This basic brine for smoked salmon is simple. Water, salt, and brown sugar. The salt and sugar in the salmon brine do more than just flavor the fish.
They are part of a delicate balance between removing and retaining moisture in the flesh of the salmon.
The salt serves four purposes.
The preservative quality of salt retards spoilage. Salmon stays fresher longer when it's salt brined before being smoked. This brine for smoked salmon contains a high concentration of salt, which tends to remove water from the fish. This is necessary for the salmon to smoke properly.
Salt also improves and intensifies food flavors...even in tiny amounts. That's why cookie recipes call for a quarter teaspoon of salt. It's not enough to taste, but it is enough to enhance the other flavors.
The sweetness sugar adds is an important part of the smoked salmon taste. But that's not all that sugar provides. It helps in a couple of other ways.
Sugar is also hydrophilic, meaning that it tends to attract and hold water. This helps add to the moistness of the finished salmon.
Take a look at
Salmon Brining Tips for more information about brining salmon.
Use pickling salt, non-iodized table salt, or Kosher salt in your salmon brine. My article about salt provides a detailed description of the common types of salts available, and recommends the best salt to use.
And the brown sugar? Dark or light...either one is fine. If you like, you can use all white sugar, or a combination of white and brown.
For One Pound Of Salmon
1 quart cold water
3/8 cup table or pickling salt
3/8 cup brown sugar
For Four Pounds of Salmon
1 gallon cold water
1-and-1/2 cups table or pickling salt
1-and-1/2 cups brown sugar
You can add other flavors to this basic brine for smoked salmon. Add fresh herbs, spices, hot peppers, garlic, onion, wine, soy sauce…just about anything…to the basic brine to kick up the taste.
To get the best flavor from the spices and herbs, bring one-quarter of the water called for (before adding salt) to a boil in a covered pan. Immediately remove from heat, add the herbs and spices, cover, and let it steep for ten minutes. Then go ahead and add it to the remaining brine ingredients.
The salmon brine must be 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower before dropping in the fish. Keep the brining fish refrigerated, and out of the food danger zone to prevent spoilage.