Smoking fish is a tradition dating back thousands of years. It used to be the only way of preserving fish but nowadays dishes like smoked salmon and trout are sought after for their distinctive and savory taste.
There’s nothing quite like a great piece of smoked fish. The flavors are delicate and balanced, and the meat is tender and juicy.
It’s one of life’s joys — until you do it wrong.
Then, like a cocktail with too much mixer and no booze, powerful wood smoke flavors can quickly drown the most important player in the recipe — the fish!
But smoking salmon is not that hard, especially when compared to smoking a brisket or a whole turkey. Smoking a medium-sized salmon is quite simple and fast, and there are many ways to get it right.
The great thing is that you don’t necessarily need any fancy equipment.
Before we take a closer look at different woods for smoking salmon, let me show a real-life example of how to hot-smoke a salmon by using a very simple method:
I am originally from Finland, and this is our traditional way of smoking salmon and other fish.
First, I rubbed some salt and pepper on the salmon and then placed them on a grate inside a simple steel smoking container. This time I used alder wood chips for smoking.
Next, I put a lid on the container and placed it above the open woodfire.
It takes a bit of practice to get it right — you don’t want to make the fire under the smoking container too hot.
After smoking the two salmon for about one hour I checked the doneness before removing them from the smoker. I didn’t use any thermometers, everything was done based on the experience of several years of using this method.
So how did the salmon turn out?
It had a nice and smoky flavor that was subtle enough to let you appreciate the naturally rich taste of fresh salmon.
But of course, there are many other ways to hot-smoke a salmon. You can use an electric or propane smoker, a kamado grill, a pellet grill, or basically any kind of smoker available on the market.
The usual temperatures for hot smoking salmon are 225 Fahrenheit (or 107°C) for the smoker and around 140°F (60°C) internal temperature for the fish.
As mentioned earlier, I used alder wood chips for smoking — but there are also several other types of wood that work great.
Next, let’s take a look at what is the best wood for smoking salmon.
Best Wood for Smoking Salmon and Trout – 5 Great Options
Fish is an example of a protein that can really take on some unique flavors. That makes it perfect for smoking — but it also means that you need to be extra careful.
Pick the wrong smoke source, and you might just impart a funk on your fish that you won’t appreciate.
A lot of this depends on the quality of your fish and how you smoke it, of course. Some chefs claim they can’t tell the difference between various types of wood. Others will tell you that the difference is huge and their favorite choices are the best.
The only way you’ll ever be able to tell for yourself is by trying them out. So work out a system for smoking fish in your backyard and start experimenting!
Beech is a good starting point for salmon because it imparts a subtle nutty flavor that goes well with the fish. It’s also good for other smoking experiments, like pork or chicken.
The smoke from beech wood has a much mellower flavor profile than many other types of wood smoke, so remember it might not be as powerful as some diners are looking for.
But that also means that the flavor doesn’t cover up the notes of the fresh fish — instead, they complement one another like the individual notes that make up a musical chord.
What also makes beech an excellent choice is that the wood has good qualities for smoking — it burns slowly and works well in electric or gas-powered smokers.
- A good option for beginners.
- Not too strong.
- Great for many dishes including salmon and other fish, chicken and pork.
- Pleasant nutty flavor.
- Burns slow.
- Suitable for all kinds of smokers.
- Can be a bit pricey compared to some other options.
- Not strong enough for some traditional American BBQ dishes.
In the Pacific Northwest, and many other places as well (including Finland), alder is the traditional wood for smoking salmon.
Alder produces a gentle smoke that doesn’t get overpowering — it adds just the right subtle, savory, smokey flavor to your fish.
Many people expecting a very smokey bite may be a little disappointed, but that makes it a good place to start when learning to work with salmon. Yet, when it comes to personal preference, alder is definitely one of my top choices for smoking all kinds of fish!
Alder does burn fast, so you have to watch the smoker’s temperature to keep your supply from dwindling. But this isn’t really a problem unless your smoking time extends to several hours.
- Gives a mellow and balanced flavor.
- A traditional choice for smoking salmon.
- Affordable and easily available option.
- An excellent option for smoking all kinds of fresh fish.
- One of the best choices for cold-smoking salmon.
- It burns quite fast.
- Can be too mild for some dishes.
As you might expect, apple makes a sweet and fruity smoke. That flavor goes perfectly with fish like salmon, and it’s just a little stronger than the beech and alder mentioned above.
Plus, applewood makes a nice crust for a little extra texture on the fish.
Apple burns quickly, even when cut in large chunks. As such, it’s a good idea to soak your wood chips or chunks before lighting them off. However, even with that preventative measure, you’ll want to check the level of wood chips often during long recipes.
- Produces sweet and fruity notes.
- Great for smoking pork, poultry and fish.
- Creates a nice and delicious crust.
- Fast burning wood.
You’d love to try cherry wood if you liked the fruity notes that applewood added. Cherry is even richer and sweeter.
The flavor of cherry is great with all kinds of fish, from salmon to other staples like tuna or trout.
And if you feel like experimenting, combine the cherry wood with a bit of hickory for a stronger and more complex flavor.
- Mild and fruity flavor.
- Combines well with salmon, trout, and poultry.
- Great for mixing with other woods like hickory.
- Gives a reddish-pink hue to the meat that could be mistaken for under-cooking.
Maple doesn’t really taste like maple syrup, but it also doesn’t not taste like maple syrup.
It’s more comparable to applewood — it’s complex, fruity, and a little bit powerful. But it’s still milder than apple and not quite as sweet. It compliments fish like salmon very nicely.
This wood is often used for smoking poultry, bacon, and ham but works well with all kinds of fish as well.
- Imparts complex and fruity flavor.
- Perfect for smoking fish, poultry, bacon, and ham.
- Blends well with woods like alder, and apple.
- Can be too strong for cold smoking.
A Few More Options
In addition to the woods listed above, you can very well experiment with other options as well.
For example, you can try using oak, peach, pecan, or even lemonwood for smoking your salmon. To keep it on the safe side, try mixing these woods first with something like alder or beech to have a more balanced result.
Woods That You Shouldn’t Use for Smoking Salmon
While there are plenty of things you can experiment with, use caution and common sense when trying new woods to smoke fish.
Good fish is expensive, hard to come by, and worth cooking correctly. Using the wrong wood in your smoker can cover up all of that goodness and might even make it inedible.
Here are a few options that I don’t recommend for smoking salmon:
- Mesquite: Not only is this wood very flavorful, but it also burns too hot and too fast for effectively smoking a fish recipe. Mesquite also has an earthy taste that doesn’t go well with fish.
- Hickory: Hickory has some proponents but is generally considered too powerful for smoking fish. Like Mesquite, it’s strong, and its flavor contrasts and overpowers the fish. Consider oak as an alternative — it has a nice punch but won’t take over the whole recipe.
- Cedar: Ironically, cooking fish on cedar planks is trendy. But in reality, cedar does not work well for smokers since the wood does not burn well.
- Pines or Conifer Woods: Pine is very sappy and contains a lot of resin. This makes it ineffective inside a smoker, where it will release all those chemicals into the food. Some people can get sick from this smoke, but everyone will think it tastes bad.
Does this mean that using the woods listed above will definitely ruin your salmon?
No. But be very careful if you want to use them.
Also, you could try mixing them up — just a bit of hickory mixed with beech or cherry wood, for example, might be a surprisingly good combination for smoking salmon.
Hot vs Cold Smoking – Does It Affect the Choice of Wood?
The smoking method you choose should weigh heavily on your choice of wood.
Best Wood For Cold-Smoking Salmon
Cold-smoked salmon is best done with a fish fillet with the skin on and pin bones removed.
Before cold-smoking, the salmon should first be dry-cured in salt to draw out moisture. It is then smoked at a low temperature (80°F or below) for 12 to 24 hours.
After this, the salmon is still considered raw because the smoke cures the fish rather than cooks it.
For cold smoking, your fish will be exposed to the flavorful clouds of deliciousness for longer periods of time. So if you choose a strong, potent flavored wood, you might make the fish inedible.
When cold smoking, opt for more gentile and mellow flavors. Favor the traditional alder or maybe beech wood.
Cold smoked salmon is usually done
Best Wood For Hot-Smoking Salmon
On the other hand, hot smoking involves higher temperatures for shorter periods.
This means you can play with stronger flavors and try some of those woods you might be more hesitant with, like hickory or the fruitwoods. Pecan, oak, or maple are some other popular choices.
You can use both fillets or a whole fish for hot smoking. The smoking time can be anywhere between 30 minutes and several hours depending on the size of the fish (or fillet) and smoking temperature.
Salmon vs Trout – What’s the Difference?
While salmon and trout are closely related they are two different species. Trout is a freshwater fish, and salmon is a saltwater fish that migrates to its natal freshwater stream only for reproduction.
From a culinary point of view, the main difference is that salmon usually has a richer and more gamey flavor compared to the relatively neutral and delicate trout.
Salmon also tends to have a higher fat content. Nowadays most salmon and trout are farm-raised, which makes them fattier compared to wild-caught fish.
So what’s the difference between smoking a trout and a salmon?
Nothing really. The recipes for cooking these two fish are typically interchangeable, and this also applies to smoking.
Best Wood For Smoking Salmon – Chips, Chunks or Pellets?
So now you might already have an idea of what type of wood you want to use next time you are smoking salmon.
But you also need to think about the shape and size of the wood. Options vary from logs and chunks to chips, pellets, and sawdust.
Wood chips are the most common choice for smoking salmon. They work perfectly with most gas and electric smokers that have a smoker tray. You can also use them with a charcoal smoker, or even make a foil pouch and use the wood chips with a regular charcoal grill.
Wood pellets are obviously the best option if you are using a pellet grill. They also work well with smoker tubes that can be used for cold smoking and adding smoky flavor when grilling.
Logs and chunks are good for longer burning times and cold smoking, especially when using an offset smoker.
Sawdust is inexpensive and produces a nice, even smoke when using a smoker box or smoking a piece of salmon fillet with a smoker gun.
How to Choose the Best Wood to Smoke Salmon – Final Thoughts
Smoking a salmon isn’t the hardest thing on earth but if you are a beginner start with a wood like alder or beech.
And remember that there are many other things besides the type of wood that affect the end result — the quality of the fish, smoking time and temperature, and how much salt and other spices you use, to name a few.
After you find a method that creates a tasty smoked salmon you can start experimenting with different types of woods or mixing several kinds of woods to create the perfect blend. You can also try your hand at preparing something a bit more exotic like candied smoked salmon bites.
Or how about just sticking with what works and trying out different sauces and side dishes instead?
Whatever you do, have fun while smoking and enjoy the food you cook in good company!