How to Smoke Salmon




About: An engineer, seamstress, cook, coder, and overall maker. Spent a summer at Instructables; got a degree in E: Neural Engineering at Olin College; made a microcontroller (; now thinking about climate...

These instructions are for smoking salmon in a smokehouse.

My dad's sister in Alaska is the queen of smoked salmon. They grew up on a Southeast Alaska beach, fishing and eating salmon, so they know what good salmon tastes like, and everybody in town goes to her for salmon smoking.

This is her recipe, which we use for smoking salmon in the smokehouse we built down here in Washington.

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Step 1: You Need

Step 2: Preparing the Fire

Green wood makes a lot of smoke, so it's nice if you can cut down a tree. We have a profusion of alders, so that's what we used.

Light a fire in the base of the smokehouse and get the temperature up to 100F.

Step 3: Preparing the Racks

Clean your smoking racks and brush or spray them with oil so that the fish won't stick.

Step 4: Preparing the Brine

We use a 5-gallon bucket.
Put some cold water in it, then add salt and stir until a russet potato with a nail in it floats to the top.
Note: Add your salt a little at a time, and make sure that it dissolves fully! Otherwise your brine could be too salty at the bottom.

Add about 1/3 cup of brown sugar. This will cause the fish to glaze during the smoking process.

Step 5: Preparing the Fish

Remember to handle salmon delicately throughout this process; it tears easily.

Clean out the fish- gut it if yours is fresh; even if it's storebought, open up the belly and make sure to wash out the blood and guts under cold water.
Wipe down the outside and clean off the scales.

Step 6: Cutting the Salmon

Cut open the belly upwards from the little hole at its base to the gills.
Sever the head and gills; these go in the scraps bucket.
Fillet from where the head used to be to the tail. Keep your knife flat against the spine and slide it along to the tail, leaving the fins (top and bottom) attached to the vertebrae.
Remove fillet, flip fish, and repeat on the other side.
You should be left with very little meat attached to the bones and two beautiful fillets.

You have some options with your slicing up of the fillets; you can section it off into serving-size portions, or if you want to smoke the whole fillet, that's good too. You need a lot of (or a few hungry) people to eat a whole fillet.
If you're sectioning it up: the belly pieces are fattiest and therefore delicious. Slice thickly. The thinner the slices, the saltier.

Chop the tail off of the spine; add to scraps.
If there's much meat left on the spine, you can chop it up and smoke it with the rest; this bit comes out salty and is traditionally eaten with beer.

Step 7: Brining the Salmon

Brining time is dependent on taste- the longer you brine (and the smaller your chunks), the saltier your fish will get.
I don't like mine too salty, so I do ten minutes or so. Be careful with this timing; fourteen or fifteen minutes is MUCH saltier.

Start your timer as you begin to put your fish chunks (carefully cradled in your hands) in the brine.
The fish float, so an upside-down pot lid on top does a good job of keeping the fish in the brine.

Step 8: Racking the Salmon

Carefully pull the pieces of salmon out of the brine and place them, skin down, on the oiled racks.
Leave a little space between them so that they don't stick together while they're smoking.

Pick up your full racks and carry them to the smokehouse.

Step 9: Smoking the Salmon

With the smokehouse at 100-110F, place racks in the smokehouse.
The lower racks (closer to the fire) are hotter.

Close the door. Check on the temperature regularly, adjusting the fire or cracking open the door as necessary.
Every once in a while, reach in and rock each piece by hand so that it doesn't stick to the racks.

For the first two hours, smoke at about 100F.
For the next two, 100-120F.
For the next two or so after that, 120-140 until the fish is done.

Taste it to see if it's done.

Step 10: Scraps

Remember that bowl of scraps? Might as well eat them while you're waiting for the salmon to smoke.
Throw them all in a pot of water and boil for a while.

Be sure to eat the eyes and cheeks of the fish; they're the best part.

Save the water; it's great soup stock.

Step 11: Mmmmm, Smoked Salmon.

My aunt leaves a tote out in front of her house. She calls it her "magic fish box" because it's always full of fish that somebody left for her to smoke.

It's a long process to smoke fish, so we tend to do it in big batches. Pictured here, we have three big kings' worth of fish.
We bought a vacuum sealer so that it would keep longer. Sealed properly, we can put it in the fridge. (It helps with the smell, too).
Since it has a high fat content and smoking is a preservative process, it lasts for months.

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    25 Discussions


    3 years ago

    I tried sandwiching my fish between two cookie cooling racks. I
    wired the ends of the two racks together with a with a soft (e.g.,
    copper) wire so they wouldn't come apart.

    The two cookie
    sheets per batch worked GREAT - it allowed me to flip the fish, for
    basting, without having to break it loose from either the main racks or
    the cookie racks.

    Since you are flipping the whole batch over in
    one fell swoop, without disturbing the cooked, flaky meat, it doesn't
    crumble and break. Flipping it is a two second job.


    Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

    try adding slabs of ginger before the water boils. will eliminate the strong fishy smell.


    Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

    Being from the Philippines where this is how they do 70% of all their fish dishes... yes, it is rather fishy and slimy. If you're not used to the smell and texture, it can get overwhelming.


    Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

    What size nail? 8p? 16p? Sized to the potato? Ruset?
    I would stay away from galvanized or VC (vinyl coated).
    I've always tried to keep it a steady temperature, what is the reasoning for varing it?
    Smoking food is always good.


    6 years ago on Introduction

    Neat trick with the potato and nail which is essentially a hydrometer to achieve a certain specific gravity in the brine. I work in a lab with lots of fancy instruments but still appreciate "folk methods" that just git 'er done.


    6 years ago on Introduction

    Absolutely great !…
    The sugar spoon is one of the tricks : glad you mentioned it !…
    I'll keep the potato and nail trick in mind in my next "smoking" session.

    I have only two remarks about the smokehouse :
    1) you should definitely make an instructable !
    2) also wouldn't it be better if you used plain wood when building it instead of the compressed chips planks (or whatever it's called in the US) as they contain a lot of highly toxic materials that may contaminate your food without you knowing it.

    Greg Davies

    6 years ago on Step 11

    Thank you for the instructions. Planning on doing this soon.


    6 years ago on Step 9

    You should write up an instructable on your smokehouse it looks awesome! I love smoked salmon I always had a freezer full when I lived in Oak Harbor but I moved back to Oklahoma. :( but we have crappie :) and there just as good. Enjoy some for me. ;)

    1 reply

    6 years ago on Introduction

    That's interesting to check for salinity of the brine with a potato and nail. Is there any electrolytic process going on with the nail, can it be a rusty nail or coated or it's just some tradition?

    2 replies

    Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

    I remember, we used a raw egg in Germany (in the shell!). When it floated, the brine was right...