View Full Version : Great Smoking Tips!

01-07-2006, 07:43 PM
Here is a great recipe and some very good tips from a veteran smoker. It's pretty lengthy but if you like to smoke your salmon it's a must read.




Smoked Salmon

Smoking salmon.

I have been smoking salmon for almost 25 years. This does not mean I’m an expert by any means, in fact, I am still learning from everyone I talk to about the subject. This discussion is to give you the basics that I was given by a guy named “Frenchy” back in the early 1980’s. Frenchy used to hang out at a little beer bar/tackle shop in Redwood City named Herb and Jim’s. I worked there and he took pity on me when he had to endure my first rudimentary attempts at smoking salmon. He shared with me and I’m sharing with you

First we have to understand that when we smoke salmon we are trying to preserve the fish in a way that will make it last long, taste good and give us a better reason to drink good beer and wine.

The ancient American Indians first started smoking salmon centuries ago over open pits. They did this because, as we know, the salmon only swam upstream at certain times of the year. By smoking the salmon the Indians could enjoy their catch for many months after the salmon runs. Smoked salmon was also a staple on long trips when the Indians moved their camps or went on trading expeditions. *

The pits had “racks” built over them and the Indians burned local indigenous hardwoods such as apple and alder as well as a variety of other woods.

There are many variables when smoking salmon so be sure to play with the recipe until you tailor it to your desires. The 2 things that cannot be tailored are the freshness of the salmon and the non-iodized salt. These 2 things are required and cannot be messed with.

The Salmon: *

The golden rule of smoking is the fresher the better. If you have to hold fish until it’s time to smoke you should prepare it as though it was going into the brine and then freeze it immediately.

Preparation begins with filleting the salmon. I then cut out the ribcage and any remaining stomach lining. Using a pair of needle nose pliers I remove the pin bones to leave a completely boneless fillet.

Next you need to cut the salmon fillet into strips about 1.5’ to 2” wide starting at the top of the salmon filet and work down to the belly. What you want to end up with is uniform pieces as possible that are no thicker than 2” in any direction. This will be difficult on very large salmon but do the best you can.

The Process:

The smoking process brings together 3 things that help us achieve preservation:

Wood smoke from dried hardwood

Introduction of salt can be done by either a wet “brine” or a dry rub. For purposes of this tutorial we will be using a wet brine. Dry rubs work well and lots of people like them as they are simple and easy. My experience tells me that with a dry rub you may get a saltier end product but you may find that you prefer the dry rub, your choice. There are many books and websites that offer a variety of wet brines and dry rubs. *

For purposes of this tutorial we will be using apple and alder woods. Hardwoods such as hickory, cherry or mesquite will leave the fish with a bitter taste and are better suited for meats and poultry. I NEVER use these for any kind of fish.

The following process works well for all kinds of fish including halibut, tuna and sturgeon with slight modifications. I have not had good luck using it for rockfish and I have a separate recipe for that.

Dehydration is the process where we slowly draw out the residual moisture from the salmon over an extended period of time. This is done in the smoker box.

These 3 things, when carefully balanced, will cure our fish so that it lasts longer than it would, had it not been preserved in any other way.

The Brine:

The brine is the fist step in the process of smoking salmon. This step is where we introduce the salt to the salmon. The salt is a natural preservative that has been used for centuries to keep food from spoiling. The brine also allows us to impart some additional flavors to the salmon by adding certain ingredients to the brine and the allowing the salmon to sit in the brine for a period of time. *

The length of time that you brine will be dependant on what flavor you want and the amount of flavor that you want the brine to impart. I will brine for 24 hours, typically, but have gone as short as 12 hours and as long as 48 hours.

We also have to remember that the salmon is about 98% water already and will only accept a given amount of the brine. So, longer brine times generally won’t impart any additional flavor but you will risk getting more salt absorption.

The basic ingredients for a brine are very simply just water, salt and sugar and even the sugar isn’t necessary. The ratio of salt to water is discussed in length in many places and you will find that the recommended amount of salt in solution (also called “brix level”) will vary widely.

I personally use a very low brix, on the order of 3% – 6%, as I don’t like my salmon to be salty to the taste when it is done but I do want it to have enough salt in it to act as one of the preservatives. Some recipes call for adding enough salt to float an egg, (eegads!). I have never had any problem with my smoked salmon lasting as long as it needs to so I stray away from using too much salt.

My basic brine recipe is below and starts with 2 gallons of water. The reason for this volume is that I usually wait until I have enough fish to fill the smoker as opposed to doing small batches. This will save on the cost of the brine as ingredients for the brine can be expensive.

Here we go: *
In a 5 gal. bucket lined with a plastic household garbage bag: *
1 cup "Non-Iodized" salt per gallon of water. It is very important that you use this salt only as any other will ruin your fish. You can get this salt right next to the regular salt at your market, it comes in a red box (regular salt comes in a blue box) or the box will say “This salt does not supply iodine”. You can use any non-iodized salt including kosher salt.
2 gal cold water
2 lbs. dark brown sugar
1 bottle red or white wine
1 32 oz bottle Teriyaki sauce
6 oz each of garlic and onion powder *
4 oz of pickling spice
1 oz each of cinnamon and mace
1 cup of Italian seasoning
Additions of things like whole peppercorns, allspice, bay leaves, etc. are wonderful additions to the brine.
Combine all ingredients and let stand 1 hour. *
Marinate fish in brine for 12 - 24 hours stirring or agitating every 2 hrs or so. I usually go for 24 hours. After you put the fish in the brine squeeze out all the air in the bag and tie an overhand knot to keep the fish submerged.

Refrigerating the brine is not necessary but if you are having very warm weather you can sit a bag of ice on the top of the brine bag. Make sure the ice has no way to melt and dilute the brine. *
After 24 hours remove fish from brine and rinse brine off thoroughly in cold running water. It is also very important to get all the brine rinsed off the fish as any left over brine will make the fish salty and strong. *
Pat dry the fish with paper towels and place on the rack from your smoker or similar type rack so that the air can circulate around the fish.

Let fish air dry for at least 1 hour, you want the flesh to get a "tacky" surface on it. This tacky surface is called the “pellicle”. I usually dry the fish for 4 hours in front of a portable fan or below the ceiling fan in my kitchen. The pellicle will be extremely sticky to the touch and this is a good thing as the fish will then accept the smoke faster and better.
Many ask if they can re-use the brine for successive batches. While I have done this I don’t recommend it as you will lose control of the amount of salt in the brine and may not get enough to act as the preservative. Yes, you could add more salt but how would you know in what quantity?

Here are some final thoughts about the brine. Brines can be very expensive but you can mitigate the cost by shopping smartly. I usually buy my spices, salt and sugar in bulk from Costco or Sam’s Club. I buy individual spices like the pickling spice when they go on sale at Safeway or Food For Less.

The Wood:

As I mentioned above, I use only apple and alder on fish. Hardwoods such as hickory, cherry and mesquite should only be used for things like pork, beef and chicken. This is because these woods are so strong that they will leave a bitter taste on meat as delicate as fish. *

I use alder as did the Indians for the oily-ness which will help preserve the fish and the apple will impart a delicate sweetness to the smoke glaze on the outside of the fish.

I have also used other fruit woods like peach, pear and apricot but always come back to the basic woods that the Indians first used. *

For my smoker you can find this wood in bags sold at any Big 5, Long’s or Raley’s Market.

The Smoker:

We can debate smokers until the cows come home and get nowhere. There are many models out there that will work and produce a wonderful product. For the purpose of this discussion I will refer to my smoker which is a Luhr Jensen ”Big Chief”.

I have used many different smokers and even built some of my own like the venerable refrigerator smoker with the hot plate in the bottom. These are all great but each has some attribute that keeps it from being simple and efficient. One example is the style that requires you to keep adding wood chunks as the fuel. As you add the chunks the temperature goes up and after the wood burns a awhile the temperature goes down. This can vary the temperature as much as 20 – 50 degrees and you will have trouble keeping the constant temperature that is required for a consistent product.

Smokers can use a variety of fuel to provide heat. These can be briquette, biscuits, chunk wood, gas and electricity. Only electricity will give the occasional smoker the constant temperature that is needed to control the environment inside the smoker.

The key thing here is NOT to use a BBQ. BBQ’s are for BBQ’ing and not smoking. Remember that smoking is a preservative process and all a BBQ does is cook dinner.

The smoking process is best at 160 degrees F to 195 degrees F. Any hotter and you are BBQ’ing not smoking. Any colder and you end up with overcooked lox. The Big Chief will remain at about 185 degrees with the box on and about 10 degrees cooler without the box.

When I get a new smoker, and I get a new one every couple of years, I keep the box it comes in and cut it away to fit over the smoker while I’m using it.

It is also important to make sure that if you use an extension cord to keep the smoker away from the house, I do this to keep the smoke out of the house, that you use one that is no longer than 25’ or so. Any longer and there is enough line loss so that the electric plate will not heat up far enough to ignite the wood and keep it burning.

Outside temperature will affect the process as well. If you have an extremely cold day you may want to put the box over the smoker to help keep the heat in. Conversely you may want to take the box off if it is a real hot day as you will not need the added insulation.

Smoking The Fish: *

When you have the racks all loaded up with fish and the fish has formed the pellicle it’s time to load the smoker. I have a top loading smoker where the top comes off and the rack goes in vertically. *

Then replace the top and put the box over the top of the smoker to keep the smoke and heat in.

Fill the chip pan with a 50/50 mix of the apple and alder chips. And insert the pan over the element in the bottom of the smoker. Each pan of chips will take about an hour to burn out and stop producing smoke. Re-fill the pan and repeat the process. I usually re-fill the pan about 5 to 7 times.

So, if I smoke on a weekend I will pull the fish out of the brine about noon and start the drying process. The fish will be dry by 4pm and I start the smoker. Replacing the chips every hour until 8pm or 9pm gets me the desired amount of smoke flavor and preservative action. I will then let the fish continue to dry over night and I’ll take the fish out when I get up the next morning.

Once the salmon is out of the smoker you need to let it cool on the racks before you package it up. This takes an hour or so. *

Unless you have an entire tribe of Indian Smoked Salmon eaters you will need to find a way to package your fish for long term retention. I will take a portion large enough to give away as a present or provide appetizers for a party and then vacuum seal it. I then stick these packages in the freezer and take them out as I need to.

Salmon smoked this way will last about a month in a ziplock bag in the refrigerator. It will last indefinitely when vacuum sealed and the frozen. I have eaten 2 year old salmon that got misplaced in my freezer and it was like I just put it there the day before.

Once again, this recipe and process is just a guideline and begs to be adjusted for your individual tastes. If you make a change to it that you like, let me know so I can try it as well. I’m always looking for new ideas.


01-12-2006, 01:54 PM
Ken, you did a great job laying out your recipe and describing the process in detail. Thanks so much for the help.

01-12-2006, 02:16 PM
My new smoker should be on the front porch today..Thank you UPS.... Some of your smokin' tips will definately be used here - thanks Ken..


01-12-2006, 05:32 PM
Your very welcome, That's what is so awesome about this site. Sharing info on so many different topics.
Believe me following the guidelines for smoking is a can't miss. Just experiment with what you like but don't go to bold on the first try. Unless you like bold flavor. Good luck and let me know how things turn out.