We have been smoking salmon, among other meats, for centuries. Back in the day when there were no refrigerators, curing and smoking the salmon was only the way to preserve it for extended periods. The scrumptious earthy, smoked flavor was a happy byproduct that no one complained about.
Now technology has come a long way and you can enjoy salmon in a variety of ways, from grilled and pan-seared to baked and roasted. But there’s something about fresh salmon smoked over aromatic wood chips that can’t be beaten.
The interesting thing is that some of the finest wood that is used for smoking salmon is hardwood, which originates from either nut or fruit trees. These types of wood typically burn for a longer time, which helps produce more heat and smoke. While their flavor varies from mild to intense, you should remember that much will depend on what temperature you smoke your dish at and for how long.
In this comprehensive post, we have compiled a list of different types of woods that are best (and worst) for smoking salmon. If you’ve never smoked fish before, this guide will remove all the guesswork and provide you with real, useful insights. Our recent post goes into the arts and science of smoking woods.
Once you have your smoking wood selected, learn how to smoke salmon the right way with a wet brine.
Enjoy The Best Smoked Salmon With These 7 Woods
If one of your New Year resolutions was to eat healthier, you might be looking to incorporate fish into your meals more often. Smoked salmon is not only incredibly nutritious, it can add some variety to your weekly menu.
There are a plethora of woods out there that can be used to smoke salmon, so it’s natural to feel overwhelmed and wonder which one to go with. Let’s take a look at some of the best woods to try and what kind of flavor you can expect from each one.
When you are smoking salmon, you essentially want to infuse your fish with a light but long-lasting flavor that will penetrate through the flesh but won’t compromise the distinctive taste. And that’s exactly what beech wood can do.
Unlike most other woods in this list, beech is not too overpowering or strong. If you are just introducing your palate to smoked salmon, using beech wood chips for smoking might be a salient option. The smoke generated by beech wood is clean, light, and cool that gives fish a nutty flavor.
We always recommend buying wood chips that don’t contain any additives that might affect the taste or overall texture of fish. Beech wood chips light quickly and burn slowly, plus they are great to use in electric or gas-powered smokers.
For a accented flavor, consider pre-soaking the beech wood chips for 30 minutes. This will allow them to produce more intense smoke and burn longer.
Flavor Profile: Mild, slightly nutty
Alder is a gentle hardwood that’s perfect for adding a delicate note of smokiness to salmon. Like beech wood, alder can also be mistaken for being too weak to smoke salmon, but remember, cold smoking salmon can last for a minimum of 24 hours.
In other words, you can slowly coat the salmon in alder wood chips without turning the fish sour or overpowering the smokiness factor. And since alder provides such a subtle effect, you can blend it with other woods for enhanced flavoring.
People who consider themselves seasoned salmon smokers love alder wood for this reason. While it may be too strong to smoke poultry and too weak for red meat, it’s simply perfect for salmon.
If you do your homework, or you know people who smoke fish regularly, you will find that alder is often the first choice for most experienced pitmasters when smoking salmon. Even if you or your family are not into smoked fish, you are likely to enjoy the mild smokiness provided by alder.
In addition to salmon, alder goes with almost every fish and poultry. It is perfect if you’re looking to smoke salmon for a few hours since it takes several hours to pass on the flavors to the flesh.
Flavor Profile: Mild, subtly sweet
Apple wood is inarguably one of the sweetest fruitwoods out there, which makes it really popular among food aficionados who are not afraid to experiment. The fresh, sweet flavor of smoked apple wood can be used for salmon without detracting from the natural flavors of the fish.
If you want more flavor in your salmon, but want a gentle smoke like alder, try apple wood. There is a reason why apple is considered the best wood for smoking pretty much every kind of meat – turkey, brisket, and even chicken. The refreshing natural flavor of salmon goes very well with this subtly sweet wood.
You can also try mixing apple wood with a touch of mesquite for an earthier flavor and enhanced smoky taste.
Flavor Profile: Slightly sweet and fruity
Maple is another great option for smoking salmon, especially if your palate runs towards sweet and delicate flavors. It is mild enough not to overpower the natural taste of salmon, and can add subtle sweet notes to your fish.
So, don’t expect any thick layers of smoke or bitterness if you use maple wood to smoke your salmon. This is why it’s typically used to smoke cheese, vegetables, and poultry.
Flavor Profile: Mildly sweet
Cherry wood is a favorite amongst people who love smoked fish and poultry. This is a truly versatile wood that has a mild sweet taste and allows the natural flavor of the salmon to emerge beautifully. Not to mention, cherry wood can give a stunning mahogany hue to your fish!
Many people generally pair cherry with pecan, oak, or alder to create nuanced smoky and rich profiles. Since it comes from a tree that produces nuts, cherry gives a far richer and fruitier flavor than, say, apple.
So, if you’re looking for an option that is sweet enough to add a desirable zest to other kinds of fish as well (like tuna and trout), give cherry a try.
Flavor Profile: Rich, sweet, and fruity
Oak is one of the most popular woods to smoke fish, chicken, and pork for a couple of reasons. For starters, it can burn at very high heat which means it has a large temperature range, making it a versatile blending wood.
Secondly, it is lighter than traditional, heavy woods such as mesquite or hickory. So, while it will provide a strong smoky flavor to your salmon, it won’t completely overpower it.
Flavor Profile: Deeper flavor, medium sweet
Part of the hickory wood family, pecan is way more powerful than fruit trees. If you are a newbie at smoking fish, you need to be careful while using pecan wood chips since it can make your salmon taste bitter and pungent if you use a lot of it.
Pecan is considered a cool-burning wood and should be used sparingly. To give your salmon a delicate and warm taste, use this one in moderation. You are best off to blend pecan with a lighter wood like beech or alder.
Flavor Profile: Sweet and nutty, flavorful
Don’t Use These Woods To Smoke Salmon
There are certain woods that should never be used to smoke salmon as they can completely overpower the natural taste of the fish. Let’s take a quick look at them:
Hickory: Hickory works best when used to smoke game meat or poultry, but not so much for salmon. Now, of course, there are people out there who will argue that it can be used for salmon – these are the people who enjoy their salmon very strongly flavored!
If you want to give hickory a go, be extremely cautious or your salmon will end up awfully bitter and practically inedible. When used sparingly with other mild-flavored woods, it can certainly give salmon a sharp, earthy, and sweet flavor. Also, remember, if your fish is exposed to hickory wood for hours, then all the naturally rich flavors of the timber will overpower the salmon.
Unless you are a salmon smoking master, stay clear of hickory smoking woods.
Cedar Wood: Ever enjoyed salmon grilled over a cedar plank? It. Tastes. Heavenly. However, we can’t explain the science behind why exactly using cedar wood to smoke salmon is such a travesty. Maybe it’s because cedar doesn’t burn well inside a smoker?
Mesquite Wood: If you want to smoke dark meats that can stand up to the strong flavor of mesquite, go right ahead. But salmon has a delicate, fresh flavor that can be ruined with mesquite. However, if you simply want to try this flavor, consider mixing mesquite with a milder wood.
Conifers: Don’t use woods from pines and conifers since they contain a lot of resin and sap. Smoking salmon or anything in these woods will make the food taste odd, and can even make people sick.
When you are trying to create the perfect smoked salmon, full of rich flavors, you have plenty of options to choose from. The kind of wood you pick will finally come down to how strong you like your flavors, how you’ll smoke the fish, and how long you plan on smoking it.
People who are looking forward to smoke salmon for the first time should consider starting with alder. It’s not too strong, and has just enough flavor to satisfy your hunger for smoked fish without being too overwhelming on the senses. Then gradually, you can start adding more flavorful, stronger woods to it.
If you’re looking to impress someone special with an award-worthy salmon, try apple wood with a bit of hickory mixed in it.
At the end of the day, don’t be too afraid to experiment a little. With so many wood options, you will have several opportunities to take your fish to another level. Just be wary of using something too strong that will overpower the salmon and ruin its mild, refreshing taste.
Woods obviously play a large roll in how your smoked salmon will taste but another key area is the brining method you use with your Salmon. We opt for a wet brine and have a step by step guide on how to smoke salmon.
We hope this guide will help you make the right decision, and give you valuable insights into different flavors you can expect by using different woods. All that’s left to do is going out there, buying a couple of different woods, and unleashing your creativity. What are you waiting for?