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.)
Start with fresh salmon
The process for hot-smoking begins with buying fresh salmon. Finding fresh salmon, whole or fillets, shouldn’t be difficult, but you can mail-order it if necessary.
If you have a sharp filleting knife, consider filleting the salmon yourself. When someone offers to fillet my salmon, I decline politely; too often the result is a battered fillet. With the right knife, filleting a salmon isn’t difficult. If you buy an already filleted salmon, try to get a piece that has not had the pin bones (those small bones that run the length of the fish) removed. Often their hasty removal breaks the flesh of the fish. You can easily feel the bones—about 20 to 25 of them on each fillet—by running your fingers along the flesh (which you should do even if you bought filleted salmon to be sure the fishmonger got all of them). Remove them with clean pliers.
Leave the scales on or off. Leaving the scales on seems to bond the skin more strongly to the flesh, making the fillets easier to remove from the grill and slice. The flavor won’t be affected if your salmon has had its scales removed; however, its skin may stick to the cooking rack.
Once your smoker is rigged and your salmon is filleted, you’re ready to roll. Refer to the box on brining below and read over the directions that follow, beginning at Day 1.
Day 1: Brine for flavor and texture
There are two methods of curing salmon, wet and dry. For dry curing, you smother the fish in salt and then wash off the excess after a long exposure. Wet curing means adding the fish to a bath of water, salt, and sugar. I use equal parts kosher salt and dark brown sugar and then use a one-to-six ratio of the dry ingredients to the water (see the box below for suggested amounts).
To hold a whole fillet and the brine, you’ll need a large, nonreactive container. You can cut the salmon fillets into pieces (which you may need to do if your smoker can’t handle a whole fillet). Cutting the fish doesn’t affect flavor, but pieces don’t look quite as impressive as a whole fillet. If your smoker won’t hold a whole fillet, cut the salmon into pieces before curing it; after drying off from its brine bath, the fish is more fragile than ever, and overhandling can create unsightly gaps in the flesh.
Soak for at least six hours, turning occasionally. I’ve found that six hours of brining salmon works nicely, but if longer soaking suits your schedule, you can let it stay in the brine for up to ten hours.
The salmon needs to be chilled as it soaks. If you don’t have room in your fridge, try this trick: make some extra brine, freeze it in an ice-cube tray, and add the cubes to your brine as it warms to keep the temperature down. Turn the salmon a couple of times in the brine; fillets float, and you want to be sure all sides get exposure.
Dry the salmon completely. Once brined, the salmon must be thoroughly rinsed and dried. Rinse the fillets under cold water and dry them with paper towels. Arrange them on a rack, skin side down, and refrigerate them until a subtle glaze—called a pelicle—covers the flesh side of the fish. The pelicle makes the fillet appear a little darker and a little drier. But it’s not easy to see, so even though this initial drying can take as little as a few hours, I refrigerate the salmon overnight so I can be sure the glaze has formed and can get an early start on smoking the next morning.
My brine recipe is simple: coarse salt, dark brown sugar, and water. I use a ratio based on volume: the sugar and salt are on a one-to-one ratio. Combined, they’re one-to-six to the water.
For one whole salmon fillet:
1 cup coarse salt
1 cup loosely packed dark brown sugar
3 quarts water
For two whole fillets:
1-1/2 cups coarse salt
1-1/2 cups loosely packed dark brown sugar
4-1/2 quarts water
For three to four whole salmon fillets:
3 cups coarse salt
3 cups loosely packed dark brown sugar
9 quarts water
Day 2: Smoke over low heat
On the day of smoking, you’ll need to have a few pieces of equipment handy: the smoker, of course, and the following:
• Hardwood chips. Hardwood chips are easy to use and they impart a subtle flavor. Over the years, I’ve used just about all the hardwoods and, frankly, neither I nor anyone else who eats my smoked salmon has detected a difference in the flavor. Alder is the traditional wood used in the Pacific Northwest for smoking salmon, and I generally use hickory, but apple, oak, maple, and pecan are other good options. Mesquite burns too hot and fast for this low smoking. Whichever kind you decide on, you’ll need about eight cups of chips.
• Two thermometers: an oven or a candy thermometer, and an instant-read. To control this low, slow smoking, you must take temperature readings in the cooking area as close to the fish as possible. An oven thermometer or a metal-housed candy thermometer inside the smoker next to the fish will work, but you’ll need to open the lid to check the temperature, which will make smoking take longer. If you can rig a candy thermometer so it stays in the vent over the fish, you can pull it out to check it without opening the lid.
An instant-read thermometer is vital for checking the internal temperature of the salmon to tell if it’s done. The thermometer I like best has a sensor connected by a metal cord to a digital readout that remains outside the smoker, which means you can keep track of the internal temperature of the fish without repeatedly opening the smoker and poking it.
• Oven mitts. You’ll need to take the rack of salmon out of the hot smoker, which—though not as hot as some grills—can still burn.
• A heatproof container to hold spent chips and ash. As you add new chips to the smoker, you’ll need to dump the old, especially if you’re using a smoker rigged with a pan on a hotplate.
Start with a smoker full of smoke and then add the salmon. If you’re using an electric smoker or a hotplate, add about 2 cups of wood chips and heat them. It should take about 15 to 20 minutes for you to see smoke. Ideally, the starting temperature in the smoker should be about 100°F. Once you’ve got smoke, put the salmon in the smoker.
Add wood chips every couple of hours, discarding any ashes if you’re using the hotplate setup. You don’t need to (nor would you want to) see smoke for the duration of the cooking; the amount you’ll see will vary with the relative humidity and temperature that day.
Open the vents to let the smoke circulate. Because you want “fresh” smoke to circulate inside the smoker, you need places for the smoke to escape—by opening a vent, for example. On my homemade smoker, I found that there was a small “chimney” built into and through the oven and that was usually ample ventilation. I would also leave the oven door slightly ajar to let heat and smoke escape if the oven was getting too hot or if I felt there was too much smoke. How much smoke is too much? I can’t give a precise answer, but I’ve always said that it doesn’t take that much smoke to flavor the fish. You’ll need to experiment to learn how much smoke you like.
Gradually increase the temperature inside the smoker over the course of the day so that during the last hour or so it hovers between 150° and 160°F.
Smoke the salmon until it reaches an internal temperature of 145°F in its thickest part, which will take eight to ten hours. According to the Food & Drug Administration, it’s safer to hold the salmon at 145°F for a half hour to be sure any bacteria have been killed, and this is what I do in my professional operation. On a home smoker, it can be hard to keep the salmon at 145°F, and you run the risk of overcooking it, especially in its thinner parts. I smoked salmon at home for years, bringing it to just 140°F before taking it out; I never had any trouble, and I always had moist, tender fish.
The duration of smoking depends on the weather and the size of the salmon. I’ve never cooked a batch in less than eight hours; ten hours is more the norm. If the weather turns ugly, keep in mind that you can finish the salmon inside in a very low oven.
Remove the fillets (still on the rack on which they cooked) and let them rest in a cool area, elevated so air can circulate around them (bricks or overturned coffee cups can work as heatproof legs). After an hour or so, carefully remove the salmon from the rack. The salmon’s skin side will likely be stuck to the rack. To avoid tearing the fish, run your fingers between the grates on the rack, pressing into the fillet wherever the flesh sunk between the metal of the rack. Wrap the fillets in plastic and refrigerate overnight; the salmon slices better when fully cooled.
Day 3: Slice and eat
Hot-smoked salmon doesn’t slice the way that cold-smoked does. Instead, you get thicker slices or chunks that flake apart like conventionally cooked salmon. There will be an outer crust that can make slicing difficult, but a sharp knife, especially a hollow-edged slicing knife (often called a ham knife) ought to do the job.
A whole smoked fillet makes a stunning presentation by itself and will disappear at any occasion. I also like smoked salmon in scrambled eggs, in salads, and in pasta dishes. Smoked salmon must be refrigerated—though you don’t want to serve it too cold straight out of the refrigerator—and will keep for at least ten days, but it’s so good, it’s unlikely to be around that long.
Make your own smoker
I love smoking salmon so much, and had so many requests from friends, that I built my own superefficient, inexpensive smoker using an old oven and a hotplate. Here’s how.
I bought an ordinary, used electric range at a local appliance store. (Call the store owner to see if you can get your hands on an old one before it gets turned into scrap metal.) Look for an oven that has stainless-steel racks in good condition and a bottom drawer that can be cleaned up easily.
To start, remove all burners inside the oven, as well as the cover that holds the electric burners. (I took out everything electric, even the clock.) Drill a small hole into the face of the drawer for the cord of the hotplate to fit through. Cut a hole about the circumference of a grapefruit directly through the bottom of the oven to the drawer below (I used an electric saw). Fit a cylinder of duct piping around the inside of the hole. Fashion a top for the piping that allows the free flow of hot air and smoke into the oven above it but prevents fish oil from dripping onto your heated wood chips, which will be in a cast-iron skillet on the hotplate in the drawer below. I made a series of 2-inch cuts in the top of the pipe and then bent the edges back. I then capped the notched pipe with a foil-lined tray.
The stove belongs outside on a solid, dry base, preferably under a carport or patio roof. Or, if you’re really handy, you can build a simple wooden enclosure to both hide the smoker—it’s efficient, but it ain’t pretty—and keep it out of the rain.
The folks at Fine Cooking rigged a temporary version using a kettle grill and a hotplate. Here’s how:
Set a metal-housed hotplate on the bottom grate to one side, running the cord thorough the grill’s air vent on the bottom. Position some heavy-duty foil around the side of the hotplate to keep fish oil from dripping on it. Fill a small cast-iron pan with wood chips. Situate the grill’s top grate so that the hinged side that allows you to add coals to the fire is over the hotplate; this will let you reach the thermostat. The salmon goes on the other side of the top grate, as far from the hotplate as possible.
An important note: If you jury-rig your own smoker, it’s up to you to ensure that it will work safely.