Smoked salmon is one of the great joys of life. It is the perfect accompaniment on a platter, great with eggs benedict or just fantastic on a cracker with cream cheese. The possibilities are endless and I am yet to come across a combination that I don’t like.
Cold smoking salmon is actually surprisingly easy and is something that I wish that I had come across earlier in my smoking career. It's now something that the whole family is always asking me to make.
My favorite way to have smoked salmon is on a platter with lots of crusty bread, crackers, and cream cheese.. however, you can never go wrong pairing it with crusty bread, poached eggs and lots of hollandaise sauce.
Cold smoking does take time, a little bit of know-how and a couple of special pieces of equipment. I often get asked a lot of questions about how to smoke salmon and the basics of smoking salmon.
The Basics of Cold Smoked Salmon
There are a few things about smoking salmon that you should know before you start off. The most important thing about cold smoking is to not let your smoker reach a temperature of over 80 degrees Fahrenheit. This will end up cooking the salmon and you will come away with a different result than desired.
Cold smoked salmon is technically still raw, however, the curing process allows you to eat it. This is because the highly saturated brine causes the proteins in the salmon to denature.
To cold smoke salmon (or any other fish) you need a smoke that can be set up for cold smoking. Unfortunately, this means you lot out there with a charcoal smoker or wood smoker you will have to head over to your friend's house who has a cold smoker. You can also build your own cold smoker out of your gas or charcoal grills.
What Salmon Should I Use For Cold Smoking?
Choosing your salmon is very important. There are plenty of different kinds of salmon out there, but what one is right for smoking?
We will start with fresh or frozen. It may come as a surprise to you but frozen salmon is actually better to smoke with than fresh. This is because the freezing process does two main things.
Kills any parasites: Salmon can have harmful parasites throughout the fillets. The best way to kill the parasites is to deep freeze them at -10 degrees.
Ruptures the cell membranes: This may sound like a bad thing, however, it’s a good thing. During the freezing process, the liquid inside the cells expands. This puts more pressure on the cell walls and causes ruptures. Once the walls have been ruptured and the salmon starts to thaw, the liquid from inside the fillets drains from the flesh. This means there is less water for the brine to remove.
Now you know you should be using frozen salmon, what kind of salmon should you use? There are different kinds out there, and each different kind has different oil levels. You will get a better smoke out of salmon wit a higher oil content.
The best kinds of salmon for smoking are: Chinook salmon, Atlantic salmon, Sockeye salmon, King salmon. It is not imperative that you use one of these cuts, however, for you seafood lovers out there it will be well worth it!
How Do I Prepare Salmon For Cold Smoking?
Most salmon fillets should be scaled and boned. However, if you fillets have not been you will need to scale and bone them yourself.
To scale the salmon run the backside of a knife over the skin and rub up and down to de-scale the skin. Rinse to get all scales off and repeat as needed.
To bone the salmon, you will need a pair of needle nose pliers. It is possible to do this by hand but it is much, much harder.
To find the bones, run your hand down the fillet and when you find a bone pull firmly with a pair of needle nose pliers to remove. The bones are evenly spaces running the length of your fillet from head to tail. I usually double check a second time after finishing to make sure I have got every last bone!
If you have a large smoker, leaving the fillet whole is ideal, however, for smaller smokers, I recommend cutting into chunks. Either way, make sure you leave the skin to prevent the fillet from falling to pieces.
Each cut or fillet of salmon is slightly different in size and thickness. The bigger the fleet the longer it will need to brine and smoke. This is because there is more flesh for the brine and smoke to get through. You can speed up the process by making scores into the fillets. Be sure not to score the flesh too deeply.
How To Brine Salmon Fillets
The brine is a very important part. You must make sure that the brine is over 35 degrees and under 40 degrees. This is because if it is to warm it will allow bacteria to grow, too cold and the brining reaction time will be slowed down too much.
When brining it is important to let it sit for at least 6 hours for smaller pieces and up to 12 hours for larger pieces. If the fillet is fresh or frozen will also play a big role in how long to brine. If the fillet is fresh, it will need more brining time than frozen.
Once the fillet has finished brining, any access salt will need to be removed. To do this you need to rinse the fillet in fresh water for at least 20 minutes. This can be done by running the fillet under cold water while sitting in a container. Periodically agitate the salmon to ensure all of the salt has been removed.
Take care and be gentle with the salmon while agitating it, it is very delicate and can be broken up very easily.
If you are feeling game, take a thin slice of the salmon fillet at this stage and check for saltiness. If it is too salty let it sit in the fresh water for a further 10 – 15 minutes.
If raw salmon is not quite your thing, heat in the microwave for a minute before tasting.
What Is The Curing Process For Salmon and Pellicle Formation?
The curing process is another long process. To cure place the salmon you must place it on a rack, uncovered in the fridge for at least 12 hours if possible.
While the salmon is curing it is the perfect time to add additional herbs or spices. This will give the salmon a more in depth flavor and also a more interesting appearance.
Over the curing period, the salt that remains in the salmon will evenly distribute throughout the fillet. This will stop the fillet from having a salty center.
At this stage the proteins in the salmon will start to bind together, this will start to dehydrate the salmon. Which makes the salmon perfect for adding to the smoker.
At this stage, the pellicle starts to form. The pellicle is a very thin layer of dry proteins that were liquified during the brining process. You can tell when the pellicle layer has been formed because you will see a glossy, clear coating over the entire fillet.
The pellicle is essential because it stops large amounts of liquid from escaping from the salmon as it smokes.
How To Cold Smoke Salmon
Finally, we are ready for the smoking!
When smoking it's important to have a good amount of space around each fillet. This will ensure that there is good smoke circulation and all pieces are smoked evenly. Also try to have each piece of the salmon evenly spaced from the front, back and sides.
Depending on the size and the number of fillets in the smoker, the actual smoking process should take around 10 – 20 hours. Keeping in mind larger/ thicker pieces will take longer than smaller pieces. If the smoker has more inside of, it will also take longer to smoke.
During the smoking process, the fillet will become more firm and look drier. The longer the fillet is smoked for the more intense the smoke flavor will be.
Once smoked the salmon is smoked I like to eat it right away. However, the best way to store it (if you can wait that long to eat it) is to vacuum seal it. It will last for several months unopened. Or if you would prefer to freeze it will last for up to 1 year.
My Favourite Cold Smoked Salmon Recipe
- 2 - 3 pounds salmon fillet fresh and from the head end if possible
Brine (optional but recommended)
- 1 tablespoon crushed black peppercorns
- 1/4 cup maple syrup or molasses
- 1 ½ cups brown sugar
- 1 ½ cups coarse sea salt
- 2 cloves of crushed garlic
- 2 whole bay leaves
Garnishes (optional but recommended)
- Brined capers Drained
- Brioche toast points or crackers Toasted or grilled
- Fresh dill Chopped
- Lemons Sliced
- Red onion Thinly sliced
Running your fingers overtop of the skin side of the samon fillets and feel for any bones. Pull out any bones with a pair of tweezers. Once all the bones have been removed, run your fingers over one more time to double check all bones have been removed.
Combine your brine ingrediaents into a large pan and heat on medium heat until a gental boil has been reached. Once boiling simmer for 5 minutes and then turn off and cover to let cool to room temperature. Once at room temperature try to balance a boiled egg in the brine. If it sinks, mix a further ¼ cup of salt into the brine until it floats. Once the right salt level has been reached refrigerate until 40 degrees or less.
Once the brine has come to temperature brine the salmon, cover and set in the refrigerator for 6 – 12 hours.
Once brined, rinse the salmon with plenty of fresh, cold water to clear out any access salt.
In a mixing bowl mix together the salt and brown sugar.
In a glass baking dish slightly larger than the fillets, spread out 1/3 of the cure. Lay the salmon fillets on top of the cure making sure that the cure extends around ½ inch from each side of the salmon. Spread the remaining cure on the top side of the salmon, making sure that the fillet is covered completely.
Cover the dish completely with plastic wrap and place the coolest part of your refrigerator for 24 – 48 hours to cure. The key here is the longer the better.
After curing, gently rinse the salmon under cold running water. In a large bowl filled with 3 inches of water soak the fillets for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes drain well in a colander.
Dry the fillets on both sides with a paper towel then arrange them skin side down uncovered on a wire rack to air dry. Pop in the refrigerator and let air dry for around 4 hours. The fillets should feel a little sticky at this point.
Prepare your smoker for cold smoking as per your manufacturer's instructions.
Place in your smoker and smoke until the salmon feels leathery, firm and has a nice bronze color. This should take at a minimum of 10 hours.
Before serving wrap the salmon in butcher/ baking paper and rest in the refrigerator for a minimum of 4 hours. Ideally leave overnight.
Diagonally cut thin (or thick depending on your preference) slices with a very sharp knife and garnish with lots of fresh dill, lemon slices, capers, red onion and crusty bread or crackers.
Smoked salmon. Its as simple as that. I know your family and friends are going to absolutley love this one!
Do you have a different way to cold smoke salmon? Or have serving suggestion? I would love to hear about it! Let me know in the comments!