Smoked Salmon with Bourbon Marinade

Smoked salmon with bourbon marinade is a sophisticated way to cook salmon, we think. A sweet and savory marinade is complemented by a few hours in the smoker, resulting in an oh-so tender and flavorsome fish. Eaten hot or cold, it’s sure to disappear.

A piece of smoked salmon with bourbon marinade on a baking sheet with lemon slices and a fork.

Adapted from Mitch Benjamin | BBQ Revolution | Harvard Common Press, 2021

This recipe has incredible flavor and the bourbon blends well with the sweetness of the tea and brown sugar. The process of smoking it takes some time but you’ll be so glad you did it.–Mitch Benjamin

WHAT WOOD SHOULD I USE TO SMOKE SALMON?

There are a few opinions on this so we’ll give you a couple of answers. Alder is used a lot in the Pacific Northwest and beech is pretty popular, too. Cherry, apple, oak, and pecan all seem to have their adherents because they’re not too overpowering for more delicately flavored meat like salmon.

Smoked Salmon with Bourbon Marinade

A piece of smoked salmon with bourbon marinade on a baking sheet with lemon slices and a fork.
Most people I know have a love-hate relationship with salmon. Here’s one way to make everyone fall in love: add smoke, bourbon, and sweet tea. You’ll need to cure the salmon the night before, but the process is totally worth it. I like to start smoking as the fire is burning down from a different smoke and there aren’t many coals left.
Mitch Benjamin

Prep 40 mins
Cook 2 hrs
Total 11 hrs
Entree
American
4 servings
257 kcal
No ratings yet
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Equipment

  • Wood chips
  • Smoker

Ingredients 

  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup bourbon
  • 1 cup brewed sweet tea cold
  • 1 (1/2 to 2 pound) salmon fillet skin on, pin bones removed
  • 1 lemon thinly sliced into rounds
  • Grilled lemon slices for serving (optional)

Directions
 

  • To make the brine, in a medium bowl, mix the granulated sugar, brown sugar, black pepper, and salt. Add the bourbon and sweet tea and whisk until the sugars and salt are mostly dissolved. The mix will be a little syrupy.
  • Place the salmon in a large 1-gallon (3.8 L) zip top storage bag. Pour the brine into the bag. Add the lemon slices and close the bag. Refrigerate for 8 to 24 hours, flipping from top to bottom two or three times during the cure.

    TESTER TIP: Place your marinating bag inside a large bowl, just in case it decides to spring a leak.

  • Remove the salmon from the bag, discard the brine and lemon slices. Rinse the salmon under cool water and pat dry with paper towels. Refrigerate until you are ready to smoke it or for up to 2 days.
  • Set your smoker at 200°F (93°C), or when the smoker cools down to 200°F (93°C), go get the salmon, pat dry again, and then place the salmon on the grates of the smoker. Put the lid on and then add some small wood chips to the firebox, adding more chips as needed to get a lot of smoke on the fish quickly.
  • Cook until the fish reaches an internal temperature of 145°F (63°C) on a digital probe meat thermometer, 2 to 2 1/2 hours.

    TESTER TIP: Add a few slices of lemon to the grill in the last 30 minutes to have a zingy accompaniment to the salmon.

  • Remove the fish from the smoker and place skin-side up on a cutting board. If serving immediately, gently peel the skin off and discard. Carefully flip the fish back over, cut the fillet into 4 pieces, and serve, with grilled lemon slices, if desired. Alternatively, you can let the fish cool, and flake the meat from the skin.
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Show Nutrition

Serving: 1portionCalories: 257kcal (13%)Carbohydrates: 4g (1%)Protein: 34g (68%)Fat: 11g (17%)Saturated Fat: 2g (13%)Polyunsaturated Fat: 4gMonounsaturated Fat: 4gCholesterol: 94mg (31%)Sodium: 355mg (15%)Potassium: 853mg (24%)Fiber: 1g (4%)Sugar: 3g (3%)Vitamin A: 71IU (1%)Vitamin C: 8mg (10%)Calcium: 24mg (2%)Iron: 1mg (6%)

Recipe Testers' Reviews

I love smoked salmon - whether the cold smoked one that is sliced thin or hot smoked like this one that is flaky and moist and rich. This smoked salmon with bourbon marinade is a straightforward recipe that's well written and makes for a tasty result. One quibble with it, it's cool to have it in the name of the recipe, but the bourbon is wasted here (and I hate to waste bourbon!). If this was intended to be left uncooked like gravlax then I totally get the bourbon in there and I'm sure in that case the booze flavor would come through. Here though, after the heat and strong smoke, there is no bourbon flavor anywhere to be found. I'm sure it doesn't hurt the recipe though but next time I'll keep the booze out and drink it with my smoked salmon.

We served it with a sort of colcannon (Irish cabbage/potato mash) only I also grilled the cabbage as well and the combination went great with the fish. Last but not least I made a simple buttermilk/sour cream/mayo dressing to add some more fresh acidity and creaminess to the whole plate. Leftovers worked amazingly well with homemade bagels and cream cheese the next day.

This recipe for smoked salmon with bourbon marinade yields a delicious super moist salmon that I want to make again soon. We regularly smoke salmon and use a brine but this one will definitely be used in the future. When making the brine, I couldn't get everything to completely dissolve. I whisked for 15 minutes and there was still some solids settling. I ended up letting it settle and pouring off the liquid and was left with about a tablespoon. This didn't seem to affect the end product at all.

After the overnight brine, I rinsed and dried off the fish filet and then put it on a wire rack over a sheet pan skin side down and put it back in the refrigerator uncovered for 4 hours. When I took it out, the surface was firm and looked dried out. After smoking, the fish was perfectly done, very tender, and very moist. Fantastic! We ate the fish with steamed brown rice and roasted asparagus. I bet it's delicious the next day with cream cheese and bagels but we didn't have any leftovers to try that!


Originally published June 15, 2021

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