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Homemade smoked salmon fiasco! Help!

I received a Smokin' Tex smoker recently as a gift and am trying to learn how to use it.

Today I made smoked salmon fillets. I put salt, pepper and olive oil on each fillet, then put them into the smoker at 200 degrees. I had filled the smoke box with a combination of cherry and hickory wood.

I basted at 30 minutes with a little butter and dill. I checked the fillets after about 40 minutes - they were done, but unfortunately had a thick, smoky, harsh-tasting exterior that made my wife become ill when she tasted it. The only way to salvage the entire project was to cut off all the edges, leaving the pink interior. This was nice and moist, but certainly not with a special enough flavor to justify the whole process.

What did I do wrong? I am thinking that I either used too much wood, or that maybe using any hickory at all was a mistake. Since the smoker has a heating element and will cook at a low temperature, I should probably just use a tiny amount of wood next time and see what happens.

Any thoughts from more experienced smokers? Thanks.

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  1. I agree with your assessment. Too much wood and I would leave out the hickory.
    I like to smoke salmon with fruit wood
    only and I would only use 2 pieces of
    branch about 2 inches in diameter and
    about 6 inches long. I smoke at 200
    and never open the smoker for any reason
    until the process is complete. Another
    thing, let the fish warm up to room
    temp. and dry off before you put it in
    the smoker so there is not a problem
    with condensation. For the first few
    times I would use small pieces of fish
    and not let any one taste the failures
    until I got it right.
    In my smoker it takes an hour and a half
    to smoke a good sized piece of fish.
    Good luck
    Paul

    1. Here is the process I use.

      First you must brine the fish. You will need a non-reactive container large enough to hold your fillets. You will need enough water to cover the fillets.

      To the water keep adding pickling or kosher salt until no more will dissolve; keep track of the amount used as you go along. Add half as much brown sugar as salt to the solution. Cover your fish with the brine and let sit overnight in the fridge. I let mine sit 18 hours or so.

      Next day, pour off the brine, put the container into your sink and fill it with water. Leave the tap trickling slowly for maybe an hour to rinse off the salt. This is important else the result will be way too salty.

      Drain and dry the fish and lay flat, skin down on platter(s) in the fridge overnight. A thin, transparent glaze should form on the flesh. It's now ready to smoke. I use maple, cherry, ash, oak or whatever hardwood I can lay my hands on.

      I smoke my fish a minimum of 4 hours, depending on size. I try to reach an internal temperature of 145* to kill any bacteria or parasites - the brine and smoke are not enough on their own. I've experimented with cold smoking and then bring the fish to 145* in the oven but now just take my chances in one go.

      My fish retain a deal of the firm texture associated with store-bought smoked salmon, but a lot of my friends smoke hotter for a flaky, cooked texture - also very, very tasty.

      My preference is to use whole fillets and then portion them when done. We wrap them in saran wrap and freeze them. Believe it or not, the texture and flavour seem to improve with freezing,

      1. Paul and Dock pretty much answered your questions.
        Let me just add that when I got my first smoker (it was an offset-smoker) I tended to oversmoke everything. It took quite a bit of trial and error intil I was fully satisfied with various results such as ribs or brisket or fish.
        Keep at it (I like writing down various steps so I'll have notes on what works and what doesn't) and your salmon will improve.

        1. I too have been learning to smoke, and the brine makes a huge difference. I brine the fish all day, before setting them on a rack to dry. When they are ready to smoke, there is a little sheen to the fish that isn't about being wet.

          Traditionally, salmon is smoked with alder wood, though obviously any type of hardwood will work.

          I have the Emeril cast iron smoker which is 13-1/2 by 9 by 3 inches. I can fit one wild salmon fillet and use about a tablespoon of wood chips. Smoked Haddock has been the best one yet, smoked with apple wood. I was able to smoke three haddock fillets.

          One trick I have discovered is that I get the smoke started before adding the fish on its rack which gives the fish more time in smoke before reaching temperature. Obviously, this is a tip for indoor smokers only.

          2 Replies
          1. re: smtucker

            Ooops, I goofed! Thanks, smtucker. When my fillets are rinsed and dried they go onto cookie racks inside baking pans before I put them into the fridge to allow air to circulate and form the "sheen" referred to. It's called a "pellicle" and holds the smokiness as well as promoting texture. NOT skin down on a platter.

            As Porker used to, I smoke with an offset firebox on a char-griller and really throw the smoke to my fish. I start some charcoal in a stainless steel colander, throw damp chips or sawdust on top once the coals are going and let it go for 4 to 6 hours replenishing every half hour or so. At low temps of 145* I have no problem with oversmoking. I can go through 5 gallon tub of wood in a session. I'm not familiar with dedicated smokers per se such as jono37 is using.

            Now, I''ve done fish somewhat as jon37 describes with good results. This is grilling, not smoking. Marinate your pieces, spice them, whatever. Spray your racks with PAM before starting. Suggest you crank up the heat, check often, and as soon as the thickest part is opaque, it's done. Disregard any time suggestions - look and poke. You'll want to experiment with degree of doneness, but it will be a matter of half minutes.

            Good luck with your next fish.

            1. re: DockPotato

              I still use my off-set, Dock, about once a week, just that it was my first. I also have a propane fired vertical Broilmate for lower temp smoking. I prefer smoking bacon in the Broilmate, also less temperature fluctuations on very cold winter days.

          2. For hot smoke - my favorite recipe is a dry brine. 3 parts brown sugar to 1 part salt - mix together and layer with the fish in a container. Brine for at least 12 hours, then remove and let dry for 5-12 hour. Spray with Grand Marnier and smoke for 4-8 hours depending on the size of your pieces.

            5 Replies
            1. re: AlaskaChick

              Spray with Grand Marnier - never heard of that before, I gotta try it.

              Wait, to think about it, why not Southern Comfort, or Jack Daniels smoked salmon
              Maybe a Cosmo or Extra Dry Martini Nova.

              1. re: porker

                Last week I brined some salmon in bottled Jose Cuervo Margarita Mix (with the tequila) along with kosher salt overnight.I set the electric smoker to 200 and smoked for about 3 hours adding very small batches of chips after about 90 minutes...Used a combination of alderwood and mesquite. Very nice flavor !

                1. re: porker

                  I think the Grand Marnier gives it a nice sweet "skin" but any sweet liqueur would probably work. Sprinkle on some coarse grind pepper if you like a little heat. MMMMMMM...GOOD!

                2. re: AlaskaChick

                  AC, could you detail your dry process? Are there advantages of dry brining over liquid? Thanks.

                  As to booze, some of our locals recommend brandy added to the brine I described.

                  1. re: DockPotato

                    The brown sugar and salt mix becomes a syrupy liquid as the moisture in the fish melts the mix. I'm not sure why but it just seems to penetrate the fish better. When you air dry it, the sugar forms a "skin" on the fish.

                    Brandy would be a good substitute.