A Tale of Cold Smoked Salmon

I've written before about cold smoking food and there's even a full review of the smoker that I use - it's simplicity itself. However, I realise that there can be a tendency to worry or even panic the first time you smoke something like a salmon. Questions like, should I brine or dry cure it? What brine or cure should I use? What strength should it be? How long should I cure it for? So, here's a breakdown of what I did with the salmon I smoked for Christmas.

I bought a side of salmon, ready filleted, from the local 'trade wholesaler', Makro. It's a 'bog standard' farmed salmon, nothing fancy, most supermarkets have it 'on promotion' around Christmas. If you can only get a whole fish you'll need to fillet it. The filleting-fish.com website has excellent instructions and a video tutorial on how to do this. I will say though, it's a lot easier with a good filleting knife. I use a very good, and very reasonably priced, Victorinox. My salmon fillet weighed 1160gm. I decided to dry cure it rather than put it into brine, it's a lot simpler that way.

I started my salmon by covering a plastic food grade tray with salt, placing the salmon skin side down on top of it, and covering the salmon with 200gm of salt. You can add all sorts of fancy things: sugar, whiskey, beetroot, all sorts of stuff, but I prefer to keep mine simple.

Salmon Salting

The salt I used was a medium sea salt. 'Ordinary' salt's fine if you can't get anything better, but try to use one without any additives. Anyway, it shouldn't be difficult to get some decent salt. Maldon Sea Salt's fantastic and widely available from most supermarkets.

The salmon was put into the salt for 10 hours. Then I rinsed it and put it to dry on a cake cooling rack in the fridge with a tray below it to catch any drips. It weighed 1080gm at this stage.

Salmon drying

14 hours later I put it to smoke. Why 14 hours? No reason, other than that was how long it was between me putting it into the fridge and getting up the next day!

Salmon Smoking

It smoked from 1pm on 15th December 'till half past midnight on the 16th. It was getting very cold then, down to freezing, so I brought it in and put it in the fridge overnight.

The next morning, when the weather had warmed up a bit, I smoked it for 11 hours more, then put it back in the fridge again.

On the 17th (are you keeping up?) I put it to smoke at half past eleven. Unbeknownst to me the smoker went out. I guess from the amount of sawdust it used, that it burned for about an hour.

The smoker's gone out!

I re-lit it and it smoked for 7 hours more before I returned it, yet again, to the fridge. It weighed 1040gm at this time. Why am I telling you all of this? Well, it illustrates that you can smoke in stages, in fact, many would recommend it. Also, the odd set-back, like the smoker going out, isn't a problem.

I've left it to dry for 3 days in the fridge as it hadn't lost much weight during curing and smoking. It's now been vacuum packed ready for Christmas Day

Vacuum Packed Smoked Salmon

The target weight loss when smoking dry cured salmon is around 15% with about half from the curing and half from the smoking. You'll recall that the salmon started at 1160gms. It now weighs 1001gms , only 13.7% less, with some 3.4% of this from the final drying period. It seems to be a common problem for home-smokers. Extra time salting or smoking leads to the salmon being too salty or too smokey. I smoked the salmon for over 30 hours! I purposely don't let the smoke hang around in the curing chamber so that I can smoke for longer without the salmon being over-smoked. Many people using the same equipment only smoke salmon for about 12 hours; they get even less weight loss. Why worry? Well the weight loss, and salting, are the only protection that the salmon has. We don't want to poison people! Why don't we home smokers get the same losses as the 'big boys'? I don't know! I wonder whether it's something to do with the age of the product we're smoking? Some commercial boys virtually have the salmon swimming into their factories! Our's has been gutted, travelled all over the country for days, and then sat on a fish counter. It must have lost a fair amount of weight before we even get our hands on it! Or is it because of the ambient temperature: less than 5°C? Temperatures around 20°C to 25°C would be better; perhaps someone could move Christmas to a more clement time of year!

One thing I do know though - it's superb, and less than a quarter of the price of shop bought!

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There are fourteen comments


Looks nice Phil,what kind of smoke did you use?
I always use oak but may try something different next time,just to see.
Wondered if you had tried other types?

Mel, - 11-01-’12 16:08

Hi Mel, I use oak and beech mixed for most of my cold smoking. I’ve not tried any other types with salmon, but would think that a fruit wood (maybe apple) would go very well.

Phil, - 13-01-’12 18:48

Hi Phil
Here in France I cure my salmon in sea salt & a dash of Pastis 24 hrs and smoke in my home made smoker (dead 5 foot fridge) for 8 hours using cherry wood in my home made smoke generator, the result is superb and a fraction of shop bought, I also make smoked bacon which is hard to find here.
All the best

Stephen, - 12-11-’12 00:15

Hi Stephen
Pastis sounds as if it would make an interesting product, I wouldn’t have thought of using an aniseed flavour with salmon – I must try it.

I hot smoke sausage with cherry, it gives a great flavour and rich colour. I haven’t any cherry ‘dust’ for use in my cold smoker though – I’ll have to try and get some.


Phil, - 12-11-’12 20:28

Hi there. Can you cure the salmon with the skin removed?

Bill, - 26-10-’13 15:35

Hi Bill,

There’s no reason why not, but the fish will require gentle handling to keep it intact.

Phil, - 27-10-’13 16:02

Hi Phil
Mine was in the salt for 20 hrs, its in the ref right now, will it be ok? was 20 hrs too long?
Great blog by the way.


Colin, - 19-10-’16 22:33

Not necessarily Colin. It depends on how much salt was on it, and how you like your salmon.

I’d happily continue to the smoking stage. If it’s a little salty at the end for your taste, slice it very thin or serve smaller pieces of it with a sauce such as sour cream.

I’m sure that it’ll be fine though.

Many thanks for the kind comments.

Phil, - 20-10-’16 19:58

Sounds like a plan, it was in the ref all day as the temp here today was too hot to cold smoke, its now in the smoker (8PM) temp outside is down to 60F and will fall to about 52F later tonight, my A-maZe-N pellet smoker will last about 10 hrs with a full charge, pellets are Apple, Alder, Hickory and Maple mix, going to do the same tomorrow night and check it from there.

Many thanks Phil

Colin, - 21-10-’16 05:01

So today its been in the ref for 7 hrs, decided to taste it and good job i did, it is a bit salty and the smoke is just right, its edible and as you said Phil with a bit of sour cream or cream cheese on a bagel it will be just nice, i have vacuum packed it and its in the freezer, will use it at thanksgiving.

Thoughts on next one
Buy a thicker side, this 1 was too thin.
Be careful with the salt time. (stick to the recipe)
Be careful with the cold smoke time. If i had smoked this one again it would have been overpowering, think its my pellets, a lot of thick smoke given off, need to fine tune my smoker.

Many thanks for the help Phil, will for sure try it again, your bread rolls are next lol

Colin, - 21-10-’16 23:31

Phew, I’m glad it worked! The smoke will mellow over the next few days.

I try to get the largest, thickest, fillets I can. There’s less waste as they slice better.

Phil, - 22-10-’16 14:42

Hi Phil,
I`ve cured and cold smoked salmon a few times now which I and my family have greatly enjoyed eating.
However, i`ve recently been reading articles warning of the possibilities of ingesting parasites which may be present in salmon.
Some advise on freezing to kill such parasites.
What is your view on this?


Andrew, - 28-12-’17 02:22

Hi Andrew,
I’m currently following the FSA advice which is that UK farmed salmon don’t need freezing: https://www.food.gov.uk/business-industry/fish-shellfish/freezing-requirements-guidance
However, some of the things I’ve been reading lately do make me wonder whether it’s best to err on the cautious side and freeze it before use. Whilst I would prefer not to have to, freezing it does not worry me from a quality point of view. HTH

Phil, - 31-12-’17 23:05

Hi Phil,
Thanks for the inspiration, I’m on my second salmon and am now smoking belly of pork for bacon.

I’ve bought farmed salmon and the err on the side of caution chose o freeze the thaw in the fridge. there is some weight loss though doing this and I think the salmon is prepared to give up more oil in the curing and smoking process. I’m using your simple cure which ( with the smoke (1st was pure oak, second will be mix of oak and beech)) makes for a fine pure flavour. Fo my third I’m going to smoke in oak and beech with roasted and ground fennel seeds. Has anyone tried this? Salmon and aniseed or preferably liquorice is a flavour marriage made in heaven!


Richard, - 28-02-’19 21:26

I'm somewhat incapacitated at present so replies may take some time. Please post urgent enquiries at the www.sausagemaking.org forum.

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