I know it’s considerably more work and it requires a measure of patience, but to me, smoking a salmon without first brining is a wasted opportunity, simple as that. Yea, you may have the best dry-rub out there, but it’s no match for even a basic brine.
What is a Smoked Salmon Brine?
A brine is a combination of salt, sugar and various spices that you first soak a fillet in for anywhere between 6 and 24 hours. After the fillet is removed from the brine, the salt and sugar in the fish’s tissues raise the water-holding capacity of the meat and also cures it to some degree, thus making a moister smoke and extending the fish’s fridge-life. But most importantly, the marriage between salty, sweet and the spices – with the smoking – makes it otherworldly good. Smoking salmon in this manner is how I got into smoked meats in the first place.
A Great Brine Recipe to Get You Started
Your brine will no doubt evolve with time and a string of successful smokes. But in the meantime, if you want a basic brine recipe to master, this is a good one. Please follow the directions exactly, especially the salt and sugar – skimp on those and the whole brine falls apart.
This is what you’ll need for a couple large salmon fillets:
- 1 cup kosher or pickling salt;
- 2 cups brown sugar;
- 3 tablespoons of fresh squeezed lemon;
- Juice from 2 whole oranges;
- 1 teaspoon of finely ground black pepper;
- 1/4 cup of your favorite dry fish rub mixture (a Montreal rub works too);
- 1/4 cup cilantro or parsley;
- 6 cloves of crushed garlic;
- 1 half cup of chopped yellow onion;
- 1 gallon of water.
Combine the ingredients with room temperature water and stir until the salt and sugar are thoroughly dissolved. Transfer to a small bucket or large Tupperware container and cool to less 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Add the salmon and ensure that fish is covered by brine. Cover with lid or plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator to marinate for at least 12 hours.
Following the marination, remove the fish and very quickly run cool water over it. Do this only for a moment – do not wash it! Then shake it gently to remove any excess water and pat dry with paper towel; now place the fillet on rack in cool area and allow to air dry for at least an hour.
After drying, place fish on smoking rack, with the skin side down facing the smoke. Smoking time will vary depending on smoker and the size of your fillet, but in general I try to aim for a 6 hour smoke at a temperature of around 165 degrees Fahrenheit.