Cold smoking salmon is nowhere near as difficult as people would have you believe. If you want to know how to make your own delicious homemade smoked fish then this guide is for you. Here’s how to cold smoke salmon.
I’m a big fish lover, and out of all the different types of salmon out there, my favorite by far is smoked salmon. It’s the perfect accompaniment to so many different kinds of meals, whether it be as a snack or a dinner. It can be salty, or creamy, and it’s downright delicious.
Despite its popularity, not many people seem to know how to cold smoke salmon. The good news though is that the process of cold smoking it is actually incredibly easy, and it’s something that I think a lot more people should know how to do.
I think perhaps some people’s anxiety over smoked salmon is that they’re handling raw fish. Luckily, the process of cold smoking makes it completely safe. Cold smoking is essentially a form of curing that allows all the proteins in the salmon to reconstruct, making it safe to eat (source).
Good meat preparation is all about following strict rules, so here are my key tips to making sure your cold smoked salmon is a success.
Ensure proper temperature control
Like with so many types of smoking, keeping heat levels as perfect as possible over a long time is key here. In the case of cold smoking salmon we don’t want to go over 80°F (27°C). Anything over and we run the risk of cooking it, which in isn’t what we want for this type of meat preparation.
Get the right type of smoker
Unfortunately, not all types of BBQ smoker are capable of cold smoking, so you need to find out if yours is ahead of time.
While charcoal and wood smokers are often the go-to for many hardcore BBQ fans, a large number of them aren’t built for cold smoking. Contrastingly, a good number of electric smokers can.
It really differs between smokers however, so carefully check your smoker’s instructions, or consider cold options prior to buying your next smoker.
Use frozen salmon
I know that in most instances fresh is best, but frozen fish is actually perfect for cold smoking. Firstly deep freezing the fish at under 0°F (-18°C) helps kill some of the harmful parasites that are often found in raw fish (source), but it’s important that the fish is frozen for a week to kill these parasite. While cooking also kills these parasites, cold smoking won’t take the meat to the levels of heat required for this, so it’s important we combat this with very low freezing temperatures instead.
Also freezing the fish causes the water inside it to expand and burst some of the cell membranes. This is actually good because once the fish thaws the liquid inside the fillet can drain, which makes the brining process quicker and easier.
What’s the best salmon for cold smoking?
Frankly, a lot of this will come down to personal taste. There a wide variety of salmon types out there, and the ones available to you will be limited by geography as much as price.
Some of the varieties out there are King, Scottish, coho, sockeye, chum, and Atlantic (source). It’s worth noting that different types of salmon will vary in the amount of oil and flavor they carry. The more oil they have, the more buttery flavor and moisture they will carry.
Species like Chum or Pink salmon tend to be low in oil content, whereas Kind and Sockeye are far richer in oil content and flavor.
Regardless of which type you choose, it will always be the case that fresh is best. Fish spoils really quickly, so I recommend buying fresh before then deep freezing it for a week to rid it of parasites and bacteria before cold smoking.
How to prepare salmon for cold smoking
If your salmon is frozen then you will need to allow it to completely defrost.
Once your salmon has thawed, or if you have a fresh salmon, you will need to start by scaling it. To do this, run the back side of a knife over the side of the fish to remove as many of the scales as possible. Rinse off the scales, and repeat until you have removed as many of the scales as possible.
Check out this video for a great guide on scaling, filleting and chopping salmon:
How to debone salmon
To make the smoking process easier it’s important to debone the salmon. You can do this with a simply pair of tweezer/nose pliers. Trace your finger down the fillet and when you find a bone, use the pliers to remove it. Generally speaking, these bones are fairly evenly spread across the flesh of the fish so finding them shouldn’t be too difficult. Once you’ve been through the fish, I recommend checking a second time just to make sure you have gotten as many of the bones as possible.
How to cut the salmon
This step isn’t actually completely needed, and will be depend on what size smoker you have. If you have a large smoker then you can simply but the whole piece of salmon in. However if your smoker is on the small size then you may need to cut it up in order to make it fit. If this is the case then I recommend cutting it into chunks.
In either case, leave the skin of the salmon on. This will help the flesh of the fish stay together while it smokes. Just keep in mind that the smaller the piece of salmon, the less time it will need to brine and smoke.
How to brine salmon
A crucial part of meat preparation for a lot of different types of meat is brining.
Brining is a preparation process that helps protect meat against the risk of drying out during smoking. Because smoking involves exposing meat to warm temperatures over a long time, it’s important that we don’t allow too much moisture to exit the meat during this time.
The process involves submerging the meat in lukewarm salt-water for several hours. The salt will help lock in the moisture of the meat.
One of the most important things to keep in mind when brining is water temperature. Temperature is so crucial during smoking, and this actually extends to the brining process as well. So we need to use a water temperature of between 35 and 40°F (2-°C). If we go above this then bacteria could develop in the meat, and if we go below then the salt won’t have the opportunity to do its job.
Allow your salmon to brine overnight for the best results. Once you have done this, remove the salmon from the brine and rinse off any excess salt under a cold tap.
How to cure your salmon
In general, curing is a type of preservation and flavoring process that we use on meat to help protect it against bacteria growth (source). For our purposes today it also helps us allow the salt in the fish from the brining distribute more evenly throughout the fillet, preventing there being too much build up in the center of the fish.
Spread one-third of your cure in a baking dish. Ensure that the dish is only just large enough to hold your salmon fillet. Carefully place your fillet in the tray with about half an inch between the fillet and the outer rim of the dish. If you have cut your fillet into pieces then try to allow about half an inch between each piece as well.
Pour/store the remainder of the cure on top of the salmon, ensuring that everything is covered completely and there are no gaps.
Store for 24 hours in the refrigerator, or at least overnight. The longer you allow it to cure, the better the results will be. Although don’t allow it to cure for longer than 48 hours.
The importance of pellicle
After all the steps above one of the results you should notice is a layer of pellicle forming on the outside of your fish. This is a thin layer of liquified proteins that forms a clear coat over the entire fillet. This is important because it helps keep a lot of the liquids in the fish, helping to prevent it from drying out during smoking.
Pre-heat your smoker and remove your salmon from the dish, and rinse off any excess brine under a cold tap.
When your smoker is at our target temperature of 80°F (27°F) open up the door and place your salmon on the cooking racks. Make sure that you leave a good amount of room around the salmon to allow good air flow and smoke circulation. Try to allow it to have an equal amount of space in front of it as well as behind.
Your salmon will need about 5 hours of smoking, but the real key will be that it’s lost about 15-20% of its weight
Your salmon will be ready to eat as soon as it’s done, but it’s actually best if you transfer it to the refrigerator once done and leave for 4-6 hours before serving. Once it’s ready, use a long sharp knife to cut the salmon diagonally into paper-thin slices.
If want to store it then I recommend vacuum sealing it and storing in your refrigerator. If you need to freeze it then it should last up to a year.