The delicate flavor of a filet of salmon seems at first glance to be a tricky one to smoke. And it can be – too much smoke risks overpowering the flavor and ruining the meal. Smoked food can be heavy and rich.
Not ideal for the lighter flavors of salmon. Still, any salmon fan will know just how good a well smoked salmon can be.
So salmon puts you in a difficult position. Picking a wood with too strong a smokiness and the taste of the salmon is lost. Too light, and you’ve wasted hours only to add a faint taste. Either way, it’s not a good use of salmon.
Or, at least, that’s how it used to seem. But salmon’s more versatile than we give it credit for. Experienced smokers can create something special with salmon.
Even novices don’t need to panic – there are enough wood options out there that they can have perfect salmon, first time out.
The delicate, almost neutral, alder wood is a top choice for many when it comes to salmon. The gentle smoke imparts a subtle flavor, so the salmon maintains the texture and taste that makes it so good.
Alder works well for many types of fish, including trout, and is also used for poultry.
For a beginner, alder is a great choice to start. It’s definitely the safe choice, but that’s not exactly a problem. Things become common for a reason, and in the case of alder and salmon it’s because they just work together.
One of the other advantages to alder is that the neutrality makes it perfect for mixing. If you’re looking to experiment but want to practice before going too wild, mixing in a few chips of woods from fruit or nut trees can boost the flavor.
Alder can burn fast, but kept at a low temperature it infuses the salmon for hours without turning bitter.
- Subtle flavor – Great for beginners, and lets the natural salmon flavoring shine.
- Adaptable – Can be used for other fish and poultry.
- Mixes well – The subtle flavor can be enhanced by mixing with other woods.
- Mild taste – Some find it too bland.
- Quick burning – Must be kept at a low temperature.
Fruity and sweet, apple is a hugely popular wood for smoking. Considered the best for chicken, it’s also a strong choice for smoking salmon. With a heavier flavor than alder, apple is what to pick when you want to start branching out.
There’s a freshness to applewood that balances out the smokiness. However, none of this detracts from the salmon. Instead, the sweet smoke enhances the natural delicate flavorings.
If you want something with more weight than alder, applewood is the first place to look. It’s good for mixing as well. Oak can be used to round off the sweetness, and even mesquite works with it.
If you like the power of mesquite then mixing a handful of chips in with applewood is the best way to add that flavor without risking ruining the salmon.
- Sweetness – Adds a balance to the smokiness and enhances the flavor.
- Versatile – Perfect for poultry, and works well for a range of meats.
- Mixes well – Adding oak rounds the flavor, and mesquite adds oomph.
- Burn fast – Be sure to buy in large chunks, or try soaking to prevent a quick burn.
3. Cherry Wood
Sweeter than apple, you’d be forgiven for assuming that cherry wood wouldn’t work with the inherent fishiness of salmon.
However, the mild and sweet flavor balances the smokiness and the fish, and creates a delicious flavoring. Cherry can also give your salmon a red finish, making it attractive as well as delicious.
This is another wood that’s light enough for mixing. Paired with alder, the richness of cherry becomes subtle. With pecan, cherry takes on warmth.
There’s a bold versatility to cherry wood, which takes on nuance via different pairings. One for a smoker with some experience, or a newbie who isn’t afraid to mix it up.
- Sweetness – Adds a balance to the smokiness and enhances the flavor.
- Red coating – Can give an attractive finish to the smoked salmon.
- Mixes well – Oak and alder round out the flavor, and pecan introduces a nuttiness.
- Can be too sweet for some.
Pecan wood is from the same family of hickory, but with a less powerful taste. However, it’s certainly more powerful than the other fruit woods. Pecan isn’t a beginner’s choice. It’s best used by those with some experience, who won’t overdo it. Too much pecan wood smoke can destroy the delicate flavors of salmon.
However, when it’s used correctly it gets really good. The sweetness of pecan is significantly richer than that of apple or cherry. Used sparingly, it adds a fantastic warmth alongside the sweetness. Try mixing it with cherry wood to start, and taking your time.
Pecan is hugely adaptable. Outside of fish, it can be used for lamb, pork, or poultry, and even has enough heft for larger chunks of beef.
- Strong flavor – More power for those who like a richer taste.
- Adaptable – Can be used for heavier meats as well as fish.
- Powerful – Pecan must be used carefully, or it turns the fish bitter and pungent.
Hitting that perfect place in the middle, oak is stronger than fruit woods while lighter than heavier woods such as mesquite and hickory.
Oak needs a lot of heat to get burning, so it can take a while. This is great for cold smoking salmon, and makes oak a versatile wood. You just need to keep an eye on it as it burns.
There is some sweetness, and some nuttiness, to oak, but the flavoring is mostly smoky. For those of us who like smoked foods, this is a real plus. It doesn’t pack the same punch as mesquite, but that lets the salmon flavors shine.
Oak has been mentioned a few times on this list as a wood to mix with others. The medium power taste means it can be both lightened and made heavier.
Perhaps not the best starter wood, but a definite choice for those looking to branch out (no pun intended).
- Middle ground taste – Not as powerful as the heavy woods, but stronger than the fruit woods.
- High temperature burning – Versatile for different types of smoking, great for cold smoking.
- Mixes well – A base for adding richness to the lighter woods.
- Needs care – Use a delicate hand when smoking with oak, or you risk overwhelming the salmon.
You might still be thinking that there aren’t many options for smoking salmon – not if you want to preserve the flavor. It’s true that salmon can be harder to get right than heavier meats that can take more flavor.
But it’s worth experimenting, because smoked salmon is such an enjoyable taste.
The best woods for smoking salmon come from fruit trees and nut trees. These woods are harder, so they burn for longer. Perfect for the slow process of smoking salmon.
Other than the ones listed above, woods to try include: beech, birch, pear, hazelnut, maple, peach, orange, and lemon. The woods range from very mild to strong.
Smoked salmon won’t have the same punch as red meats. If you like sweeter or nuttier flavors, it’s definitely worth giving a go.
Heavier woods such as hickory and mesquite aren’t the best choices when smoking salmon. Although these woods make a great option for red meats, they quickly become overpowering.
For an experienced smoker, that doesn’t mean they have to be completely avoided. You just have to be careful. Hickory especially can add a punch to salmon, but take care when using. When left in hickory smoke for too long, salmon can turn bitter.
If you’re a big fan of the flavors of hickory or mesquite, try mixing the chips with a milder flavor. This imparts some of the same flavor, without dominating the salmon.
Smoking Salmon Buyers Guide
Cold smoking or hot smoking?
Salmon can be both cold smoked or hot smoked, depending on how much time you have and the flavors you want to achieve.
Cold smoking is a gentle process, and it takes a long time to do correctly. For a mild wood, salmon can cold smoke for up to 24 hours, at a temperature of 70 °F.
This also requires more care with equipment. Gas and electric smokers can work, but the heat source needs to be kept away from the fish. If you’re enthusiastic about smoking salmon, cold smoking isn’t as hard as it may seem.
As a slow process, cold smoking leads to a great infusion of smoke flavor. The smoke can penetrate deep and evenly, leading to a well-rounded salmon. It also has a gradual fat dispersion, which keeps the texture lean and tender.
Because it takes so long a mild wood is vital. Too long over a strong wood will overpower the fish and leave it inedible. Beech is very popular for cold smoking.
Other options include alder, oak, apple, and cherry. When using a stronger wood, smoke for less time.
Hot smoking is a much faster technique. This way you can experiment with punchier flavors. As the salmon spends less time absorbing the smoke, it can handle the power better.
Walnut or pecan are good, as are stronger fruit woods such as lemon. Hot smoking is good for experimentation, as you can mix in the heavier woods. Also, as it takes much less time, it’s less frustrating when it goes wrong.
Hot smoked salmon cooks at around 175 °F. As you can see, that’s a significantly higher temperature. In turn, the salmon only needs to cook for a small amount of time. For a thin cut, it may only need 2 hours. It can be eaten fresh off the smoker as well.
When you start looking for wood to smoke your salmon you’ll notice it comes in a variety of sizes. While many of them can be used for smoking fish, the best ones to start with are the larger wood chips.
For hot smoking, these burn quickly, and produce a large amount of smoke. Keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t burn too fast.
For cold smoking, larger chunks and even logs are a good idea. These burn slowly, so they suit the low temperatures necessary for cold smoking.
There’s always some level of trial and error involved when smoking salmon. For all the guidance we can give you, there’s only so much we can account for preference. You may find alder disappointingly mild, or cherry far too strong.
This is why mixing wood is such a great idea. Once you’ve mastered the skill, you can experiment to draw out the flavors you know you like. Mixing wood chips can create a unique flavor profile that’s perfect for you.
Soaking wood chips
For passionate smokers, soaking wood chips can be a point of contention. Some believe it’s necessary, and that wood chips need to be soaked for 24 hours.
Others believe they only need 30 minutes, and some don’t think they should be soaked at all. The wisdom behind smoking is that damp wood burns slower than dry wood. For a carefully controlled, long smoke, this seems to be a smart choice.
However, soaking wood chips is not the necessary step people thought it was. A better way to force a longer burn is to buy larger sizes of wood chips. Rather than smoking, look for a smoker with a built-in temperature control – this comes fairly standard.
Soaked wood chips produce a lot of steam, which many mistake for smoke. If you do intend to soak your chips, then they need to be left for a long time. After a few hours the water may have soaked the surface, but it won’t begin to penetrate the larger would.
If you do have very small chips that are burning fast, soaking can be a way to slow the burn. Just don’t think of it as a magic step for better food.
Once you’ve chosen your wood, the next step is choosing your salmon. Fresh is better than frozen, as the flavors stay vibrant.
If you choose to filet your own salmon, be careful. It’s a tricky task, and a heavy hand can tear the salmon apart. If you buy your salmon from a fishmonger (which is the best place) they can filet it for you.
Salmon is delicate in texture. Larger cuts hold together better. This is another reason to look for a fishmonger. Grocery store salmon tends to be small fillets.
The next choice is whether to leave the skin on. It’s best to not scale salmon if you want to smoke it. The scales make the salmon easier to grill and slice, and keep the fish together. Leaving them on is the better option for sure.
Finally, you need to cure your salmon. Curing is necessary for cold smoked salmon but optional for hot smoked. It does really bring out the taste though, so it’s worth doing. You can either dry cure or wet cure. To dry cure you smother the filet in salt and let it sit for several hours. Then, you wash the salt off.
Wet cure, or brining, sits the salmon in a bath of water, salt, and sugar. Add a cup of sugar, ⅓ cup of salt, to a quart of water to cover 5 pounds of salmon. It should cure for at least 4 hours, preferably 8, turning occasionally.
Brining draws out excess moisture and locks in flavor. When it’s finished brining, leave it to dry. This gives the salmon a pellicle, which is a lacquer-like layer that forms on the top. The pellicle helps the smoke stick to the salmon, for a better flavor.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the best wood for smoking salmon?
It’s a matter of personal choice, but for a beginner alder wood is the best choice. This has a very mild flavor, that won’t overwhelm the salmon. For those who like a sweeter taste, applewood is similarly mild, while cherry has more richness to it.
If you prefer a stronger flavor, oak or pecan have depth, without the power of hickory or mesquite. Salmon is surprisingly versatile to smoke with, you just need to take care.
Should I soak my chips before smoking salmon?
Although it’s a popular choice, you don’t need to soak your chips before smoking salmon. Soaked chips lower the temperature of the smoker, and can produce steam rather than smoke. Especially for larger chips, smoking isn’t necessary.
However, if you have small chips that are burning too fast, you may prefer to soak them. To do so, leave them to soak for a long time. 24 hours should do it. Then they can smolder, rather than burn.
While soaking hasn’t proven to be the solution it was once thought, many seasoned smokers still prefer to soak their chips.