Smoking Salmon on the Grill with Charcoal

Man, I get hungry just reading this

Smoking your own salmon is a relaxing way to spend a few hours on a sunny afternoon in the yard. There are a thousand recipes on the internet, this is a simple mix of the best that I found that works well. It takes a few hours of brief bits of attention, but the results are well worth the effort.



Salmon, lots of it. But not more than can fit on the center of your grill.  (see below)

A clean, food grade tub to soak the salmon in.

1 1/2 cups salt (Kosher or pickling salt)

1 1/2 cups sugar

3/4 cup brown sugar

3 quarts (12 cups) water

Food grade needle nose pliers (not from your workbench)

4 cups Hickory chips and a container to soak them in.

Charcoal briquettes, lighter fluid or charcoal chimney

Charcoal grill, coal thongs, spatula

Paper towels, tray (for carrying the fish), oil (for the grill), and an old, clean can (tuna works nicely)

Baste(s) (optional)



  • Mix the Brine. Take your tub (I use the a removable tray from the fridge and wash it thoroughly. It's large and gets cleaned regularly this way), add clean, cold water, salt and  sugars. Stir until dissolved.
  • Brine the salmon. If you are using side fillets of salmon, you may have pin bones that should be removed. Run your (clean) finger tip against the grain of the fish and you’ll feel them if present. They are spaced evenly, every ¼ inch or so along the bottom of the fillet. Pull them out with your clean, food grade needle nose pliers. (come on, please buy new needle nose pliers for this job, you don’t want god-knows-what on your food. Wash pliers thoroughly and coat with cooking oil to prevent rusting).  If you use tail filets, you can skip the bone removal work above. Rinse the fish under cold running water and slip into your tub of brine, flesh side down. Cover the tub with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 2 hours, or in the fridge for 6 hours. I’ve left it overnight without problems, but some people claim it makes the fish more salty.

  • Dry the salmon. After soaking in brine, wash the filets under cold running water, rub the flesh to get all the brine rinsed off.  Place flesh side up on a tray covered in paper towels, blot dry with more paper towels. Allow to air dry for 30 min, until the skin feels tacky. While the salmon is drying, soak the chips, fire up the charcoal and set up the grill.


  • Soak the chips. Put 4 cups of hickory chips in a container and cover with water, let stand at least 20 minutes. Hickory is the traditional flavor used for smoked salmon. You can experiment with other hardwoods to get different flavors




  • Fire up the charcoal. Load up about 15 charcoal briquettes in your grill and get them lit. If you use a charcoal chimney you will help reduce the air pollution caused by using lighter fluid. (I built one out of some left over stovepipe) Once the coals are covered in white ash you’re ready to smoke.





  • Set up the grill. Clean and lightly oil the grill with a paper towel moistened with cooking oil. Make two groups of 4 (5 if your in a hurry) charcoal briquettes as close to the edge as possible. Put the rest of the briquettes somewhere safe where they will still burn. (Don’t leave them in the chimney, they will burn too fast)  Put some water into the clean tuna fish can and set that in the middle of the grill’s bowl. Grab a small handful of hickory chips and shake the water off. Place some of moist chips on each group of coals.  Place the grill over the coals at the highest setting, giving the most distance between the coals and the fish.
  • Smoke that fish. Lovingly place the dry salmon filets (blot the flesh side with a paper towel again if necessary) on the grill, being careful not to place any over the coals. We want indirect, low heat. If you opt to use a basting solution, now is the time to apply it (non-basted smoked salmon is great) Put the lid on and place the vent over the fish. This will cause the smoke to swirl over the fish to escape. Set the air intake vents (at the bottom) and escape vents (in the lid) about half closed, we want a long, slow low temp (about 180 degrees) burn.

  • Rework your coals and chips. After about 40 minutes you’ll notice that the wonderfully aromatic smoke stopped coming out of your grill. Open the grill and blot your salmon dry with paper towels. Remove your grill to access the coals (unless you bought yourself a hinged grill) push the coals together (You may want to add an additional briquette, if they’ve burned back, try to keep about the same original mass of burning charcoal) and add another handful of hickory chips.  Replace the grill and close it up. Now is a good time to add a few fresh briquettes to your off-grill burning stock, they’ll come in handy later.
  • Repeat as necessary. Every 30-50 min or so check your grill, blot the salmon dry, add some hickory chips and a briquette now and then. Your salmon will be done when the thickest part of the filet flakes with a fork (but it's so tender you can eat it with a spoon).
  • Eat. It is great warm, but even better cold. Transfer the finished filets to a tray, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. I can’t say how long it lasts as I’ve never had smoked salmon last more than a few days no matter how much I make.