Behind the Recipes

Real-Deal Hot-Smoked Salmon

For the moist, flaky texture of perfectly roasted fish and a salty-sweet, smoky flavor, relax and let the refrigerator and the grill do the work.

Published Mar. 30, 2021.

cooked professionally in Scotland from 2000 to 2008, and I still miss the relationships I formed there, with friends, with coworkers, and with hot-smoked salmon. The last one might sound melodramatic, but that fish, produced by a smokehouse on the island of South Uist, was special: silky, tender, and well seasoned inside, with a smoky, lightly sweetened, and delicately chewy exterior providing subtle textural contrast. As the breakfast cook at a posh hotel, I flaked it into softly scrambled eggs. At another restaurant, I stirred it into buttery rice for a dish called kedgeree.

When I came back to the United States, however, my relationship with my favorite fish ended. Hot-smoked salmon is expensive here—about $10 for a 4-ounce vacuum‑sealed piece—and I couldn’t justify the splurge. But recently it occurred to me that if I were to make my own, I’d have few expenses beyond that of the fish. In fact, forget those 4-ounce pieces; I could exploit the economy of scale by buying a full side of salmon for about $40 and then smoke it on my kettle grill. I could either share it, warm from the grill, with a large group, or I could divide it into pieces and squirrel it away in the freezer for future use. A reunion with my treasured old friend seemed imminent.

Smoking Hot

The basic method for hot-smoking fish goes like this: Apply salt (and often sugar) to the flesh side of a skin-on fillet and let it sit for a while to season the fish and draw out some moisture, which makes the fish a bit denser and firmer. Rinse the fish and let it dry in the refrigerator. Build a moderate fire on one side of your grill, add some wood chips, and place the salmon opposite the fire. Then put the cover on and let the smoke and the gentle heat waft over the fish until it’s just cooked. But how long to cure and how long to dry? Experts disagreed.

To determine the ideal curing time, I divided a 4-pound side of salmon into 1-pound portions and applied the cure to one piece every 2 hours. When the last one had been curing for 2 hours, I rinsed them, patted them dry, and returned them to the refrigerator while I fired up the grill. (One of the things I’d loved about the Scottish salmon was the way its slight sweetness complemented its richness, so I used a curing mixture that included a hefty amount of sugar: 3 parts kosher salt to 4 parts sugar by weight.)

Procedural Differences

The core difference between hot‑smoked salmon and the cold‑smoked kind is that the former is cooked as it smokes, whereas the latter is fully preserved after a longer curing time and never sees much actual heat, usually by being placed in a separate chamber from the heat source.

My setup was simple—a half chimney of charcoal poured over a small amount of unlit coals for gentle but sustained heat, topped with a cup of dry hickory chips wrapped in a foil packet. The fish went on the opposite side, with a foil sling beneath it to aid maneuverability. A little over an hour later, the pieces were just starting to flake when prodded and they registered 125 degrees, so I took them off the grill.

All the samples were juicy inside and lightly smoky on the outside. But the exteriors of the two samples that had been cured the longest—6 hours and 8 hours—were dry and chewy and tasted too salty, while the sample that had been cured for only 2 hours was a little underseasoned. I’d go with a 4-hour cure.

Scottish-Style Kedgeree

Along with Major Grey’s chutney and mulligatawny, kedgeree is a product of the Raj, the period between 1858 and 1947 when the British occupied and ruled the Indian subcontinent. Indians had been eating khichri (or khichdi), a spiced mixture of rice and lentils or mung beans, for centuries. The British kept the rice but removed the spices and substituted more familiar ingredients such as boiled eggs and smoked fish for the pulses, creating a wholly different dish with a similar name. Smoked haddock is traditional, and in recent years, spices such as turmeric, curry powder, and coriander have found their way back into British kedgeree. Try our version, which is inspired by the one made at the Three Chimneys on Scotland’s Isle of Skye, where they leave out the spices and sub salmon for the haddock.

Benefits of a Good Dry

The next step in the process is to rinse off the cure and allow the fish to air-dry in the fridge. The salt and sugar in the cure dissolve some of the proteins in the salmon and draw them to the surface, and as water evaporates during the drying period, these proteins bond together in a sticky film. That’s ideal, because when the fish goes out to the grill, you want it moist enough to capture the flavorful vapors in the smoke but not so wet that the smoke simply slides off. I found that a drying time anywhere from 4 to 20 hours dried out the surface of the salmon just enough to ensure admirably robust smoke flavor.

Finally it was time to smoke a full side. I’d spent $40 on the fish and pennies on charcoal, wood chips, sugar, and salt. Now I had flaky, rich, smoky salmon for about one-quarter of the retail price and about 20 minutes of active work. Hello, old friend.

Hot-Smoked Whole Side of Salmon

For the moist, flaky texture of perfectly roasted fish and a salty-sweet, smoky flavor, relax and let the refrigerator and the grill do the work.
Get the Recipe

Hot-Smoked Salmon Kedgeree

We substitute our hot-smoked salmon for the traditional haddock in this British classic.
Get the Recipe


This is a members' feature.