We know smoke and salmon are a magnificent combination, but care needs to be taken with other types of fish because the smoke flavor can be overpowering. Electric smokers produce less smoke than other types of smokers, which makes them perfect for smoking fish. I wanted to find how to hot and cold smoke salmon and other fish, so I asked some of the best pitmasters for some fish smoking advice.
You can either hot or cold smoke fish/salmon in an electric smoker, and it will take about 1 hour at 220°F, or around 5 hours at 180°F. The taste and texture of the fish will be different depending on the temperature. Brining the fish prior to smoking will enhance the flavor by using a wet or dry brine. Fish has a delicate flesh, so wood selection is important. Be careful not to overpower the fish with strong flavored smoking wood, instead use a mild smoking wood such as alder, pecan or any of the fruitwood varieties.
The Best Temperature for Smoking Fish/Salmon
Most smoked fish recipes will recommend a temperature range between 170°F and 220°F. As always, the best approach is to experiment and see what suits your taste. Some people find the taste and texture of the fish is better when cooked lower in the 170°F to 180°F range. However, it will take several hours to cook in the lower range and also carries some risk for bacterial growth. Whenever meat is cooked below 200°F, it will enter the ‘danger-zone’ for microbial growth. Obviously, if you want to cook the fish faster, cook it at the higher temperature (220°F) because it will be done in an hour or so, and it is much safer. As with smoking anything, experiment with different temps, try a variety of techniques and keep a journal until you find a method that suits your taste.
How Long Does It Take to Smoke Fish?
The time it takes to smoke fish in an electric smoker will largely depend on the size and thickness of the fish, and the temperature of the smoker. If you are smoking in the lower range (170°F to 180°F), it should take about 5 or 6 hours to cook. If you are hot and fast smoking at 220°F, it should only take about 1 hour.
When is Smoked Fish Done?
The best way to tell when fish is cooked is by using a quality instant-read thermometer to get a safe internal meat temperature. A good thermometer takes all the guesswork out of cooking and keeps you and your family safe by cooking meat to USDA recommended temperatures. For fish, the USDA an internal meat temperature of 145°F.
If you don’t have a meat thermometer, there are a few signs to look out for to tell if your fish is cooked. Once the fish flakes when you touch it, you know it’s close to done. Salmon in particular will ooze a white liquid on the surface of the meat, which is a sign that it’s cooked.
Brining Fish and Salmon
For best results, brine the fish in a wet brine or a dry brine before smoking, as this will add an enormous amount of flavor to the meat. A brine can be as simple as rubbing salt into the fish a few hours before going into the smoker. A wet brine involves soaking the fish in a liquid solution so the fish can absorb all the salt, sugar and other spices. Fish only needs a couple of hours in the brine, and anything over 2 hours could ruin the meat, so don’t leave the fish soaking in a brine overnight.
How To Dry Brine Fish
Dry brining is by far the quickest and easiest method of brining, and produces hardly any mess. Here is how to dry brine fish:
- – Sprinkle kosher salt onto the fish, covering every area of the meat.
- Place the fish on a tray or plate and cover with plastic wrapping or in a container with a lid.
- Leave the fish in the refrigerator for 2 hours.
How To Wet Brine Fish
A straightforward fish brine is 1 cup of salt with 1 gallon of water. However, for a more accurate and safer brine solution, weigh the salt because there many salts and they’re not all equal. I use the quantities from a recipe from BBQ Guru Meathead Goldwyn from amazingribs.com. Here are the steps:
- Take a large plastic container or a large zip-lock bag big enough to hold the fish where it can meat can be submerged.
- Take a half a gallon of water, mix in about 1/4 of a cup of sugar and pour the brine solution over the fish.
- In a separate mixing bowl, dissolve 1/4 pound of salt in 1/2 cup of boiled water, then pour the salt water into the brine
- Some people add other spices to the brine mix, but this is optional
After 2 hours in the brine, remove the fish and gently pat the meat with a paper towel to remove any excess liquid. Lay the fish on a drying rack until it is dry, but don’t leave it longer than 2 hours. While the meat is drying, a pellicle will form on the outer layer of the flesh. This protective layer will help the fish during the smoking process.
Smoked Salmon Brine
When I’m hot smoking salmon, I use one of barbeque guru Malcolm Reed’s wet brine recipes, and the salmon tastes sensational.
In a medium-sized bowl, mix the smoked salmon recipe dry brine:
- 1 cup kosher salt
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1 Tablespoon of bbq rub.
- 1 teaspoon dill weed
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon parsley flakes
- 1 teaspoon minced onion flakes
If you want to take your smoked salmon to the next level, try adding a glaze to the fish in the final 10 minutes of the cook. You can glaze the salmon with any of your favorite sauces that go well with fish, and the sweet sauces work really well. Experiment with barbeque sauces and sweet Asian sauces until you find a glaze that hits the spot.
To add a glaze to the salmon, simply baste the fish with the sauce in the last 10 minutes of the smoke. The sauce should be in the smoker long enough to set but without burning. Keep in mind, sugary sauces burn easily, so don’t keep the glazed fish in the smoker for too long.
Best Wood For Smoking Fish
Fish has a delicate flesh, so strong smoking woods like hickory can easily overpower fish. Salmon can take more smoke than other fish, but when selecting wood for your electric smoker, choose a mild smoking wood like alder, pecan or any wood from the fruit tree varieties. You only need about 4-5 ounces of wood chips, sawdust or pellets in your smoker.
Skin On or Skin Off?
The skin on or skin off question is common, but you will find the skin will hold the fish together better when left into. Fish skin is optional, but I find when I remove the skin, the fish falls apart easily. If you are cooking closer to 220 °F, the skin will be crispier and will taste delicious, but if the skin is not your thing, it’s easy enough to remove afterwards.
Clean Your Smoker After Fish
The downside of smoking fish in your smoker is the smell. It’s hard to get rid of the fishy smell, because the fish oil will somehow find its way into every crack of your pit. It’s important to wash your electric smoker after smoking fish, otherwise the smell will linger. If you plan on smoking a lot of fish, you may want to consider using a separate smoker used only for seafood.
Quick and Easy Smoked Fish/Salmon in an Electric Smoker
- Sprinkle kosher salt or sea salt onto the fish.
- Cover and leave in the refrigerator for 2-3 hours.
- Remove the fish/salmon from the refrigerator.
- Turn on your electric smoker and set the temperature to 220°F.
- Place a smoking wood in the wood tray. Use a mild wood such as apple, cherry, alder or pecan.
- Place fish/salmon in the smoker.
- Check the fish after 40 minutes, and measure with an instant-read thermometer. Fish is cooked once the internal temperature reads 145°F. Once the fish flakes, (or seeps white liquid with salmon), then it is close to done.
My Favorite Meat Smoking Tools
Thanks for checking out this article. I hope you learned a few things. Here are some of my favorite tools I use when smoking brisket that may be useful to you. These are affiliate links, so if you decide to purchase any of these products, I’ll earn a commission. But in all honesty, these are the tools I recommend to my family and friends who are just starting out.
Meat Thermometer: There are dozens of fancy thermometers on the market, but I still use my trusty TP20. For around $50, I have a high-quality meat thermometer with two probes, and can track the temperature of my smoker with one probe, and my meat with the other probe. The ThermoPro TP20 is an Amazon Best Seller because it’s the easiest thermometer to operate, is durable, highly accurate, and comes with pre-programmed meat settings.
Instant Read Thermometer: Arguably, the second most important tool you need is a fast and accurate instant-read thermometer. These tools play an important role in the latter stages of the cook when the meat needs regular checking in multiple areas. I use the ThermoPro TP19 because it can do everything a ThermaPen can do, but for a fraction of the cost. You can check out the TP19 on Amazon here.
Wireless Thermometer: The latest thermometers on the market have no wires and can be controlled by wi-fi via your phone. Airprobe 3 is the best of this technology.
Butcher Paper: Wrapping brisket in butcher paper has become a huge trend in barbeque thanks to Aaron Franklin. Wrapping your brisket in paper will give you a nice brisket bark. However, you can’t just use any old paper, it has to be unwaxed, food grade paper. You can find it on Amazon here.
Advanced Thermometer and Automatic Temperature Controller: Once you’re ready to take things seriously, the FireBoard 2 Drive is a six-channel Bluetooth/Wi-Fi thermometer that can monitor up to 6 pieces of meat, control and graph your cook sessions on your smartphone, and attaches to an an automatic blower that will convert your charcoal smoker to a set-and-forget. This is one of the most advanced meat thermometers on the market. You can check it out on the FireBoard website here.