The Secret To Cold Smoked Salmon (Its Actually Not That Hard) [October 2019]

Smoked salmon is one of the great joys of life! In my opinion, one of the best types of salmon is cold smoked salmon.

It is the perfect accompaniment to 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. 

The process of cold smoking salmon is actually surprisingly easy and is something that I wish that I had come across earlier in my smoking career. 

Picking out Fresh Salmon at The Market

Cold smoked salmon has now become something that my whole family is obsessed with. 

Someone is always asking me to make it.

I love creating it, but it 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 cold smoke salmon and just the basics of smoking salmon in general, so I will cover that here 🙂

There are a few things about cold smoking salmon that you should know before you start:

  1. Closely Watch Your Temps: Don’ t 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.
  2. Yep, Its Still Raw Fish: 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.
  3. The Necessary Equipment: To cold smoke salmon (or any other fish) you need a smoker that can be set up for cold smoking. Unfortunately, this means even if you have an electric smoker, a charcoal smoker or even one of the best pellet smokers, will have to head over to your friend’s house who has a cold smoker.

Note: You can also build your own cold smoker out of your gas or charcoal grills.

Should I Be Using Fresh or Frozen Salmon?

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 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: 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.

Salmon Jumping Upstream

What Type Salmon Should I Use For Cold Smoking Salmon?

Now you know you should be using frozen salmon, what kind of salmon should you use?

Choosing your salmon is very important. There are plenty of different kinds of salmon out there, but what one is right for smoking?

Each different type of salmon has different oil levels. You will get a better smoke out of salmon with a higher oil content.

The Best Type of Salmon for Smoking

The best type of salmon for smoking is Sockeye salmon & King salmon (Chinook 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 To Cold Smoke Salmon

Cold Smoked Salmon Fillet Preperation

Prepare Your Salmon For Cold Smoking

  1. Scale Your Salmon: 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.

  2. De-Bone: To de-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!

  3. Cutting The Salmon: 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.

Brine Your Salmon Fillets?

The brine is your next step and very important. It is a very delicate process and one that you should take a lot of care while doing. Essentially, the better you brine – The better your final result will be.

Here are some of my top tips to remember when brining your salmon:

  • 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 excess 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).

  • For every 2 quarts of water, use about 2/3 cup each of salt, white sugar and brown sugar, which is enough for up to 4 pounds of salmon.

Cure your Salmon For Cold Smoking

The third step in cold smoking your salmon is the curing process.

  • To start evenly spread 1/3 of your cure in a glass baking dish that is slightly larger than your fillet/ fillets. Lay out your salmon pieces (give yourself a buffer between the salmon and the edge by around 1/2 inch).

  • Store your remaining cure overtop and make sure there are no gaps and everything is covered completely.

  • You are going to want to keep your salmon covered in the refrigerator for at the very least 12 hours, 24 – 48 hours is ideal. You will get a much better result the longer you let the salmon cure for.

  • 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 centre.

  • 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.

The Pellicle Formation Starts

If you complete the steps above you will find that the pellicle now 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.

Charlies Hot Tip

Not only do I love cold smoked salmon, I also love hot smoked salmon! I find that due to flavour you need for smoked salmon, you need to make sure your not leaking ANY smoke! 

I would recommend using a smoker that holds it heat aswell. I usually use my Camp Chef Smokepro Lux for this hot smoked succulent treat! This smoker is apart my  pellet grill reviews,  I thought it was that good I had to make it apart of it!

Cold Smoke Your Salmon Fillets

Finally, we are ready for the smoking!

Remove your salmon from the refrigerator and wash off any excess cure.

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

This is a basic cold smoked salmon recipe. It is a great recipe to use a base to work on your own secret recipe. Please feel free to swap out different ingredients for your own or add in slightly different amounts of the brine ingredients to make it your own.
Total Time3 d 8 hrs
Course: Appetizer
Cuisine: seafood
Servings: 10
Calories: 200kcal
Author: Charlie
Cost: 40

Ingredients

  • 2 – 3 pounds salmon fillet fresh and from the head end if possible

Brine (optional but recommended)

  • 1 gallon water
  • 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

Instructions

  • 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 ingredients into a large deep pot and heat on medium heat until a gentle boil has been reached. Once boiling simmer for 5 minutes and then turn off. Cover to let cool to room temperature. Once at room temperature try to balance a boiled egg in the brine. If it sinks, slowly 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. For best results place a weight on top of your curing salmon. I recommend something like a pie dish or a baking tray with a couple of cans of food. You are looking for around 1 – 1.5 pounds of weight.   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 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.

Final Thoughts on Cold Smoked Salmon

There you have it, cold smoked salmon. 

Its as simple as that. 

I know your family and friends are going to absolutely love you for this one!

Do you have a different way to cold smoke salmon? Or have some life changing cold smoked salmon recipes I need to try? 

I would love to hear from you! Let me know in the comments below! 

Happy Smoking everyone,

Charlie

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23 thoughts on “The Secret To Cold Smoked Salmon (Its Actually Not That Hard) [October 2019]”

  1. Thanks for the recipe! Can you add how much water for the brine? It took me a bit to get the salt mixture correct.
    Thanks!

  2. Confused. Your article says to brine and then cure on a rack in the fridge. However the recipe says to brine and then cure again with more salt and sugar in a glass baking dish. Seems like you would use one or the other curing methods but not both. Anxious to try but looking for clarification. Thanks.

    1. Hiya Mitch, you are looking at around 1 1/2 – 2 cups of sugar and 3/4 – 1 1/4 cups of salt for the cure. I have just noticed I don’t have any cure in the recipe I will update this shortly!

  3. Hi Charlie, I had a quick question, I’ve seen a few videos on cold smoking salmon with a smoking gun (like the breville one), basically it’s the same process as you’ve stated but when it comes to infusing the “smoke” the gun does it while the fish is in a resealable plastic bag. And it’s only 15 minutes. I don’t have a cold smoker, just the gun and was wondering if that could work?

    1. Hiya Fatima,

      Thanks for the great question!! With the smoking gun you are only adding flavour so it unfortunately it wouldn’t cook your fish. I would try steaming the fish first to achieve a neutral flavour then use the smoking gun.

      Let me know how you go!

      Charlie

  4. since it seems like you tried to be very thorough, i thought i’d point out that i think you left out the cure in the recipe. you have salt and brown sugar in the marinade but nothing is listed for the cure.
    just a heads up… great info tho!

  5. Charlie,
    I live in the Pacific NW along the Columbia river, and have hot smoked my fair share of salmon using a dry brine, 2 lbs dark brown sugar, 1 cup canning salt, 12 – 15 cloves of garlic, pressed. Letting this sit in the refrigerator for 24 hours, then rinse and allow to air dry till the sticky.
    My question is, would this dry brine be good for a cold smoke. or would you recommend using the wet brine first then the dry? If so why?

    1. Hiya Dave!
      I haven’t used a dry brine with that amount of sugar before. So, I have asked my mate Lance over at H.Foreman & Sons (these guys are kings at hot smoked) what his thoughts were on whether this dry brine would be ok for a cold smoke or not. Ill get back to you as soon as I hear

  6. Charlie, I was a little skeptical at first thinking it might be to dry and too salty after all the steps but my first run came out stellar. The flesh firms up just perfect, it’s still decadent and almost buttery smooth but not falling apart, with a wonderful concentration of flavor. And almost translucent but with a beautiful salmon hue. No other approach I have tried has given me that “Russ & Daughters” (or high-end quality smoked salmon) result. I also added a little fresh Fennel Seed, coriander seed and cumin seed, in the brine and a touch of them freshly ground in the cure as I use them in many of my dry rubs. The wood was mostly apple and cherry, but there was some white oak, hickory and mesquite mixed in because I have it around and was using up all the small stuff as I went. Its been a month since I did the last batch and I’m getting ready to do another right now. In a mid life crisis I taught myself to weld and I built a couple big smokers (Franklin-clones) as well as my son and I fish and spear fish but the only thing I can get one of my daughters to eat in the way of smoked and seafood is cold smoked salmon. Thank you so much for sharing your recipe and approach.

    1. Hiya Ryan!

      I am sooo stoked that it came up to Russ & Daughters standards!!! Love the spice blend as well, I am going to add fennel and cumin in my next one as well. Gooooosh the only stopping me for eating seafood for every meal is my wallet, haha!

      If your keen I would love to feature some of your homemade smokers, send them over to [email protected] (only if you want too!)

      Charlie

      1. I would be glad to, I’ll get some pictures together and sent them to that address. Just so you know, they are called “UglyPits”, and there is a reason for that. So you might want to have a beer or three before looking at the pictures. They are offset stick-burners designed to cook brisket with only the cleanest smoke with an insulated firebox to maintain a consistent temperature. No frills and sturdy.

    1. Hiya Adam,

      Good question!!! I do both for smoked salmon. You will find that brining is a form of curing (sitting it in a saltwater solution) then the cure is a mixture of ingredients to add flavour, usually with smoke salmon that mixture is brown sugar and salt. If your doing a Nordic salmon or also called gravlax you also include looots of dill!

      My mom has an awesome cure she does for Christmas which has beetroot and gin!! Shw wont let me share her recipe, here a pretty close one! https://www.olivemagazine.com/recipes/fish-and-seafood/beetroot-and-gin-cured-salmon/

      Let me know your thoughts on that one! 🙂

      Have an awesome Sunday!!

  7. I just got back from Europe and fell in love with cold smoked salmon again as they eat it everywhere. I am giving this a try but I have to admit a brine and then a sugar/salt cure seems like a ton.
    Either way I was just doing the cure stage before so this should be cool.

    1. I know!! Especially the Nordic, I love their open face smoked salmon sandwiches!! Let me know how you go cold smoking the salmon and what ratios you used, love hearing other ideas 🙂

      Charlie

  8. Great cold smoked salmon recipe there charlie. I am going to need to try this for my daughters birthday next week she loves salmon!

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