I was first introduced to hot-smoked fish almost fifty years ago. When I was a kid, my father made business trips to Key West from our home in Coral Gables, Florida. If he could, he would take me along for some fishing on the return trip. We didn’t smoke the fish we caught, but my dad would buy some hot-smoked mullet from a nearby smokehouse, and we’d nibble on it during a long day of fishing.
What little smoked fish I ate in the years after those days seemed inferior to the brown-paperwrapped fish my dad and I shared. Then, about fifteen years ago, I gave a neighbor some freshly caught bluefish. Three days later, he returned with one of the fillets that he’d cured and smoked. It was terrific. He generously shared his smoking methods with me, and since then I’ve been smoking fish for myself and for friends.
Smoking salmon sounds intimidating, but it’s something anybody can do in the backyard. It takes some specialized equipment—you’ll need to rig up a smoker, for instance—and the way I do it, it’s a long process, two to three days. But the time that you’re actively involved is minimal. The brine—a mixture of salt, sugar, and water—is ready in minutes. And if I can find someone to give the salmon a few turns while it’s in the brine, I’m off to the golf course. The same is true for the actual smoking; setting up the smoker and getting the fish ready doesn’t take long, and then it’s just periodic visits to check on the heat or to add chips for smoke.
Hot-smoking gives you full-flavored, fully cooked fish
There are two distinct types of smoked salmon: hot and cold. This doesn’t refer to the temperature at which the fish is served; it refers to the temperature of the smokehouse or oven. Both styles begin with fresh salmon and go through a three-part process: curing, drying, and smoking. Cold-smoked salmon is rarely, if ever, heated higher than 90°F, which results in a soft, pliable texture. Hot-smoked salmon is actually cooked at temperatures that get as high as 160°F in my recipe, higher in other recipes. Hot-smoked salmon has a full, smoky flavor and a firmer texture than cold-smoked salmon.
Controlling the heat is the key to smoking
The key to successful smoking is the ability to control the heat of the smokehouse over a long period of time. While you can smoke salmon using a woodburning or charcoal-burning smoker, maintaining a very low and steady temperature for the eight to ten hours is extremely difficult. That’s why I recommend smoking fish using an electric heat source.
I’ve owned small box-shaped electric smokers (the Little Chief brand) that did an adequate job. For more control, I replaced the simple heating element that came with the Little Chief with a small, high-wattage, single-burner hotplate, on which I burned the wood chips in a cast-iron skillet.
Char-Broil makes one of the few electric smokers that come with an adjustable thermostat, but it’s hard to get much smoke from this smoker at the very low temperature required for the salmon.
If you’re really serious about smoking your own salmon, do what I did and build your own electric smoker. The one I built from a used oven gave me enough rack space to smoke six whole fillets at a time.
Another less permanent option is to rig an electric smoker using a kettle grill and a hotplate. This set-up can give you deliciously smoked salmon, but to get at your chip pan to dump the ashes and refresh the wood chips, you’ll need to remove the rack that the salmon is on. On a cool day, this will slow down your smoking considerably. Also, you can only smoke one whole salmon fillet at a time (which is probably plenty to start with, anyway).
Finally, if your only option is to smoke with a fire, or a nonadjustable electric smoker, you may want to try smoking your salmon at a higher temperature for a shorter duration. Obviously, I prefer my method: starting off at about 100°F in the smokehouse and gradually increasing the temperature until it hovers between 150° and 160°F during the last hour. This long, low smoking gives the salmon time to absorb the smoke and results in a wonderful texture. But there are some recipes that suggest smoking the salmon at anywhere between 180° and 200°F. (You’ll learn by experimenting.)