Best Wood For Smoking Salmon (A Complete Guide From Alder To Oak)
It’s an age-old tradition.
We’ve been at it for centuries.
And back in the day curing and smoking your salmon was the only way to preserve it for any length of time.
That delicious earthy smoked flavor was just a happy byproduct.
Times may have moved on but the delicious well-worn art of smoking salmon persists because you just can't beat that magical combination of soft fish, salt, and smoke.
Chowing down on a plate of smoked salmon used to be the domain of the powerful and wealthy. While smoking fish was only done by artisans or in fish processing plants.
Now that farmed salmon is available everywhere, anybody can smoke it up in their backyard, or on their stove-top once they have the right kit (more on this a bit later)
And if you’re a newbie fish smoker it’s easy to obsess about what is the best wood for smoking salmon.
There's so many different types out there that it's easy to get a bit bamboozled and wonder which one to go with.
Coming up we’ll take a look at some of the best woods to try and give you a bit of insight into what you can expect from them flavor wise.
We’ll also explain which types are traditionally used, as well as give you a list of woods you should definitely avoid.
Let's get to it.
Best Wood For Smoking Salmon - 5 Mouthwatering Varieties To Consider
For salmon smokers, it’s all about burning the right type of wood that strikes the best balance between the clean taste of the fish and the smoke.
The trick is to enhance rather than compete with the delicate flavor of your fish.
Below is a list of 5 tried and trusted wood flavors to start you off.
Salmon has a distinctive taste, texture, and flavor that you want to preserve.
And using a neutral and balanced wood like alder is the safe choice, especially if you’re still experimenting with smoking fish.
Traditional to the Pacific northwest alder produces a delicate and gentle smoke which adds a subtle, yet savory flavor to your smoked salmon without being too overpowering.
It also produces a nice brown glaze on your salmon as it smolders, so it looks and tastes amazing.
Some might find alder smoke a little too muted for their taste.
And if that's you then you might want to mix them up with other wood chips from either nut or fruit trees for a stronger kick.
These particular wood chips from grillpro come in a reusable sealed bag which keeps them fresh for longer so you don’t have to worry about moisture, humidity, or heat.
You’ll need to pay a bit of attention to the heat while smoking with alder as it tends to burn pretty fast which is great if you want to produce smoke quickly.
The trick with alder is to use a lower temperature to guarantee that your salmon is infused with the right amount of smoke.
Smoking salmon is all about infusing the fish with a light yet long-lasting flavor that penetrates through the flesh without affecting the distinctive taste.
And beech wood is ideal because again like alder it's not too strong or overpowering.
Beechwood produces a light, clean, cool smoke with a slight nutty flavor that will perfectly complement your salmon.
These particular beech wood chips from Weber come in a 3-pound bag without any additives that might affect the overall texture and taste of your smoked salmon.
They light up fast, burn slowly, and are ideal to use in gas or electric-powered smokers.
Although beech wood is used the world over for smoking salmon it flavour profile is quite mild.
so smoke low and slow to get a good flavour into your salmon.
For those who want more smoke and flavor, you can try to pre-soak the chips for 30 minutes.
Which would make them burn longer and produce more intense smoke.
If you’re looking for something stronger, mix them up with another type of wood, or pick another alternative from below.
#3. Apple Wood
Apple wood works perfectly for salmon. It produces a sweet and fruity smoke that combines perfectly with the tender flesh of fish.
Slightly stronger than both alder and beach, apple wood flavoured smoked salmon has a light citrus flavour that's quite neutral and not too overpowering.
Apple wood also works well for other types of fish like trout and while adding flavor, it also produces a delicious crust on top of your smoked salmon.
These Apple wood chips are heat-treated to prevent mould and rot, so if you don’t use them straight away they'll still last a long time.
They’re 100% natural so you can be sure that your salmon will be infused with a fresh aroma.
They work on gas, charcoal, and electric smokers to add the right taste and tang.
Even though they're quite chunky, when used dry, they burn pretty fast, so you might need to pre-soak them for a slower burn and top up your smoke box regularly.
#4. Cherry Wood
Cherry wood adds a delicious, sweet, and fruity, flavor to smoked salmon.
A step-up from apple on the sweet scale, cherry wood produces richer flavour because it comes from a tree that produces nuts.
This means it’s also sweet enough to add that desirable zest to other types of fish like trout and tuna.
These chips are a perfect size and measure between 0.3 and 0.8 inches, so they won't burn too fast and will add a beautiful zingy kick to your smoked salmon.
100% natural with no added chemicals or preservatives they produce a clean smoke that guarantees your salmon will be healthy and delicious.
Right in the mid-range of the flavor spectrum. Oak is heavier than apple and cherry but lighter than hickory and mesquite.
Traditional here in Ireland where once our rivers teamed with salmon and large oak forests covered huge parts of the land. Oak produces a rich and distinct flavour that works perfectly for salmon, trout, and mackerel.
One of the main drawbacks of oak is that it's a heavy dense wood that needs quite a bit of heat before it produces smoke.
It's also slow-burning, so it's probably best used if you're gonna cold smoke your salmon.
If you're hot smoking look for a smaller sized chip like the ones here and control the temperature closely so your salmon is infused with the right amount of smoke.
Oak smoked salmon isn’t everyone's cup of tea some find the flavour too tannic and rich so you could smoke them along with apple or another fruit wood to lighten things up.
For an added zest, and if you can afford it, you can soak your oak chips in whiskey or bourbon for an amazing taste.
These chips are 100% natural and treated to resist mould and rot so they will last for a long time.
You’ll receive 180 cubic inches of small to medium-sized chips that don’t burn too fast.
Regardless of the type of your grill or smoker, these wood chips will be the right choice for smoking salmon.
They can be used dry so you don’t have to pre-soak them before you start smoking.
All though alder, beech, oak, and applewood are among the most popular and more traditional choices. There's plenty of others to try too once you’ve found your feet.
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Getting To Know Your Woods
Most of the best wood for smoking salmon are hardwoods that come from either fruit or nut trees.
The reason being that they burn for longer which leads to more smoke and heat.
Their flavour profiles range from mild to strong. Remember though, a lot depends on the temperature you smoke at and for how long.
Think of it like this....
If you’re fond of eating the fruit and nuts these trees produce then you'll probably like the smokey flavour they generate too.
Wood cut from fruit trees is lightly to have a more subtle flavour than their nut wood counterparts. Which have a stronger, heavier, and a more punchy taste.
Here's a list of some more woods you could try.....
Best Wood For Smoking Salmon - A Few More To Try
Some experts and artisans would probably consider some of these fruit ‘n nut woods a little bit gimmicky and tell you to stick to alder, oak, birch, or apple.
But remember to have fun with it, it's all a bit subjective anyway.
Quick List Of Woods To Avoid
Having said that there are some woods that just don’t work well, will make your salmon inedible, or even dangerous to eat.
Cedar is a good example. Although cooking fish on cedar planks is all the rage, it's a wood that just doesn't burn well in a smoker.
Hickory and mesquite just burn too hot and fast, when what your after is low and slow. And all through their good for meat, they're just too strong and powerful to work with fish.
Others to steer clear of are softwoods from conifers and pines that are far too resinous and have high levels of sap.
Greenwood like these will make any food you smoke with them taste weird and could even make your guests sick.
Here's a quick list of some of the woods you'll want to avoid like the plague.
Some Woods To Avoid.
Hot V’s Cold Smoking - Which Woods Work Best
The next factor you need to consider is whether you’ll be hot or cold smoking because time, temperature, the size of the fish you're smoking, and the strength of the wood you use will make a big difference to the taste of your smoked salmon.
Best Wood For Cold Smoking Salmon
When you see the dazzling array of cold-smoked fish available down the market, producing your own can feel a little scary.
But most of the cheap cold smoked salmon for sale these days is farmed and cured using industrial methods where the smoke is mechanically driven.
This toughens the outside of the fish, traps oils, and stops the salmon getting an even smokey flavour.
By doing it yourself you're almost guaranteed a better result because you'll be using a more natural and gentle process.
A more gradual smoke allows fat molecules to disperse through the fish, more smokey flavour can be absorbed, and the texture of your salmon will be lean and tender.
There was a time when doing this at home was a pipe dream unless you had plenty of space and the D.I.Y skills to build your own smokehouse.
Now there are options available if you want to give it a go.
Some gas and electric smokers are capable of getting the job done, you can buy an offset smoker where the heat source is well away from your fish.
You can even do it on a closed grill with the help of a cold smoke generator and some smoke dust (check out the video below)
Remember though, cold smoking doesn't cook the fish and once you’ve cured, washed, dried it, and allowed a pellicle to form. You’ll be going low and slow.
Temperatures of around 70 degrees Fahrenheit (25C) for up to 24 hours are the norm and as a result, you really need quite a mild flavoured smoke.
So, when you're cold smoking the best advice is to stick to the more traditional woods I mentioned earlier.
Beech wood is commonly used by most salmon smokers because it's consistent and gives a great flavour.
But oak, apple and cherry shouldn’t be ignored either.
If you find these all a bit boring and want to experiment with some of the stronger varieties, just remember to smoke your salmon for less time to achieve a similar flavour.
Best Wood For Hot Smoking Salmon
With hot smoking, on the other hand, you can really let loose on some of the punchier flavoured woods.
Because you'll be cooking your salmon all the way through, at a temperature of around 175f / 80c, for a lot less time.
Which means there's less chance of these more powerful woods overwhelming the delicate flavour of your fish.
Curing and brining your salmon is optional here, but I like to do it if I’m not in a hurry as It really helps with the seasoning.
Some of the best wood for smoking salmon and my own personal favorites include walnut, lemon, and pecan. But I’m sure you'll find your own.
And the best thing about hot smoked salmon is that it's far more versatile than its cold smoked counterpart.
You can eat it straight from the smoker while it's still warm with a crisp salad and maybe a nice dipping sauce.
Or allow it to cool where you can use it in the same way as the cold smoked version, in a salad, in some pasta, or with cream cheese on a bagel for breakfast the next morning.
The Best Wood For Smoking Salmon - Size And Shape
Log’s, chunks, chips, splits, pellets, and dust. All the best wood for smoking salmon comes in a vast array of shapes and sizes.
And the ones you choose will depend on a whole host of different factors.
Are you hot or cold smoking? What's the heat source? Is your smoker gas, electric or solid fuel? Are you smoking on your stove top or B.B.Q?
For most of us, wood chips will get the job done.
They light and produce smoke quickly. Work in gas, electric, and solid fuel smokers. And can be enclosed in a foil pouch and thrown on your grill to add a bit of smoke to anything you're cooking.
They do burn fast though, so if you're smoking for any length of time just throw your eye over things and make sure to top up regularly.
Logs and chunks, on the other hand, are best used if you're cold smoking in an offset smoker or if you need a longer burn.
While dust has its place too and is great when you need instant smoke. Like when you're smoking a small fillet of salmon in a stove top box, using a smoke gun, or cold smoking with a maze generator.
Best Wood For Smoking Salmon - Wrapping up
Some might say smoking fish is a bit of an art form and they're probably right.
So, the best advice is to maybe start with one of the more traditional woods like alder, beech, or oak and take it from there.
There's no one size fits all though.
Remember that smoking salmon is a matter of trial and error, you might need to experiment with different woods until you find the right combination for you.
Don’t be afraid of mixing things up to create a personalized flavor and having a bit of fun with it!
A Real Quick Word On Sustainability
There can be no doubt that salmon is the king when it comes to smoked fish.
It does, however, face some major sustainability issues in most parts of the world.
If you live in Alaska or you can get your hand on some fresh sockeye, chinook, or coho you're in luck because it's probably the last sustainable salmon fishery left in the world.
The rest of us will probably have to go with a farmed fish which isn’t the most eco-friendly option.
Luckily there are some sustainably farmed salmon available, mostly they come from indoor recirculating tanks where the fish are fed sustainably and wastewater is treated.
And if you're concerned about sustainability you should always ask your fishmonger where the fish you're buying comes from, he’ll be able to help you pick the most sustainable option.
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