This is by far my family’s favorite smoked salmon recipe. It’s simple to make and it’s absolutely delicious! Really all you need is a standard brine, one salmon filet, some good rub and a smoker or grill. Speaking of cooking, regardless of what device you decide to cook this in you want to use INDIRECT heat only or it will dry out very quickly.
When most people think of smoked salmon, they think of what you would call “cold” smoked salmon where the smoking process is typically done at about 90 degrees Fahrenheit over a long period of time. Cold smoking doesn’t cook the fish, but it deeply flavors it. Correctly prepared cold smoked salmon never reaches an internal temperature above eighty degrees Fahrenheit. Technically, the fish is still raw, but cured. The long bath in a nice salty brine causes the proteins to denature, actually modifying the structure of the salmon flesh by “cooking it” via a chemical process, but you’ll read more about that later on…
This recipe is a what you would call “hot” smoked salmon where the smoking process also cooks the fish while layering on the right amount of awesome flavor. The hot smoking process is typically done at about 250 degrees Fahrenheit over a short period of time to prevent the fish from drying out.
I’m a big fan of natural meats (NO growth hormones, NO preservatives) and I would always suggest that you use wild-caught, not farm-raised fish for this recipe. I’ve found that a 2 lb filet is perfect for the average size family.
I like to trim off the lower, thinner belly meat and the tail end to prevent the fish drying out during the cooking process. This leaves a nice center-cut filet that stays moist and presents well when finished. (filet has been turned 180 degrees)
Always, always, always brine seafood (and poultry) for best results when putting them into a smoker or grill; otherwise it will dry out much faster. Mix all ingredients below in a food safe plastic container until completely dissolved and then add the filet.
½ cup kosher salt
½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup light brown sugar
1 tbsp rub mixture (if desired)
The juice of one lemon and one lime
64 ounces cold water
As you can see I’ve left the skin on, I’ve found this helps keep the fish together and protect the bottom from drying out. I recommend brining the fish flesh side down for best results.
Please see the link below to the Virtual Weber Bullet post on food safe plastics for more information. Also, general guidelines for brining length would be 1 hour per pound, no less than one ½ hour and no longer than 8 hours.
You ask, why brine at all? Please continue reading…
How It Works
Brining works in accordance with two principles, called diffusion and osmosis, that like things to be kept in equilibrium. When brining a fish, there is a greater concentration of salt and sugar outside of the fish (in the brine) than inside the fish (in the cells that make up its flesh). The law of diffusion states that the salt and sugar will naturally flow from the area of greater concentration (the brine) to lesser concentration (the cells). There is also a greater concentration of water, so to speak, outside of the fish than inside. Here, too, the water will naturally flow from the area of greater concentration (the brine) to lesser concentration (the cells). When water moves in this fashion, the process is called osmosis. Once inside the cells, the salt and, to a lesser extent, the sugar cause the cell proteins to unravel, or denature. As the individual proteins unravel, they become more likely to interact with one another. This interaction results in the formation of a sticky matrix that captures and holds moisture. Once exposed to heat, the matrix gels and forms a barrier that keeps much of the water from leaking out as the meat cooks. Thus you have a fish that is both better seasoned and much more moist than when you started.
Source: Cooks Illustrated – Brining Basics http://www.cooksillustrated.com/images/document/howto/ND01_ISBriningbasics.pdf
Also, never, never, never use a regular aluminum (non-iodized) pan when brining or marinating. The acid and/or salt mixed with the water will react with the aluminum resulting in an altered flavor in your cut of meat.
Source: Virtual Weber Bullet – Food Grade Plastic Containers For Brining
I love to make my own rubs, but I also use many off the shelf, even store brand rubs as well. One of my favorites is the Kroger brand Private Selection Citrus & Savory Signature Rub. It also has a slightly sweet component that helps round out the flavor.
The Pellicle (optional)
Most people are not familiar with the Pellicle or its purpose and it wasn’t until I started researching the basics of smoking food that I uncovered it. I say its optional, but if you have the time I would recommend it…here’s why…
By air-drying the salmon after it’s been brined it allows a coating to form made up of dissolved proteins that are created during the brining process. Not only does this coating help protect the fish from drying out during the cooking process, it also provides a better surface in which the smoke will adhere to thus resulting in a better flavor. I think we’ve all seen this, without a sufficient pellicle, the white fat will ooze out of the fish as it cooks, resulting in an unsightly presentation.
To enhance the flavor of the Citrus & Savory rub I like to use Apple hardwood for this recipe, I’ve found that Hickory and Oak are too smoky. You don’t want to overwhelm the flavor of the rub or the fish itself!
If you’re using a wet smoker, which I would recommend, ensure there is an adequate amount of liquid for at least a two hour period. If you’re not using a wet smoker, I would recommend using foil on the grate to prevent too much liquid from escaping.
Tip: The water pan in a wet smoker serves more than one purpose, in addition to the greatest benefit of all which is keeping the food moist while cooking. It also acts as a buffer to separate the fire and the food for indirect cooking as well as acting as a regulator to absorb the dips and spikes to provide for a more constant cooking temperature.
Normally I use a pre-perforated foil sheet, this time around I decided to try a cedar plank
to see how it affects the flavor. Out of pure coincidence, I purchased a plank that roughly fits the size of one of my sinks, so it makes soaking easy.
Noon – Trim the filet as shown above and place into the brine. Refrigerate for the next two hours in a food safe plastic container or plastic brining bag.
2:00pm – Remove the filet from the brine and rinse thoroughly with cold water to remove the excess salt. Place on a wire rack in a cool spot or near a fan to air-dry.
3:30pm – Preheat smoker or grill to 250 degrees Fahrenheit for the next half hour.
4:00pm – Place filet in smoker or grill and cover.
Continue to check the temperature hourly or if you have remote thermometer keep an eye on the temperature to make sure it doesn’t go too low for too long or cook too fast and dry out. Also, depending on the amount of smoke flavor you desire add the appropriate amount of wood chunks. Lastly, if you’re wet smoking keep an eye on the liquid level.
If a constant 250 degree Fahrenheit temperature has been maintained for an hour and a half the fish should be done. To verify, the internal temperature should register at least 145 degrees Fahrenheit on a meat thermometer inserted in the thickest portion of the filet.
The Finished Product
I like to let the fish set for 5-10 minutes prior to serving to allow the juices to absorb and to allow it to slightly cool. If you followed these directions to a tee, the results should be a super moist, extremely flavorful, smoked salmon filet. Enjoy!