Smoking Salmon Simplified!!! 55

Jun 22, 2009 by Tom Nelson

If there is a food that is more uniquely “Northwest” than smoked salmon I don’t know what it is… But, I would like to find out!

I love salmon, I grew up eating it, it’s good for you and If you give me the choice of a USDA Prime Rib Eye steak or an alder barbequed salmon; it’s salmon every day and twice on Sunday!

There is something primal about the relationship between salmon and smoke. Native Americans have used smoking as a method of preserving their fish and meats since the dawn of time and in the interim, all modern man has been able to do is refine the ancient process.  For the fisherman that is just getting in to smoking, I would offer the same advice that I give to new anglers: find one or two techniques, stick with them for consistent success and pay attention to details.

My process is a “wet brine” method and must be followed EXACTLY for good results. This is a tried and true method that works every time but you cannot skip a step and expect success. The process takes about three days: one to brine, one to air dry and one to smoke.

Have you ever heard the old saying “Beware the man with one gun, for he surely knows how to use it”? Well, I’m the guy with one smoking recipe and brother… well, just give this one a try and you won’t be disappointed!

First, the recipe:

2 gallons warm fresh water
4 cups brown sugar
2 cups pure (non-iodized or pickling & canning) salt
2 heaping Tablespoons coarse ground black pepper
6 whole Bay leaves crumbled
1 Tablespoon Garlic powder (Optional)
(For smaller batches just reduce ingredients proportionally)
Brining time: Depends on the thickness of the fish and desired taste. This is a reduced salt recipe that will not ruin fish if left in the brine for a longer period of time. For average adult chinook 15-18 hours will be fine. For coho, sockeye or pinks, 12 hours should do the job.

For the purpose of this process we’ll assume you have a “box and hot plate” type of electric smoker utilizing dried alder chips or chunks. With these smokers, typically you do not have temperature control but you can control the quantity of smoke. I use a minimum of three “pans” of chips. Keep in mind that warmer days are better for smoking and that the smoker does not and should not be smoking constantly. Usually 8-12 hours in the smoker gets the job done depending on your tastes.

I use warm (not hot) water since the ingredients will dissolve more easily and completely than trying to make this brine in cold water. In addition, if you are smoking frozen fish you can use very warm water and allow the fish to thaw in the brine. After a couple of hours, don’t forget to remove the frozen fish to cut proper smoking sized pieces. Then return the smoking chunks to the brine for the remainder of the brine time.

Never, ever use a metal container for brining fish! The result will be a “tinny” or metallic taste that many folks find unpalatable. I use food or chemical grade 5-gallon plastic buckets. Plastic buckets have the added advantage of coming with tight-fitting lids. When the brine is complete, it takes up about half the room in the bucket and you can add fish to bring the level up to almost the top of the bucket if you have a big batch!

So now you have all the ingredients and “raw materials” together and we’re ready to start the process.

Before I even touch the fish, I make the brine up in the bucket and it looks like this:

If we’re working with frozen salmon, we make a warmer brine, allow the fish to thaw enough to cut, take it out of the brine, remove the ribs and cut chunks from back to belly about 1 ½ to 2 inches wide.  Return these processed chunks to the brine for the remainder of the brine time.

When you get to the tail you are left with a large, flat piece.

Split the tail laterally so you retain a uniform size to your smoking chunks which results in consistent salt content and drying times.  

When you’re done with the tail it should look about like this.

In my opinion, the next two steps are the MOST CRITICAL and if ignored are often responsible for the dreaded “Bad Batch”!!!
After your brine time, remove the fish and feel the new firm texture. Water has been removed from the flesh, replaced by salt.  Now the critical step:

RINSE ALL THE BRINE OFF THE FISH! Under running tap water completely and thoroughly wash off the brine.  

Once rinsed, Air dry the fish without smoking for 18-24 hours depending upon humidity and air flow. If you are in a hurry you can speed the process a bit by placing a fan nearby to provide air flow but not too close, we’re not making jerky here! What happens during the air dry is a tremendous amount of flavor development.

In the brine we introduce salt and in the rinse we “freshen” or remove salt from the surface. During the air dry, salinity evens out throughout the fish and oil starts coming to the surface. To a large degree, this prevents the unsightly white “protein puddles” or ”curds” from forming on your fish and results in the deep red color we all enjoy!

You will know when the air drying process is done when a tacky glaze or “pellicle” forms over the surface of the fish.  

When it’s done it should look like this and you get to taste it first before anybody else knows it’s done!

Good luck with your smoking efforts, remember to not skip any steps and I’m confident you’ll enjoy consistent success with this method. Just remember: Once you smoke it and people start getting a whiff, it won’t be around for long so be sure to hide a little smokers stash!!!



Adam on Mar 09, 2019 at 4:38 am said:

Hello, i will be using frozen wild costco salmon pieces. Do I thaw the fish first then brine or do i put the frozen fish in the brine. How long should I brine and should i put brine in the fridge? How long for air drying at what temp? Garage currently 40-50 degrees basement 65-70. Using pitboss 7 series pelet smoker it shows 180 degrees for 2 hours. Is this ok? Thank you

Rob on Dec 11, 2018 at 2:48 am said:

I’ll have to try that recipe on Black Cod. Trying Rob’s recipe tomorrow.

Eric on Oct 07, 2018 at 3:31 am said:

Tom, trying your method on a batch of coho. The only thing I’m unsure of is you don’t mention if you brine in the refrigerator or at room temp. I’ve been smoking salmon for about 25 years. My recipe is very similar to yours except for air drying 24 hours. I have always brined in the fridge, let air dry about 2 hours and then on the little chief. Always willing to try a new method though.

Tom Nelson on Dec 10, 2018 at 10:18 pm said:

Hey Eric, I always brine and air dry at ambient temps. Whatever the temperature is, it is. Remember that the brining process retards bacterial growth and is part of the preservation process. I've seen salt-cured salmon drying in Aluet and Athabaskan villages for days on end in the summertime.

Nathan on Aug 28, 2017 at 3:23 am said:

Hey Tom, thanks for the easy recipe. My grandfather had the best smoked salmon recipe ever tasted but unfortunately he took that with him to the grave, unintentionally of course. This is a great alternative! And I do have a question for you. Is there a glaze that you would recommend with this recipe? Maybe something to soften up the kind of dry outside? I'm sure the kind of dry outside is because of something I'm doing but was just curious about your thoughts on a glaze.

Ed on Dec 26, 2017 at 10:41 pm said:

Holy cow. Tony Floor Years ago Had Video on WDFW on Smoking Salmon. My God. Idiot Proof. Guys I work with at Boeing over the years Beg to buy it. Here it is. 4 parts Brown Sugar, 1 Part pickling or kosher salt. Put in Tupperware container and mix well. Make more for Next Batch. I work Nights at Boeing SO, Take my Small fillet chunks and Cover well with Brown sugar/Salt dry mixture. Flesh side up.When I get home from work fillets have been dry brining for 8 hrs or so. Wash off dry brine well. Then Pat dry and Air dry for 6-8 hrs minimum. I have 2 small thrift store fans I use in my Garage on Shop bench to circulate air. Then Smoke 2-4 hrs Depending on fish Amount? I Now use Masterbuilt basic Electric smoker at 165 degrees and Works great after retiring my 25 yr old Little Chiefs. I only smoke 2-3 lbs at a time. Perfect EVERY TIME. Easy Peasy. Thanks Tony Floor.

Dave on Apr 17, 2017 at 6:33 pm said:

What is the difference between air drying for 24 hours or just rinsing off the brine and patting dry and then smoking

Corey Thrasher on Mar 30, 2017 at 12:04 am said:

Hey Thank you much for the reply! Makes perfect sense with the fan speeding things up. Probably shouldn't have it in the cold room either. I know there are many, but would you have any smoker upgrade options you could recommend Tom? I love smoking, but The Big Chief is making it rather frustrating. Would love to try this brine! It's time for a positive change :) Thank you again!

Corey Thrasher on Mar 29, 2017 at 8:25 pm said:

I have been eye balling this for days, weeks, often haha. I've been having a horrid time with consistency on my smoking. I've been running a Big Chief for several years and up until now, haven't had any issues with quality and consistency. Not sure what has changed, but it hasn't been for the better. The Big Chief lacking in temp control isn't doing me any favors. I've been brining my 1" strips for roughly 12-28 hours depending on thickness. Some of the pieces at times, will have a hardened, clearish, red opaque look around the edges. Slightly firm after brining but not over the top hard. I have previously only let the fish sit for roughly an hour or so to air dry before smoking and never had an issue with the pellicle being tough. Smoking time, I've always changed the smoking chips every 45 min to an hour for about 5-6 hours. Depending on the outside temp and thickness of meat, the smoking time has varied from 8-16 hours. The flavor and texture has always been epic. I've recently done a few batches, all with same results. Great flavor but the pellicle leaves me wondering if I just made a jerky coat for a piece of fish. Frustrating to say the least. I've varied my brine times, this most recent batch I brined for 12-16 hours in cool garage, air dried in my garage with fan blowing, then smoked starting at 9pm. It was cooler outside and after a few hours, the smoker was barely getting warm. I ended up placing the Big Chief box around it and let it finish out. Upon finish, same results. Hard pellicle and great flavor. recipe 4c brown sug. 1c non iodized salt onion powder garlic powder dill johnnys I'd REALLY appreciate it if someone can help me out here before I lose the final 6 pieces of remaining hair on my head!!

Tom Nelson on Mar 29, 2017 at 10:59 pm said:

Howdy, I'm not a big fan of box fan drying due to the fact that it's an attempt to save time and time is exactly what's required for the salinity to even out and for flavor to develop. In fact the term "air dry" is probably misleading as there is so much going on in that 24 hour period between brining and smoking. Now, That Big Chief.... Box and hotplate smokers are fine in the summertime but when ambient temps are hovering around 50F and the heating element has a few hours on it, longer times in the smoker can lead to the overdone condition you're describing. One final thought, with wet brine recipes in particular, it's vital to RINSE off the fish under running cold water as you remove it from the brine. Good luck and happy smoking!

Curtis on Mar 22, 2017 at 8:28 pm said:

I just smoke a couple of sockeye salmon. It is all vacuum packed . was wondering if it is safe to ship my dad a piece or two unrefrigerated from Washington state to California ??

Tom Nelson on Mar 24, 2017 at 6:49 pm said:

Is it smoked? Then yes. If it's frozen then definitely NOT!

John Corfield on Oct 07, 2016 at 6:49 am said:

Always cook to internal temperature not time. 63c for Salmon. Never let the smoker go over 95c for too long or you boil the protein.

Galen O'Toole on Sep 06, 2016 at 6:17 pm said:

Hi, I tried this recipe over the last two days and it turned out the best smoked salmon that I have ever made. Thank you! I added a couple extra spices, and shallots instead of garlic. Phenomenal.

Tom Nelson on Sep 08, 2016 at 10:30 pm said:

I'm so glad you enjoyed it and made some of your own improvements! Once you get past the idea of the 24 hour air dry and begin to trust the process, your final product will get better and better!

Terrance on Aug 24, 2016 at 5:02 am said:

Hey guys, I just got done brining the fish, however did not realize I was suppose to brine at room temp. The meat doesn't seem as firm as when I had done a dry brine. Did I mess something up or is it not suppose to be a firm using this wet bring technique. Thanks for all your help.

Tom Nelson on Aug 30, 2016 at 8:42 pm said:

So you brined at warmer or cooler than room temp? Cooler will slow the process and warmer may start cooking and soften the product. Hope you can finish the process and enjoy the final product!

Tod Letourneau on Dec 10, 2015 at 11:58 am said:

can you freeze your used brine for the next batch? Am I understanding I can leave it out on the kitchen counter at 74 degrees for 12 hours to dry without bacteria growing?

Billie Ford on Dec 06, 2015 at 5:38 pm said:

Hi Tom. My husband and I have had just "okay" success with past smoking. Found your recipe today and are super excited to try it out! Two questions for you… 1. We only have iodized salt on hand, and can't get any brining or canning salt. Is this a major issue? 2. We are using approximately 8.5 lbs of sockeye. Does the amount of fish really matter? I assume not, but thought I"d ask your opinion. Thanks!

Kingsalmon97 on Sep 26, 2015 at 7:01 pm said:

I've been smoking salmon for 26 years now, mostly from a dry brine. Then I came across Toms Recipe a few years back, it is now my hiden secret from all my buds who smoke also and can't figure out what it is that changed the texture, taste and all around consistency of the batches I do now. I have used toms process with Kings, Silvers and Steelhead and it is really simple just follow his instructions to the (T)... The only thing I tinkered with was the ingredients and only use the water, salt and sugar... Thank you Tom!!! Maybe some day if your ever traveling through SE Alaska and you stop into Petersburg when can set some hooks into some Kings!!!

Tom Nelson on Oct 05, 2015 at 10:44 pm said:

Thanks Kingsalmon! Here's hoping you keep smokin' fish for many, many seasons to come and that you can keep your "secret" from your friends!! Fool them all! Feed them fish!

Travis on Aug 20, 2015 at 5:02 am said:

Does the air drying process take place at room temperature or in the refrigerator? Thank you

Tom Nelson on Aug 24, 2015 at 2:45 pm said:

Howdy! The air dry takes place at ambient or room temp. In my case, that "room" is the garage and it works fine. I also try to do my fish smoking from April through October. Happy smoking!

mike vincent on Aug 02, 2015 at 11:32 pm said:

What temp was your smoker ? thanks mike

Tom Nelson on Aug 24, 2015 at 2:52 pm said:

Howdy! I've been using one of those hand-held laser thermometers and I'm shooting for 150 to 165 degrees.

CHARLES HARTMAN on Apr 14, 2015 at 3:00 am said:

Smoked salmon has always been my favorite- I used to be able to go from San Francisco to Portland knowing where i was by the flavor of the salmon smoked by the individual fishermen along the way. Alas, all gone now- too many people. I don't think the indians had access to brown sugar and I very much prefer to keep sugar out of any meats as it flattens the flavor.

Bob Quigley on Nov 17, 2014 at 9:25 pm said:

Nelly, just got back from Tillamook OR, fished with Dave Manners and did well on kings again this year. I'm going to use your Smoking Simplified process this weekend and have a question. Some of the kings had a bit of color, meat was still pink or red. Is it still okay to use your brine recipe on these salmon? Many thanks, Bob

Kyler K. on Oct 04, 2014 at 10:28 pm said:

Excellent recipe Tom! We smoked a bunch of kokanee and steelhead this weekend with good results. Followed the recipe to a "T" except used half the amount of all the ingredients since we only needed a gallon of water to submerse all of the kokanee fillets. Brined for 12 hours and smoked for 8 using 3 pans of hickory chips in our Little Chief. Thanks!

ET on Aug 31, 2014 at 4:56 pm said:

Does anyone know, or has anyone used, this brine for fish other than salmon? I caught some fresh tuna and have been wanting to smoke some up. Please let me know if anyone has any feedback, thank you! Eric

CJ on Jan 31, 2014 at 6:59 pm said:

Thought I'd share my fresh salmon recipe since you were so kind to share your smoked My 4 Salmon Recipe 4 salmon steaks 1/4 cup brown sugar 1/4 cup olive oil 1/4 cup maple syrup 1/4 cup soy sauce 4 garlic cloves minced 1/4 tsp garlic salt 1/4 tsp black pepper Mix all ingredients together. Marinate salmon steaks in sauce for 20 minutes - 1 hour. Bake at 400 for 20 minutes then broil for 4 minutes to caramelize sugars. I once marinated for 2 1/2 hours. This was a little to long because the meat started to soften but still turned out ok.

Stephanie H on Dec 07, 2013 at 5:22 am said:

Following the frozen fish, I used half the brine recipe for a few pounds of Pinks for 18 hours. Air Dried for 24 hours. My Dad and I smoked for about 1-1.5 hours at 200 degrees and they turned out PERFECT. We JUST finished smoking the fish and vacuum packing them (Yes, we know it's December...) This recipe is amazing. We had never smoked Salmon this way before and we are very pleased with how it all turned out. Tom, you should update this with some of these Comments people have made, they are a HUGE help.

Dave on Nov 24, 2013 at 8:54 pm said:

Tried the brine out a couple of weeks ago and it worked great. Smoked up 3 fish and it was gone in less than an hour between my son how was home on leave and my Daughters boy friend. We liked it so much we are going to do a big batch for snacking on at Thanksgiving this year so between the Moose I got in Canada the Elk we killed in Eastern WA. and Salmon we are going to put on a heck of a spread for the relatives. Thanks Tom that wet brine is awesome.

Danny on Jul 21, 2013 at 7:31 am said:

Gill Muller, what in the heck were you smoking when you wrote that gibberish. My mind blew up trying to understand what any of your sentences actually meant. Holy cow! Anyway, I'm trying the recipe now. I'm a little reluctant to leave the fish out to air dry for 18-24 hours, but it seems people are getting good results. I mistakenly used double the salt in the brine so I pulled the sockeye out after just 8 hours. Hopefully it works out. Thanks for the guide and the photos!

Chad Turner on Jul 20, 2013 at 11:38 pm said:

One year ago, on 7/13/12, Tom Nelson and Jeff Paukoa invited me out fishing for Kings (even though I'm a 4th generation U of O Duck alumni). We couldn't keep the fish yet, but it was "fishing practice". I hadn't gone out myself since then. I went out fishing for Kings with a friend this morning off Possession Point. We used some of Toms advice, and gear + advice from John Martinis. 200+ boats out there and guess who caught one? We Did. Using Tom's geographical advice and John's gear advice... we kicked some booty! We heard of other fish being caught, but the only sure thing was the Kings in our cooler. Now, going to smoke some with Tom's recipe. Good Luck to all in this amazing time of year (for us fisherman).

Gil Muller on Jan 26, 2013 at 7:18 pm said:

I have some tips that I use that I have found that have helped me to make how I process I find it can save time and has the brine gos deeper in to the fish . I used my food saver that has a 8 quart jar which is now hard to find now. put my brine and fish in to brine I have found that using this method can reduce the time you have in the brine to less than 4 hours turning the jar ever hour. you can check at that time if you think it needs more time. I then I wash off and pt dry place 3 layers of paper towels on cookie sheet until it is full of fish (skin side down)on sheet then put layer of papper towels on fish repeat that process till have for layers or run out of fish put in icebox until towels have drawn out excess brine and has a dry look on fish ( takes 4 to 6 hours ) I have found that in leaving it to air dry for me is a better method less chance for reducing taste of freshness

Build an Insulated Box for your Little Chief SmokerOutdoor Community, Experience Sharing, and Gear Review on Jan 19, 2013 at 9:48 pm said:

[...] Chief smoker. I’ve had it for years and it does a great job. Back when it was new and when I was smoking fish in the fall and winter I would follow the manufacturers recommendation and use the box it came in [...]

Derek Robertson on Oct 01, 2012 at 3:06 pm said:

my end product was mixed results. The soft salmon stayed soft and the firm stayed firm. Soft stuff was very oily (more than normal) I was using fresh caught MA 9 coho

Derek Robertson on Sep 30, 2012 at 3:40 pm said:

Some of my fish was still really soft after the brine? could you explain the brine a little more (i.e is the fish floating when you put in in, temp, ect)

Dane on Sep 28, 2012 at 10:04 pm said:

Tom, What temperature do the electric smokers hit? I have a couple of propane smokers I'm able to regulate the temp pretty well. From one of the prior posts, 180 sounded way too hot. Also, as to how much fish to the brine recipe. Just add pieces until the brine reaches the top of the bucket. So lets say I have some 12 - 15 # coho fillets. What do you think 4 fish (8 fillets?) I remember book marking your page after seeing Glenn salivating over the smoked salmon you gave him, and now it's time to try it out. Thanks Much !

Tom Nelson on Mar 09, 2012 at 5:27 am said:

...which is why I wet brine... This recipe works, every time. I will leave the experimentation and exotic brining recipies to someone else. When I get home with a bunch of salmon to smoke, I don't have to think. I just get my brine box out with the 5 or 6 ingredients and get to brinin'!

Chris on Dec 16, 2011 at 2:16 am said:

Do you have a dry brine recipe? I can never seem to get a dry brine right.

Nelly on Nov 21, 2011 at 7:26 am said:

Hey Tyler, I don't air dry or brine in the refrigerator. Even in the warmest days of summer, I keep the fish at ambient temp. Remember that you have salt and sugar "cured" the salmon which retards the bacterial gowth that leads to spoilage. Happy Smoking!

matt on Nov 20, 2011 at 3:57 pm said:

I put the brine in the fridge and air dry on the counter... makes the house smell fantastic but its worth it. Hope that helps.

Tyler on Nov 19, 2011 at 7:04 pm said:

When you brine it and air dry it do you have it in the fridge?

matt on Aug 29, 2011 at 4:43 am said:

The recipe sounded to good to not try again and after all no one likes a quitter so I had to give a second try. I did the same brine time, dry time and cut back the temp to 120 and the smoke time to 9 hours. Yep...Best damn smoked salmon on the face of the earth!!! I lived in Alaska and have never had anything that compares. Great stuff Tom and thanks for sharing.

Tom Nelson on Aug 26, 2011 at 12:24 am said:

Sorry to hear that Matt. 12 hours in a 180 degree smoker is way too long. I would try 8 hours or less in that temp and closely monitor the cook, rotating the racks for a consistent product. Good luck and sorry about the rough results your first time out!

matt on Aug 22, 2011 at 5:22 pm said:

I'd rather eat a remote control. I must have done it wrong. I followed the brine to a tee, soaked for 13 hours, dried for 24 hours and smoked for 12. It looked like shoe leather after 12 hours of drying, 18 looked like I was making jerky but still hung in there. I pulled it apart on the smoker to see if its even close and its raw, cant penetrate the skin from drying.... Smoker temp was between 140-180 in a off set barrel. Oh well, I'm sure it will taste good as a salmon cake. So a few questions, do you let the brine sit out or do you put it in the refer, do you let it get tacky and then smoke or do you wait the full 24 hours.

Gaz Obronny on Jan 01, 2011 at 11:40 am said:

I second previous post. Can you give any data on smoking temperatures? Thanks in advance, Gaz

DocS9788 on Sep 30, 2010 at 11:02 pm said:

Great Recipe and simple instruction with wonderful photos BUT NOT ONE WORD about temperatures in smoker or internal temperature of fish! I have a Bradley Smoker and would love SOME idea of smoking temps and internal temp of finished product. Thanks, so much! Doc

Troy Oberg on Mar 19, 2010 at 3:15 am said:

I'm brining up my second batch using this and I love it! Thanks Tom.

tom nelson on Jun 13, 2009 at 3:43 am said:

Schanker: Yup, that's the bakery cabinet smoker, you can smoke a whole bunch in it and you have to show up at the Beach to get some! Patti, thanks for the good review!!! Tobeck's mad 'cause his wife likes my fish and Phil... The gang at fives loved your bellies!!!

Phil Michelsen on Jun 13, 2009 at 3:36 am said:

Sure looks like my the bellies you stole from my sitka fish. Love ya nelly but like the smoked fish better.

rob tobeck on Jun 10, 2009 at 5:37 am said:

I had some of Nelly's first batch and it turned out great. Can't wait to try this brine myself.

patti on Jun 08, 2009 at 10:09 pm said:

By far the best smoked salmon I have ever had!!!!

ryan schank on Jun 08, 2009 at 8:49 pm said:

hey! that's my smoker yo've had for ever. i should get some kind of kick-back or something!


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