How to Properly Cold or Hot Smoke a Salmon

When you think about it, salmon are highly complex fish.  They are typically anadromous, meaning they’re born in fresh water, migrate to the sea, then return to fresh water to reproduce.  Plus, studies have shown that salmon actually return to the exact spot where they were born to spawn.  Given this sophisticated background, do you really think smoking one of these suckers is as easy as lighting a match underneath it?  Properly smoking a salmon involves much, much more.  Not to worry though, because even a rookie smoker can master the process.  Let’s take a closer look.

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  • Thorough Preparation is Vital

    Proper salmon smoking doesn’t mean you wrap a fillet in some foil and throw it amongst some burning coals.  Before a cook even worry about the smoking process, he must:

    • Catch or purchase a salmon
    • Remove the pin bones
    • Cure, rinse and dry the salmon

    Perhaps the most complex task within the preparation process is deciding your preferred method of curing.  Two are available: wet curing and dry curing.  Most of today’s consumer smoked salmon undergoes wet curing, where a salmon is submerged in a brine solution (or, a mixture of salt, pepper, sugar and spices).  Dry curing involves treating the salmon with a rub (usually a mixture of salt, nitrites and seasoning).

  • It’s Smoke Time, but…

    To hot smoke or to cold smoke, that is the question.  As with curing, the act of smoking involves making an important decision.  Does a cook opt with hot smoking his salmon, or does he go the cold smoking route?

    What’s the difference you ask?  When salmon is hot smoked, it’s placed in a smoker along with a fire or pit of coals.  Aromatic woods (e.g., cedar or apple) are added to the fire to create a strong scented smoke.  The smoke infuses the salmon with flavor and the heat from the fire or coals cooks the salmon.

    When salmon is cold smoked, it’s also placed in a smoker.  However, the smoke is generated in a separate chamber from the actual smoker.  The result is that the temperature inside the smoker is kept much lower and the smoke slowly seeps into the fish without a great deal of heat.  Slow smoking can take days or even weeks.

  • So I DO Need an Actual Smoker to Properly Smoke Salmon?

    Not at all.  The actual device used to smoke salmon ultimately depends on whether you decide to hot smoke or cold smoke the fish.  If hot smoking is the preferred route, then smoking can take place in a genuine smoker, an ordinary grill, a Wok, and even a cookie-tin.

    If cold smoking is your preference, then you’ll have to break free from hotter smokers or other cooking mechanisms.  If you have the time and extra money, you can always build your own. If time is limited, you could definitely buy a specialized cold-smoker; or go simple and use a soldering iron. Some people have even come up with their own contraptions using fireboxes attached to hoses.

    Salmon smoking is kind of like the expression, “I may have been born at night, but not last night.”  The process of smoking is not a recent phenomenon.  People have been doing it for centuries.

    The good news about this is that there is a definite smoking process that has been figured out, and should be followed.  The better news is that there’s a host of creative ways to actually smoke salmon.  In the end, we all want the fantastic taste that smoked salmon provides.  But, how you achieve this end is really up to you!