brine solution, shake off excess and place salmon on a rack to drain (See Note 1).
- Transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet in front of a fan or in a well ventilated area to dry and develop a pellicle (shiny, tacky skin). Alternatively, leave salmon uncovered in the refrigerator to create a pellicle. (See Note 2)
- Cut the salmon filet horizontally into thirds for easier handling and transfer pieces to a smoking rack sprayed with oil to prevent sticking. Note: If the filet doesn't have a pellicle, place the brined salmon on aluminum foil about the size of the fish to keep the smoke moving around the fish.
Gas Grill/Smoker (w/wood chips)
- Add 1 inch of water to the water tray (or follow directions for your smoker). Add alder wood chips to internal smoker box (see Note 3) and smoke salmon for 4-6 hours, depending on thickness and size, fish should have an internal temperature of 145°F. On my gas grill I start the temp at 100°F for 2 hours, then 140°F for 2 hours and finally 175°F for the final 1.5-2 hours. Feel free to baste with the brine mixture each time you bump up the heat if you like. Smoke until fish reaches an internal temperature of 145°F.
- On a pellet smoker grill: because my Traeger pellet grill/smoker doesn't go lower than 165°F, I smoke for 4.5-5 hours (depending on thickness and size) and it comes out beautifully. Most filets I use are 3/4" to 1-inch in height in thickest part. As with everything, times may vary, so check periodically. Smoke until fish reaches an internal temperature of 145°F. Feel free to baste with brine mixture each time you bump up the heat if you like.
- After removing smoked salmon from the smoker, allow it to rest on a cooling rack for an hour. Serve immediately or cool slightly, then refrigerate until ready to serve. Refrigerate wrapped in plastic wrap or a container and use within 8-10 days or freeze.
- Use my recipe for smoked salmon brine or your own salmon brine recipe.
- The pellicle creates a sticky surface on the fish for the smoke to adhere to. This step takes about 4 hours and is vital for properly smoked salmon.
- Put wood chips in an internal smoker box, an aluminum loaf pan or even a bowl made out of tin foil. When ready to smoke, put the wood chip container on rack over hottest part of smoker/grill. Read more about this in my post on Smoker boxes and wood chips for smoking.
The information shown is an estimate provided by an online nutrition calculator. It should not be considered a substitute for a professional nutritionist’s advice.