Surfing the internet, looking for the best woods for smoking salmon can lead you down many convoluted and contradictory paths.
Since, nowadays, anyone with a keyboard and a smoker (or even without one) can put their opinion of which wood is best on the internet, it can quickly become nigh-on impossible to tell the good advice from the bad.
So, I’ve been digging deep, reading a lot, trying many woods, and can now bring to you the solid consensus on which are the best woods for smoking salmon. At least from my experience.
Short History Of Smoked Salmon
For sailors and seafarers alike, preserved fish has been depended upon for sustenance for centuries.
Traditionally, fish was preserved in salt, in which it was dried for one to seven days, and could then last for many weeks before going bad.
The story goes that ‘smoking’ salmon came about when fillets left out to dry in salt were accidentally smoked by smoke from villagers’ campfires.
When those villagers found the taste to be even better than salt alone, they began to experiment.
Perfecting The Art
Today, there are many woods you can use to smoke salmon, but only a handful have made the cut for my list of the best woods you can use.
That’s because salmon, being a fish, is a delicate meat, which can easily be soured and overpowered if you were to use the wrong wood.
However, because taste is completely down to personal preference, I don’t think it would be accurate to ‘rank’ our woods.
Instead, I’ll give you the information you need to make your own choice. Experiment with any one of these woods and you’re sure to smoke a tasty salmon.
Best Woods For Smoking Salmon
Taste profile: very smooth and mellow, with just a little smokiness, earthy rather than sweet.
Mix with: maple for sweetness, pecan for sweetness and strength.
Okay, so I know I said taste is subjective, and I wasn’t going to rank the species on this list… However, alder wood really is an exceptional choice when it comes to smoking salmon, and should be any beginner’s first port of call.
Since smoking salmon is typically a far longer process than even smoking brisket (cold smoking of salmon can take up to twenty-four hours), you really need a wood whose flavor is mellow enough that long exposure to it won’t ruin the meat.
Considered too strong for poultry, yet far too weak for red meat (or even pork), alder is perfect for this meatier of fishes.
- So mellow that it would be hard to overpower salmon with.
- Easy to handle, so perfect for beginners.
- Great for use in the cold-smoking process for salmon.
- Arguably not a strong enough flavor for use in the hot-smoking of salmon.
Taste profile: subtle, mellow, sweet and fruity, slightly smoky
Mix with: pecan or oak (used sparingly) for a smoky kick; cherry for great color, or alder.
One of the main issues you need to watch out for when smoking any fish, but particularly salmon, is that because the meat is so tender and delicate, it can very easily be corrupted by the smoke.
In other words, the fish can easily turn bitter and inedible.
Applewood is perfect for smoking salmon because its smoke is subtle and mellow enough that there’s almost no chance of overpowering the fish.
Light on the smokiness, applewood brings a slightly sweet, very fruity kick to your salmon, for a little something different.
- Easy to handle, with little chance of overpowering the fish.
- Versatile wood which can be widely paired.
- Diverse flavor profile.
- Takes a long time to permeate meat and fish, so perfect for the cold-smoking process.
- The fruitiest of the fruitwoods, this may be a little too fruity for some palates.
- May not impart flavor quick enough for hot-smoking salmon.
Taste profile: nutty, light, clean and cool.
Mix with: fruitwood for a sweet, fruity tang, cherry for color, oak for smokiness.
Now here’s a wood you won’t find on many other lists. Beech, though fairly uncommon in the BBQ scene, is actually a perfect smoke wood for fish generally, and salmon specifically.
Just like a white wine should be paired with seafood, because its freshness helps elevate the freshness of the dish, the crisp, light, clean and cool taste profile of beechwood serves salmon well.
With a little nuttiness, it penetrates the fish just enough, without turning it bitter.
- Good for cold-smoking and hot-smoking salmon.
- Compliments seafood and fish excellently.
- Fairly versatile and can be mixed with various woods.
- Unique taste profile.
- Very little smokiness, if that’s what you’re after.
- Perhaps less common to come across in stores.
Taste profile: mild, classic smoke with a subtle sweetness.
Mix with: apple, maple, alder, or beech to mitigate its strength.
One of the most alluring things about using cherrywood in your smoker is that it gives meat and fish a healthy coloring of deep, deep red (like a cherry!).
Not only is this desirable in ribs and brisket, it’s most attractive when seen on hot-smoked salmon, too. Cherrywood has a pretty classic smoky taste, a little similar to oak, but with a subtle sweetness (since it’s a fruitwood).
However, note that cherry is a stronger flavored-wood than any of the others thus far mentioned on this list, and so should either be paired with a subtler-flavored wood, or used sparingly.
- Delivers a gorgeous cherry red color to the fish
- Classic smoky BBQ taste, perfect for introducing that element to traditionally subtler salmon.
- Very versatile, can be paired with almost anything.
- May overpower your fish if you’re not careful
- Not ideal for long-form smoking, like the cold-smoking process for salmon
Taste profile: similar strength to oak, but milder; smokiness more rounded; very sweet.
Mix with: alder or beech to calm the sweetness and smooth the harshness.
Pecanwood is wonderfully sweet, with a real nutty tang and a mild-medium smokiness, similar in strength to oak, but a little softer.
Like cherry, pecan can be quite a strong choice for use with delicate meat like fish and salmon, but when paired with a lighter, subtler wood like alder or beech it really comes into its own.
Best used in hot-smoking salmon, as you could run the risk of spoiling the fish if you used it on its own for a cold-smoke.
- Fantastically diverse taste profile.
- Nice smoke-intensity midpoint between oak and fruitwood.
- Very sweet, perhaps too sweet for some.
- Flavor too strong for use without mitigation by some other, milder wood.
Taste profile: very nutty, earthy, pungent, mild smokiness.
Mix with: alder, apple, beech, maple for sweetness and subtlety.
When it comes to the Holidays, smoked salmon is an absolute must around my house, as I’m sure it is for many others.
And in my mind, there’s little quite so synonymous with that time of year than the warm, pleasant aroma of roasting nuts.
Walnut is, like beech, a pretty unique wood to use in smoking, but in moderation it can be a truly wonderful accompaniment to salmon.
As you can imagine, walnut smoke has a very strong nutty flavor, verging on overpowering, which is why I don’t recommend that you use it on its own for either hot- or cold-smoking salmon.
Either use it in small amounts, combined with some much subtler and/or sweeter wood like apple or beech, or add it only toward the end of the smoking process, and then only for a short time.
- Unique nutty flavor, perfect for the Holidays.
- Flavor is very strong, and so the wood is overall harder to control than subtler woods.
- Must be used with caution, else the fish can sour or be overpoweringly smoky.
- Harder to come across than most other smoking woods.
Taste profile: earthy, smoky, savory.
Mix with: any fruitwood, beech, alder, or maple for sweetness and smoothness.
The art of smoking salmon originated in the British Isles, when Jewish immigrants brought their pickling and preserving techniques to big cities like London, Edinburgh, and Glasgow.
Used to fish found in the Baltic Sea, when they were introduced to the rich, robust flavors of the salmon caught off the Scottish coast (reputed to be the best salmon in the world) these immigrants realised there was real potential in the fish of Britain.
Oak is the wood traditionally associated with the British process of cold-smoking salmon, which is indeed quite interesting, given how strong and smoky oak’s flavor is.
Typically, I’d recommend staying away from a wood as strong as oak when smoking fish, however its distinct, earthy, savory smokiness can be perfect for salmon, if used in small amounts.
Alternatively, pair oak with a fruitwood, or even better, beech, alder or maple to mellow it out, and introduce a little sweetness back into the fish.
- A traditional wood used by British Jews and smokeries for centuries
- Classic smoky, medium-sweet and richly savory flavor profile which can be paired with many different woods
- So strong it can be difficult to mitigate, not ideal for the casual salmon-smoker