Schmancy Hot Smoked Salmon Appetizer

December 13, 2012

If there is a time of year to be “schmancy,” this is it. You can’t go wrong with smoked salmon at any holiday gathering. shows us how it’s done.

smoked salmon on plate

No fish is more smoke friendly than salmon.

Long before Europeans set foot in North America, Native Americans and Native Canadians on the Pacific coast practically subsisted on salmon. The flesh is rich in protein, minerals, and fish oil loaded with beneficial omega 3 fatty acids, unsaturated fats thought to be very healthy.

old photo of drying and smoking salmon

To preserve their catch in the days before refrigeration they would cut meaty filets from these huge fish, cure them by coating them with salt, attach the filets to alder planks, and jam the planks in the ground around a smoky campfire, gently cooking and smoking them. Sometimes they would simply drape the filets over a pole above a smoldering fire. They even built smokehouses with walls of animal hides.

This recipe modernizes the ancient technique. It creates an elegant, delicate, moist piece of meat with a hint of sweet, salt, and garlic. Unlike the stuff we put on bagels, it is “hot smoked” at about 225°F.

“Cold smoked” salmon, cooked at about 90°F, makes Nova Scotia Lox, the stuff we love on bagels. But it is tricky to do this properly, and at low temps there is a high risk of bacterial growth, so we’ll stick to hot smoking for now.


Fish oils permeate anything. They can get into the scale and greasy drippings built up inside your cooker. It is a good idea to give your smoker a thorough washing after smoking fish. Another technique is, after removing the fish, give er all she’s got Scottie and get the inside rips snorting hot to burn off any of the oil buildup. If you do a lot of fish, it might be worthwhile having a separate smoker just for fish.


smoked salmon with chives

I serve it as an appetizer at room temp on a platter so people can help themselves and flake it on crackers, crackers, toast points, rye toast, apple slices, or cheese slices. It keeps well at room temp for a few hours because it is well salted.

Make a heady variation of bagels and lox by serving it on bagel chips with cream cheese and chives. It is also wonderful on top of small boiled potatoes, sliced in half, topped with sour cream, and then the salmon. Try it on a toast point with a dollop of horseradish cream sauce or minced hardboiled egg. Another wonderful use is to mix it in with scrambled eggs, omelets, or in risotto. It also makes a fine sandwich. Put it in a bowl and flake it with a fork, add a very tiny splash of sesame oil and some mayo. Go easy on mayo. Makes a fine sammie on rye.

Another option is to put a sweet glaze on the fish. Because it is both sweet and salty, this variation really shines if served straight on crackers or toast.

Occasionally I have some leftover. Only occasionally. If it is tightly packaged in plastic wrap, it can be refrigerated for up to a week or frozen for a month or so.


Yield. Makes four hunks about 1/2 pound each.

Preparation time. It takes about 20 minutes to make the brine, and up to 3 hours for brining depending on how thick the meat is. Preparing the fish for the smoker takes about 15 minutes.

Cooking time. 60 to 90 minutes.

Drinks. Crisp, high acid, dry white wine is the classic. French Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc based wines such as Chablis or white Burgundies (Chardonnay); or White Bordeaux or Pokily Fume (both Sauvignon Blanc) are classics. Champagne is also a winner.


2 pounds of fresh salmon fillets of similar thickness, scales removed but leave the skin on, cut into strips about 3″ wide

1/2 gallon Blonder Brine Amped Up

1 clean brown paper bag or a few sheets of unused paper

About the wood. Alder, apple, peach, or other fruitwood chips or pellets are my favorite woods. Avoid hickory or mesquite; they are too strong. As always too much smoke is worse than too little. On a charcoal grill or smoker or an electric smoker, 4 ounces of wood will probably be enough. On a gas grill, double it.

Beware. Do not leave the fish in brine longer than 3 hours. If the filets are thin, brine for less time. And do not overcook.

Glazing the salmon. Sometimes I like to put a sweet glaze on the fish, especially if it is being served straight. To make a glaze, simply crumble about 2 tablespoons of brown sugar on each chunk. It will melt in the heat. You can use more or less brown sugar on the glaze if you wish, or even try maple syrup. The picture below is with brown sugar on the fish.

smoking salmon in grill

Do this
1) Really fresh fish is important to this recipe. Make sure to smell it before you plunk down your cash. It should smell like the ocean. If it smells fishy or like canned salmon, wait for the next shipment. Once you get it home try to use it within 24 hours. The oils in salmon can rancidify fast. If it starts to smell funky, soak it for at least an hour in milk. Several hours is better. The milk does a pretty impressive job of removing the fishiness.

2) Run your fingers over the flesh of the fish and make sure all the pin bones are gone. If not, drape the fish over the edge of a bowl so the bones stick out, and yank them with tweezers or needle nose pliers. Don’t worry if there are a few scales left on the skin. You will be removing the skin. Sometimes the lining of the belly of the fish has a milky membrane on it. With a sharp filleting knife, remove it. It will get leathery when you cook.

3) In a large non-reactive pot (stainless, ceramic, porcelain, or glass), make the brine by following the recipe in my article on The Zen of Brines. You can make this brine days in advance and keep it chilled if you wish.

4) Place the fish skin side up in the brine and refrigerate. Make sure the meat part is thoroughly submerged. If you need to, hold it under with a plate with a weight on top. If necessary add a bit more water, but if you add more than two cups, be sure to add more salt, sugar, and garlic. Gently stir the pot occasionally to make sure all parts of the fish come into contact with the brine.

5) The length of brining will vary depending on how thick the filets are. Brine 2″ thick filets for about 2 hours in the fridge, 1″ filets for 1 hour. Drain the fish and discard the brine. Then rinse the fish to remove surface salt, and soak them in clear water for about an hour. This helps get rid of excess salt. Pat dry with paper towels. Some folks like to put the filets in the fridge for an up to 3 hours under the theory that a desirable shiny tacky film or pellicle will form on the surface. It is said to help retain moisture and smoke. I have tried it with and without pellicle and see no quality difference. But a few hours of resting will help the brine to distribute itself evenly through the flesh.

6) Cut pieces of paper bag or plain white paper about the same size as each hunk of fish and place the fish on the paper, skin side down. Don’t use foil or parchment paper. We want the fish to stick to the paper to help us remove the skin, and it will not stick to foil or parchment. If you are glazing, sprinkle some brown sugar on top of the fillets or paint them with maple syrup. Place the fish on a rack on your grill or smoker so they are not touching each other. Insert a digital thermometer temperature probe into the thickest part of the thickest fillet.

7) Put the fish into a preheated smoker at about 225°F and place the fillet with the probe in the coolest part of the smoker. Add the wood.

8) As the meat approaches doneness, bubbles of milky liquid will often come to the surface. This is a natural protein liquid from within the muscle fibers and its fine. It just looks ugly. You can wipe it off or brush it off with a wet brush. Remove the meat when it is at 135 to 145°F internal. No more than 150°F. Total cooking time will be about 60 minutes depending on the actual temperature of your oven and the thickness of the meat.

9) Remove the fillets and let them cool for about 15 minutes, until you can handle them. Then peel off the paper and the skins should come right off with it. While you are looking at the skin side, if there is any dark brown flesh, scrape it off with a serrated steak knife and discard it. It can taste muddy.

10) You can serve the hunks whole, slice them, or flake them. I like to garnish with fresh chives and serve whole and let the guests just dig in with a serving fork.



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