How to Make Smoked Salmon at Home

16 Jun

Meat and I, we have a complicated relationship.  The enjoyment I derive from testing out new meat-centric recipes and learning about various techniques and processes in regard to cooking meat tends to oftentimes far outweigh any desire I might have to actually eat what I am making.  Last winter I had a great time braising short ribs for four hours in a red wine and balsamic reduction, but when it came to actually eating the short ribs, I have to admit that I was decidedly lacking in enthusiasm.  Slow roasting a salt-crusted pork tenderloin on the grill is a fascinating operation, so long as I will not be made to actually eat the pork when I am done fussing with it.  Meats get stuffed, marinated, and rolled, and then I foist them on my husband.  Not that he minds.  More realistically, I do not foist them upon him so much as I generously heap them upon his willing plate.

This trend, however, might have just come to an end.  Please, everyone, let me introduce you all to my new best friend: whiskey soaked applewood smoked salmon.

First of all, allow me to admit that, up until last year, I was not aware of the fact that making smoked salmon at home was even a possibility.  I thought that smoking meats involved special canisters or barrels, or perhaps some sort of high-tech equipment that only very dedicated meat-eating people knew how to find.  Not surprisingly, I was dead wrong.  To smoke salmon at home, you need little more than an outdoor grill, some wood chips, salt, and sugar.  That’s it.

If you want to get a little fancier, you can briefly marinate your salmon in a bit of whiskey or bourbon, like we did here, or perhaps a bit of rum, if you’d prefer your salmon to be a bit sweeter.  No matter which you choose, after 4 hours of curing the salmon to draw out the liquid, it takes only 20 short minutes to smoke this salmon to a delicious and robust finish.

You can eat this smoked salmon on a salad, you can pile it on top of a bagel, or you can flake it into some pasta.  There is no wrong way to eat this, and the only known way to stop enjoying it is to eat it until it is gone.  You might want to immediately make more, but that’s all right.  If nothing else, you can just use my excuse, and tell people that you are making up for meats long ago left unenjoyed.

Whiskey Soaked Applewood Smoked Salmon

Adapted only slightly from Steven Raichlen’s How to Grill

1 salmon fillet, about 1 pound

½ cup whiskey, bourbon, or rum

½ cup firmly packed brown sugar

¼ cup coarse salt*

2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

2 cups wood chips, soaked in cold water for 1 hour, then drained (Raichlen recommends using alder wood chips, but we used apple wood because we had easy access to it, courtesy of a recently-felled apple tree and, man, don’t we sound all self sufficient and rustic right now?)

Skin the salmon fillet and remove any bones.  Rinse the salmon under cold running water, then blot dry.  Place the salmon in a baking dish just large enough to hold it, and pour the whiskey, bourbon, or rum over it.  Allow to marinate for 15 minutes, then drain the salmon and blot dry once more.  Wipe out the baking dish.

Combine the brown sugar, salt, and pepper in a mixing bowl and mix well with your fingers.  Spread 1/3 of the mixture over the bottom of the baking dish.  Lay the salmon on top of the mixture, skinned-side down.  Cover salmon with remaining 2/3 of brown sugar mixture, patting it onto the fish with your fingertips.  Cover the salmon with plastic wrap and allow to cure in the refrigerator for 4 hours.  The salt in the cure will draw out the moisture in the salmon.

Set up your grill for indirect grilling.  If you have a two burner gas grill, this will mean setting one burner on medium high heat and leaving the other burner off.  If you have a three burner gas grill, it will mean setting the two outermost burners on medium high heat and leaving the middle burner off.  If you have a charcoal grill, you will be raking your hot coals into two piles on opposite sides of the grill, leaving an empty space in between.  After preparing whichever grill you have, place a drip pan in the portion of the grill that is not lit or covered with hot coals.

Thoroughly rinse the brown sugar mixture off of the salmon with cold running water, then blot dry once more.  Discard liquid that has been extracted from the salmon.

Toss the pre-soaked wood chips onto hot coals (if using a charcoal grill), or, if using a gas grill, place wood chips in a smoker box made specifically for gas grills (such as this one), or wrap your wood chips in a tight pouch of aluminum foil with holes punched in the top (as demonstrated here), then place the box or pouch of wood chips under the grill grate, directly on top of a burner.

Brush and oil grill grate.  Place the salmon in the center of the hot grate, over the drip pan that has been placed away from the heat.  Completely close the lid of the grill.  Smoke the fish until cooked through, about 20 minutes.  To test for doneness, press the top of the salmon with your finger and test for firmness.  The salmon should feel firm and break into clean flakes.

Cool the salmon, then wrap it in aluminum foil and refrigerate until cold.  Serve warm or at room temperature.  Tightly wrapped, the smoked salmon will keep in the refrigerator for 3-5 days.

*A note about coarse salt:  Coarse salt, which is often found in the form of kosher salt, comes in varying degrees of saltiness.  The two most widely found brands of kosher salt, Morton and Diamond, are no exception.  Morton kosher salt is known for being exceedingly salty, while Diamond kosher salt is decidedly less salty.  If using Diamond kosher salt, I recommend you go ahead and use the full amount of salt called for.  If you are using Morton kosher salt, reduce the amount of salt by one heaping tablespoon, then proceed with the recipe as usual.


12 Responses to “How to Make Smoked Salmon at Home”

  1. plusONE Photography November 6, 2011 at 2:43 pm #

    This is great! My salmon is curing as we speak. Can’t wait to see how this turns out! I’m making smoked salmon ravioli for friends tonight and figured since everything else was going to be homemade, the salmon should be too, and this recipe fit my needs perfectly!

  2. rcremonese July 15, 2012 at 10:39 am #

    Hi. Very interesting technique. I try it just now.
    Have only one question though. As long as I am using a charcoal grill (Brazilian style for barbecue) is it the drip pan necessary? Should a use it to collect the juice or something like this.
    Thanks a lot.
    Best regards,

    • savorysaltysweet July 15, 2012 at 4:36 pm #

      The drip pan reduces the possibility of flare-ups, of which, admittedly, there are not a lot when smoking salmon. I’d use the drip pan if it’s convenient, but, if you just don’t have a drip pan, I don’t think it would ruin the salmon if you skipped the pan. Let me know how it turns out for you!

      • rcremonese July 15, 2012 at 8:25 pm #

        It turned out delicious!!!!
        How can I send you a picture?

      • savorysaltysweet July 16, 2012 at 8:07 am #

        Are you on Facebook? You can post a picture to Savory Salty Sweet’s Facebook wall: I’d love to see it! If you’re not on FB, you can send a photo to

      • Rob December 29, 2015 at 9:14 am #

        Flare-ups are impossible if you’re not cooking over the fire. The drip pan will just keep your grill cleaner, but the salmon won’t drip much anyway.

  3. Seattle Foodshed September 17, 2012 at 2:53 pm #

    Holy awesome. This looks AMAZING.

  4. zachary worthington (@zachworthington) December 13, 2016 at 9:05 am #

    Thanks for inspiring me to make this, freaking amazing! And a clarification- salts aren’t saltier than one another- they just have different grain sizes that may confuse tongues and volume measurements. Weighing salt is the only “weigh” to know that you have the same amount. For example, 1 Tbsp. of Kosher is about 1/2 Tbsp. table salt. Fun experiment with a kitchen scale if you don’t believe me.


  1. The Ultimate Guide to Grilling Ham - gThankYou! | Celebrating Work - August 3, 2016

    […] don’t stop there! There are dozens of ways to use a backyard smoker, from smoking your own salmon to Spanish-style smoked vegetables (eggplant, squash, peppers and carrots) with a garlic […]

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