Many of my friends and family have asked me to share my recipe for smoked salmon. I’ve tried different variations of brine but found that the dry brine from Salmonuniversity.com to be among the easiest to prep and best in taste.
Now that you’ve caught your fish, what to do with all this meat? Well if you can’t eat it all at once or don’t give it away smoked salmon can be a wonderful treat months down the road and reminder of your fishing successes when the salmon were running.
I like to enjoy my smoked salmon as a dip, on top of a cream cheese bagel or toast, scrambled in eggs, added to clam or fishermans chowder or just enjoyed with a cold beer. Here is a repeat of the recipe with a modification of using the Costco minced garlic and freshed cracked pepper as well.
I bought a couple of clear plastic Sterilite containers with snapping lids so they can be stacked in the fridge and I can view the brining process as know when it’s done, usually overnight in the fridge. Also I’ve upgraded my smoker from the Big Chief which I didn’t care for the small heating element, thin gauge aluminum walls, and lack of temperature control. I replaced it with a Steel lined and insulated Masterbuilt smoker with chip box, larger element and thermostat which I can add a timer. Usually set at 200 degrees I can smoke a fish in 3 hours with no oil or fat ooze or loss from the fish and done is less time with excellent taste and quality. Enjoy!
How to Smoke Salmon – Recipe #1
This brine recipe is one of the simplest you will find. People tend to get crazy with all sorts of ingredients in their brines… white wine, tabasco sauce, paprika, apple juice… try them if you’d like, but I prefer a simple brine that I can memorize.
Here are the basics:
4 cups dark brown sugar
1 cup non-iodized salt (canning & pickling or kosher salt)
10-15 cloves of garlic
I prefer dark brown sugar over light brown sugar because I like the color that the dark brown sugar imparts on the fish (a nice dark red), and I think it might taste a little different, too.
For the salt, I use non-iodized canning salt. In the past I had used rock salt, and I would use 2 cups of rock salt to every 4 cups of sugar… but every once in a while, I would get a batch of smoked salmon that had a metallic taste. One day I mentioned this to a friend, and he asked me if I was using rock salt… he reminded me that rock salt has impurities in it, and that’s probably what was giving me the metallic taste. As a result, I have now switched to canning salt, and the metallic tastes are gone. But, the canning salt is ground much finer than rock salt, so I’ve cut back to 1 cup of salt for every 4 cups of sugar.
For the garlic, try to use fresh garlic, and run it through a garlic press… if you’re like me, you hate to peel garlic… especially 10 or 15 cloves of it… that’s OK, let your wife do it, just promise her you’ll do something else. If you can’t negotiate that, I have substituted dry garlic flakes (like the Frontier Herbs ones sold in bulk at QFC). In this case, I use about 1 teaspoon for every clove, or about 10 teaspoons total. You could also try using the chopped garlic sold in a jar, or dry garlic powder, but I haven’t had much luck with these… they have a different, more bitter taste, and aren’t as potent.
Put it all in a big bowl, and mix it all together. OK… so you’re asking, “How much fish will this recipe handle?” Well, that depends on how heavily you cover your fish… to tell you the truth, I usually just keep a bunch of ingredients on hand… I mix up a batch of brine using the measurements above, then I start covering my fish, and if I need more dry brine, I just quickly mix up another partial batch.
Now it’s time to brine the fish. Cover the fillets liberally with the dry brine mixture. Once the fillets are coated, stack them in the bottom of a non-metallic pan… in this case, I’m using an enameled pot. You can cover the bottom of the pot with brine, but it really doesn’t matter… once the brine starts to work and some of the water from the fish is extracted, the whole thing turns into a gooey mess.
I usually place the first fillets in the pot skin side down, and then alternate them as I continue… so all the fish lays flesh to flesh and skin to skin.
Once all my fish is in the brine, I cover the container and put it in the fridge for about six hours. The amount of time you keep the fish in the brine and the amount of salt you use in your brine mixture will determine how firm the flesh of the fish becomes, and how salty the taste of the end product will be.
After the fish has sat in the brine in the fridge for six hours, take the pieces out one by one and rinse them gently in cold water. You don’t want to scrub them or disturb the flesh, you just want to get the heavy deposits of brine off. Once the fish is rinsed off, drain it the best you can and set it out on a rack to dry at room temperature. I use the rack from my smoker because it’s convenient, but you can use cookie cooling racks as well… just realize you’ll have some explaining to do when the next batch of chocolate chip cookies tastes & smells like coho.
You need to let the fish dry at least a couple of hours. I usually dry them for four to six hours, depending upon the thickness of the fillets. You don’t want the room temperature to be too hot or too cold, what you’re trying to do here is dry the fish out and form the pellicle on the surface of the flesh. Good airflow around the fish is helpful, you can even use a small fan to help the process if you’d like. If you’re using the racks from your smoker, set it up so the thicker fillets are on the lower shelves, and the thinner fillets are on the upper shelves… this will even out how they dry once they’re in the smoker.
The next step is to smoke the fish. There are lots of different smokers out there, and lots of them do a good job of smoking fish. I prefer the electric smokers because they are much more hassle-free than the charcoal or wood-fired smokers. With an electric smoker, some people even get as fancy as to run the smoker on a timer… so in case you didn’t plan ahead, you don’t have to wake up at 3am to shut the smoker off.
A couple of words about small, uninsulated smokers… first of all, they are weather-dependant. In other words, if you’re smoking fish on a warm August day with no wind, it will take less time to finish than it will if you’re smoking on a cold, windy October night. On a warm day it might take six hours to achieve your desired result, and on a cold night it might take ten or twelve hours.
You should also be aware that some electric smokers have bigger elements (higher wattages) than their smaller counterparts… and therefore the bigger ones have more consistent results.
When using an electric smoker, you should always try to avoid using an extension cord if at all possible. But, if you must use an extension cord, make sure it’s a heavy duty grounded cord (14 gauge or bigger) and use the shortest one possible, to avoid any voltage drop.
As always, USE COMMON SENSE. Don’t set up your smoker indoors. Don’t set it up on your deck. Set it up on a firm, level, non-flammable surface, out of the wind, and clear of any houses, garages, wood piles or other flammable objects.
Preheat your smoker for 15 minutes to get it up to temperature. Put your rack of fish into it, and add your wood chips to get it smoking. The amount of wood chips and what type you use are completely up to your tastes. For this recipe in a Big Chief Smoker, I use one pan of alder chips at the start, and one pan of apple chips after one hour… then I let the fish sit in there and dry out for another four hours or so, for a complete smoking/drying time of about six hours. Again, this is done to taste, and due to wind and temperature fluctuations, I check on the appearance of the fish after about five hours, and make a judgement from there.
Be prepared to have plenty of oohs an aaahs as freshly smoked King salmon doesn’t last very long in our household. My son was already tearing into it before I could lay my chops into the Alder infused goodness.