Smoked Salmon

smoked salmon on glass plate with red onion, herb cream cheese, and capers

Nothing says Northwest Style BBQ quite like a smoked salmon. A dish with a history older than the Oregon trail smoked salmon has been a staple in this region for centuries. Whether you are smoking it as an entrée, or as an appetizer, you are in for a tasty treat with a classic Smoked Salmon.

Smoked salmon can be enjoyed any time of the year, however, this post is about the smoked salmon I made for Christmas Eve dinner. It’s the perfect dish to set out as an appetizer and keep on the table for when everybody sits down to dinner. One bite and you just can’t stop eating it!

If you happen to be at the store and see a selection of smoked salmon, you might see quite the variety. Teriyaki, spicy, peppered, lox. One of my core beliefs in doing Northwest Style BBQ is using fresh and local ingredients. On that note, I let the beautiful and delicious flavor of the salmon do the talking with this recipe, and only add ingredients that I think are going to enhance the flavor of this delicate fish.

How to Make Classic Smoked Salmon

This is very much a minimalist recipe, with the most important factor being the fish. Unfortunately, fresh-caught wild Pacific salmon isn’t always available everywhere, so sometimes substitutions have to be made. If you can only find frozen, previously frozen, or Atlantic salmon, then that’s the best you can do. I prefer Chinook salmon, however, any of the other four varieties of Pacific salmon will do. Sometimes Steelhead is passed off as a salmon, although it’s technically a trout. It would also work for this recipe.

Brining Your Salmon

raw salmon on the cutting board

Start by removing the skin of the salmon and any bones that may still be present. Removing the skin is optional, however, you’re going to be cooking it at a low temperature for this recipe, so the skin won’t crisp up in the same way that it would if you were grilling it.

salmon covered in salt and brown sugar dry brine

Place the salmon in a casserole dish, preferably one long enough for the salmon to be laid completely flat. Liberally apply salt and brown sugar in a roughly 1:4 ratio to both sides of the salmon. Cover as tightly as possible with plastic and place the dish in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours. This will begin the brining process and remove any unneeded moisture from the fish.

Remove the salmon from the refrigerator. Remove the plastic and rinse the salmon under cold water for roughly 5 minutes. You want to be sure to rinse off all of the salt and brown sugar brine, otherwise, you’re finished product might be overly salty. Place the salmon on a wire rack to dry for at least two hours. This will allow a film called pellicle to develop which aides in absorbing the smoky flavor.

Smoking Your Salmon

When ready, start your smoker following the manufacturer’s guidelines and set the temperature to 180°. Once your salmon is dry and the smoker is going at the correct temperature, place the salmon on the smoker and close the lid. Cook time depends on the size of your salmon. Mine was roughly 1.33lb and took about 2 hours. Remove the fish when the thickest part reaches roughly 140 degrees and the fish flakes easily.

I prefer to serve my smoked salmon chilled, so you can make this recipe a day early and cover it with plastic, and chill in the refrigerator until ready to serve.

Making the Additions

When ready to serve, pipe parsley lemon cream cheese along one edge of the salmon and cover with finely diced red onion and capers. If you’re serving it as an appetizer, serve with a French baguette or another crunchy dipper, such as pita chips.

Cream cheese goes with smoked salmon like peanut butter goes with Jelly. I like to elevate my cream cheese by softening it and mixing in fresh squeezed lemon juice and finely chopped parsley.


  • Removing the skin is optional, however, strongly encouraged. Smoked salmon skin is not very appetizing and it covers an entire side of the fish that could be getting smoke.
  • It is vital that you allow ample time to rinse all of the brine off prior to smoking. Not doing so can result in a very salty finished product. You don’t want to ruin this beautiful fish.
  • Normally you don’t want to leave raw meat and seafood out for over an hour. In this case, you’ve cured it with the brine, making it safer to leave at room temperature.

Music Recommendation

Seen as how this is a classic smoked salmon recipe, why not go with a classical music choice. Clair de lune – Claude Debussy is a household favorite here at the PNW Grill and Sip headquarters. Turn it on for a nice, casual, listening experience with a delicious appetizer or meal.

smoked salmon on glass plate with red onion, herb cream cheese, and capers

Smoked Salmon

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Course: Appetizer, Dinner
Cuisine: American, Barbeque, Northwest BBQ
Keyword: BBQ, brine, Dinner, Salmon, Smoked, Smoked salmon
Cook Time: 2 hours 15 minutes
Brine time: 12 hours
Total Time: 14 hours 15 minutes
Servings: 6 servings


  • 1.33 pounds Pacific salmon
  • 2 cups brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup salt
  • 1 brick cream cheese
  • fresh parsley finely diced
  • 1/2 lemon juiced
  • 1/2 small red onion diced
  • capers


  • Removed the skin and bones from your salmon. Rinse in cool water and pat completely dry.
    1.33 pounds Pacific salmon
  • In a small mixing bowl combine the salt and brown sugar to create your dry brine.
    2 cups brown sugar, 1/2 cup salt
  • In a casserole dish lay down a bed of your dry brine. Place the salmon on top of the bed, then cover with more brine. Cover with plastic wrap and place in refrigerator to cure 8-24 hours.
  • 3 hours before you're ready to smoke the salmon, remove from the refrigerator and rinse the dry brine off completely under cool water. You want to spend a good 5 minutes rinsing otherwise your final product will be overly salty. Allow the salmon to dry completely on the counter, I leave mine on my stove top with my hood fan on.
  • When ready to smoke, start your smoker and set the temperature to 180 degrees.
  • Place the salmon on the smoker and smoke for roughly 2 to 2 and a half hours.
  • While smoking the salmon, prepare your herb cream cheese, diced red onions, and capers to top salmon for serving.
    1 brick cream cheese, fresh parsley, 1/2 lemon, 1/2 small red onion, capers
  • When the salmon is done, you can either serve immediately or place in the refrigerator to chill. If chilling, be sure to place in and airtight container or wrap with plastic wrap.