Curing Salmon for Smoking
The first step in preparing smoked salmon is the salt cure. It’s obvious that a little salt and sugar will add flavor to the fish, but what’s going on under the surface is worthy of a little scientific exploration. Salt-curing (packing fish in a dry mixture of salt and sugar), and smoking are a means of preservation for a reason.
➤ Salt and Sugar at Work:
➤ The Function of Smoke:
➤ Pellicle Formation:
The Thermal Difference Between Hot and Cold Smoking
➤ Cold Smoking:
Fish Temperatures From Raw to Overcooked:
- 70°F: Soft, slick, smooth, and translucent. Fiber-weakening enzymes are active, and some water begins to escape.
- 100°F: Soft, slick, smooth and translucent with a wet surface due to accelerated water leaking from protein cells.
- 110°F: Protein begins to shrink, the flesh becomes firmer, opaque, and juice is exuded.
- 120°F: Flesh continues to shrink and becomes resilient, is less slick and more fibrous, opaque, and exudes juice when chewed or cut.
- 130°F: Sheets of protein begin to separate and become flaky, fiber-weakening enzymes denature and become inactive.
- 140°F: Proteins continue to shrink, the texture becomes firm, fibrous, and fragile, and little free juice is left. Collagen dissolves into gelatin.
- 150°F: Protein is becoming progressively more firm, dry, flaky, and fragile.
- 160°F: The flesh is stiff and dry. All protein fibers have denatured and coagulated.
For more on salmon temps, as well as other seafood temps, take a look at our recommended temperatures for seafood!
☼ Recommended Smoking Thermometer:
Smoker Temperature & Meat Pull Temperature
Dry-Cured Smoked Salmon Recipe
- 1, 2-1/4 to 2-1/2 lb. salmon fillet
- 1 cup kosher salt
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
- Plastic wrap and heavy-duty aluminum foil
- Hardwood chips (apple or cherry)
Day Ahead Prep:
- Combine salt, sugars, and peppercorns in a small bowl and set dry cure aside.
- Prepare enough aluminum foil to cover the fillet on top of a sheet pan and set aside.
- Lay out enough plastic wrap on the countertop to cover the length of the fillet and wrap around it. Sprinkle half of the dry cure in the center of the arranged plastic wrap in about the shape and size of the fillet.
- Place the salmon fillet over the cure sprinkled on the plastic wrap and apply the rest of the cure evenly onto the top side of the fillet, being sure to cover the sides.
- Wrap the fillet securely with plastic. Place the wrapped salmon in the center of the prepared foil and wrap securely. Position the fillet in the sheet pan so it is completely contained.
- Place another sheet pan on top of the double-wrapped fish and weigh down with about 3-4 pounds. We used a bag of dry beans we use for blind baking pie shells. Cans of soup, a phone book, or really anything else that can withstand refrigerator temperatures in that weight range will work. Refrigerate for 24 hours.
- After the 24-hour cure, unwrap the salmon and rinse off thoroughly under cold water.
- Moisture will have been drawn out of the salmon, the flesh will be more firm, and the color more intense.
- Pat completely dry, place fillet on a wire cooling rack over a sheet pan and refrigerate uncovered until a pellicle forms. It can take several hours and up to overnight for the pellicle to form with this method.
- To speed up the process we took some advice from Steven Raichlen. Spray nonstick cooking spray onto a wire cooling rack and place the cured salmon on top, and put on the middle rack of your oven—with the oven off. Keep the door open and set a fan in front of the oven (pictured below). The circulating air around the salmon will help dry out the surface, forming the critical pellicle. This reduces the drying time to only 1-2 hours (pretty neat trick). When an adequate pellicle has formed, the surface of the fish should feel matte-like and tacky—perfect for absorbing smoke!
- Preheat smoker to 150°F (66°C). We used a ThermaQ dual-channel alarm thermometer to track both the interior smoker temperature and the interior temp of the salmon. Secure the air probe in the smoker with a grate clip , set the ThermaQ’s low alarm to 140°F (60°C) and the high alarm to 160°F (71°C). Use hardwood wood chips (apple or cherry) for the smoke.
- Once the pellicle has formed and the smoker is ready, remove the fillet from the refrigerator, place the ThermaQ’s needle probe into the thickest part of the meat and carefully transfer salmon to the grate. Close the lid and set the needle probe’s alarm to 120°F (49°C). The cook time will vary depending on the size of the fillet. Ours finished cooking in about one hour and fifteen minutes.
- Once the ThermaQ’s needle probe alarm sounds at 120°F (49°C), verify the temperature with a Thermapen® Mk4 by quickly spot-checking the temperature in multiple areas.
- If a lower temperature is found, replace the needle probe and continue cooking until 120°F (49°C) is reached.
- Once the pull temperature has been verified, the finished salmon can be served immediately while hot or held for later use.
- Wrapping and refrigerating overnight and up to three days allows for the smoke flavor to “set.”
With this fish being smoked at such a low temperature, there will be very minimal carryover cooking during the rest. We only saw a slight 1-2°F rise in temperature after removing the salmon from the smoker.
- Using a sharp knife, slice salmon crosswise and serve alone, with toast, or our choice: with a bagel, cream cheese, thinly sliced red onion, fresh dill, and capers.
Smoking Fish FAQ, Barbecue Bible, Steven Raichlen