This basic brine for smoked salmon is simple. Water, salt, and white or brown sugar. The salt and sugar in the salmon brine do more than flavor the fish. They work together, improving the texture of the fish and helping it hold moisture. Other ingredients can be added to the brine to create a more interesting, complex flavor.
The salt serves four purposes.
Salt denatures proteins, modifying their shape. This change improves the water retention properties of the fish.
The preservative quality of salt retards spoilage. Salmon stays fresh longer when it's brined before smoking. The salt in this salmon brine removes some of the moisture, helping 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 improves the storage quality of foods. A high concentration of sugar inhibits the growth of bacteria.
Sugar is also hydrophilic, meaning that it tends to attract and hold water. This helps add to the moistness of the finished salmon. As the salt pulls water out, it's replaced by the brine solution. The sugar that's absorbed into the salmon holds onto the moisture.
Take a look at
Salmon Brining Tips for more information about brining salmon.
Use canning salt, non-iodized table salt, or Kosher salt in your salmon brine. This article about salt describes the common types of salts available and their best use.
And the brown sugar? Dark or light, either one is fine. Dark brown sugar has more molasses flavor. If you don't care for the molasses flavor use only white sugar, or a combination of white and brown.
You can add other flavors to this basic brine for smoked salmon. Some common additions are:
To get the best flavor from the spices and herbs, bring one-quarter of the water called for in the recipe to a boil. Immediately remove from heat, add the herbs and spices, cover, and let it steep for ten minutes.
Add the salt and sugar to the steeped solution and stir. Combine this with the remaining water and continue stirring until the salt and sugar are completely dissolved. Chill the salmon brine in the refrigerator.
The salmon brine must be 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower before slipping in the fish. Keep the brining fish refrigerated and be aware of these seafood safety guidelines.