Hot Smoked Salmon, Dry or Wet Cure?

When I first got a stovetop smoker, it came with a very simple user’s manual that said to season fish with salt and pepper and smoke it with 2 tablespoons of smoking dust for 15-20 minutes. This user’s manual was aimed at catching your own fish from a river and then smoking it right then and there, so you don’t have time nor equipment or ingredients for anything more fancy.  I tried this with a piece of salmon, and it was so delicious that for a long time I never even considered to try it otherwise. It’s also great with trout or even scallops (tossed with a bit of olive oil).

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In the meantime I have noticed various recipes in cookery books and by esteemed bloggers that require one to put the fish in brine, and that made me curious. Would it be worth the additional effort? Would a piece of salmon become even more delicious. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may have noticed that I do not scare away from involved preparations. But I only want to put in the effort if it really pays off. And so an experiment was in order.

Disclaimer: more experiments are needed to reach a conclusion and this experiment is not intended to claim that more involved salmon smoking recipes aren’t worth the effort. You see, the problem is that the recipes I saw all put additional aromatics in the brine like onion, garlic, and bay leaves. To make it a ‘fair’ comparison, I just used salt and brown sugar in the brine. Another thing I did to make it a fair comparison, is that I did salt the piece of salmon an hour before smoking, which allowed the salt to penetrate into the flesh. This is an elaboration of the original user’s manual that I’ve been using a lot as the salmon tastes better when the salt has been allowed to penetrate all the way through. And so technically, what I compared is a dry cure (salting the salmon and allowing the salt to penetrate before smoking) and a wet cure (‘marinating’ the salmon in a brine). (I am of the opinion that the terms ‘brine’ and ‘wet cure’ can be used interchangeably.)

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The piece of (farmed) salmon together with the ingredients for the brine: a litre (4 cups) of water, 50 grams (5%) salt, and 35 grams (3.5%) brown sugar.

There are two types of brine or wet cure: traditional or ‘equilibrium’. A traditional brine has 5-10% salt, which is more salty then you want your salmon to be. The traditional brine is quicker and the amount of time spent in the brine determines how salty the piece of salmon will become. If you don’t allow the salmon to rest after brining, there will be a saltiness ‘gradient’ in the salmon, as the outside of the salmon (closest to the brine) will be more salty than the inside. An equilibrium brine means that you calculate the amount of salt such that after a longer time (typically 24 hours or longer), an equilibrium will be reached between the salmon and the brine (i.e. the salt concentration in the brine and in the salmon will be equal, as salt will diffuse out of the brine into the salmon). A good example of an equilibrium brine is this fire-roasted suckling pig. In this case I used a traditional brine.

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I cut the piece of salmon into two for a side-by-side comparison.

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To make the brine, I added the salt…

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…and the sugar to the water.

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Then I whisked until the salt and sugar were fully dissolved.

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I put the brine in a wide container.

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Then I put one piece of salmon in the brine for 5 hours. The other piece of salmon I salted 1 hour before smoking.

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After the 5 hours, I took the salmon out of the brine…

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…and patted it dry with paper towels.

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I put both pieces of salmon in the hot smoker with 2 tablespoons of beech smoking dust for 20 minutes.

And the verdict? They were both delicious and it was difficult to tell tell the difference!

So next time I will add the additional ingredients to the brine to see if that makes any difference. I’d also like to try to dry the salmon after brining to get a pellicle. So t0 be continued…

Flashback


A roe deer is a small type of venison with a picky diet, consuming only the tastiest herbs and young leaves. The taste of its meat is renowned because of that. The meat is so tender and delicious in fact that you don’t have to do anything to it — just eat it raw with a bit of salt, pepper, and olive oil. I served the roe deer carpaccio with a herb salad, which turned out to be a great combination.

13 thoughts on “Hot Smoked Salmon, Dry or Wet Cure?

  1. Thanks Stefan for the ‘esteemed blogger’ reference. Steamed more often that esteemed is closer to the truth. I really must try some smoking with far less process. I am minded to go and catch some mackerel and smoke them as soon as they are landed and cleaned. That could be fun and the flavour would be magnificent. There really is nothing like fresh (very fresh) caught mackerel. The simple salting looks very interesting too. Perhaps I should counter experiment. In the interests of scientific accuracy of course!

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  2. Hi Stefan–funny you should post this when I just smoked 3lbs of Pacific salmon this weekend. I’ve not done much wet brining, so I can’t compare my traditional technique to yours, but mine is a thick dry rub (almost like a salt crust grill, only you rinse it off). The basic technique involves packing a rub with brown sugar, salt, and the spices you prefer (this weekend was tarragon and summer savory) and letting it sit for 3-4 hours, then rinsing then allowing to dry in the refrigerator for ~2-3 hours to form the pellicle. Once you have that, I hot-smoked with alder to about 145-150 degrees Fahrenheit. It would be interesting to see the results if you compared the dry rub technique and brining technique.

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    • Hi Marc, thanks for visiting and taking the time to leave such an interesting comment. It would certainly be worthwhile to compare the two techniques. Your technique sounds a bit like gravlax, but with a much shorter curing time (which for gravlax is something like 48 hours instead of 4). The first thing I am going to try is the pellicle.

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      • It is somewhat like gravlax, although the intent is to season the fish for smoking while gravlax is purely for curing I believe. I should also note I do a finishing rub with brown sugar and some spices before smoking it as well. I can’t wait to see your results–I have always done it my way, so I’m curious which one you feel gets better results.

        @derekthezenchef–I grew up in the Pacific NW, and my method is a pretty traditional sort of thing there (although generally other herbs or no herbs at are used). Giving it a dry cure, rinsing it off, letting the pellicle form, then gently smoking with alder will give you one of the most traditional flavors you can get. You can also cold smoke the salmon or make jerky with similar flavor profiles.

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  3. I like your experimental approach, S! I will stay tuned for further results. My uncle gets a whole case of smoked salmon each year, and I often get several slabs of that, smoked in the traditional Pacific NW Native American way. You know much about that? (I know you focus more on Italian) best,
    D

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  4. Both of my FIL’s used big, privately built country smoking ovens . . . especially with numero uno, we forever had smoked trout, salmon and the most beautiful smoked Aussie lamb – well, we made it dry :) ! And it was fantastic!!!!! Have never been able to buy anything even vaguely resembling!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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      • Methinks FIL mostly used small legs of lamb . . . I remember him putting the fish above the lamb, hanging on hooks very early morning [tell the truth was not THAT interested in those days :) !] . . . I think just basic European spices of salt, pepper +++ ? were used – BUT, I do remember the fish would be taken out mid-morning and meat would be considered ready by 2-3 pm for us to pack up and head back to Sydney. I do not remember what ‘fuel’ he used or how accurate the temps could have been tho’ he did have various thermometers in use! But the lamb was an utter moist delight :D !!

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  5. Very nice Stefan. Good to know you did not much find a perceptible difference. Coincidentally, my latest blog post is for a hot smoked salmon dish. I prefer a dry cure before smoking for convenience and ease.

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  6. Thanks to your blog, Stefan, I smoked my first salmon fillet in my Cameron Smoker without a cedar plank. I used the salt/pepper/lemon method for 3 hours, removed and placed it in front of a fan for 1 hour to obtain the pellicle and then smoked it. Interestingly, I had heard about the pellicle the day before watching America’s Test Kitchen. They said it was essential to flavor and allowed the smoke to attach to the pellicle. Cooked for 11 minutes and it registered 137 degrees, much higher than the temp previous used with the plank. Bottom line, it was SPECTCULAR, absolutely the BEST smoked salmon ever to come out of my kitchen. I cooked dinner for my neighbors that night and they agreed, best smoked salmon I had ever prepared. The fillet had a different texture in a good way, a little firmer. The dry rub added an abundance of flavor and was tender, juicy, and smokey, everything I’m looking for in hot smoked salmon. Today I will try the brine and compare the two, but to tell you the truth, I can’t imagine it could be any better than last night’s version. You’re a genius Stefan!

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    • Hi Linda, thanks so much for your kind words and taking the time to let me know about your success with smoked salmon! I’m so glad to hear it turned out so well. If you like your salmon more buttery, you could also try smoking it over a lower temperature so that it registers only 110 degrees.
      I’m going to try the pellicle soon. Hope to ‘see’ you around again soon!

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