Learn how to make smoked salmon on a Pit Boss Pellet Grill!
We take you step-by-step through preparing, brining, and seasoning your salmon, setting up your Pit Boss pellet grill for the cook, and smoking it to perfection.
When salmon is cooked hot and fast in an oven, on a stovetop, or on a gas grill, it can be immediately seasoned and cooked. In contrast, when smoking salmon low and slow, you really should brine it.
We prefer an overnight brine, but if you're pressed for time, a few hours will do.
It is also important to bring the temperature of the smoked salmon up very slowly.
We will show you exactly how to set up your Pit Boss to ensure that the temperature of the fish rises at a very slow rate.
This is what will give you perfectly smoked salmon that is both flavorful and moist!
- Choosing Your Salmon
- Preparing the Brine
- Brining the Salmon
- Drying the Salmon
- Oiling the Salmon
- Our Favorite Wood Pellets and Chunks
- Smoking Salmon with Cedar Planks, Grill Baskets, or Grill Mats
- Set Up the Pit Boss
- Using a Smoke Box
- Slow Smoking the Salmon
- Adding the Glaze and Raising the Temperature
- Serving the Salmon
- 📖 Recipe
Choosing Your Salmon
The two main types of salmon are wild caught, often called Alaskan salmon, and farm-raised, often referred to as Atlantic salmon.
Wild salmon is more expensive and thought to have less chemicals, antibiotics, and more nutrients than farm-raised.
It usually has a brighter red color that naturally comes from the food the salmon consume in the wild.
Farm-raised, or partial farm-raised, salmon are lighter pink in color. They get their coloring from processed food pellets fed to them.
We were able to find partial farm-raised salmon at Costco labeled that it does not contain antibiotics, so that may depend on the particular source of the farmed salmon.
Both types of salmon will be smoked exactly the same way, so choose the type of salmon that is available to you and fits your budget.
You can either buy an entire salmon that you will need to cut into portions or salmon that is already portioned out.
What you choose may depend on what is available in your area or store.
The type of salmon we wanted was only available in pre-cut pieces, but the slices were the size we prefer so that is what we chose.
Rather WATCH than read?
Check out our video for Smoked Salmon with Cajun Honey Butter.
Preparing the Brine
No matter what type of fish fillets you are smoking, you are usually better off brining them first.
Brining fish not only adds flavor, but helps the salmon retain moisture during low and slow smoking, helps it absorb smokey flavor, and cuts down on albumin, that unappetizing white stuff that leaks out of fish sometimes when it's cooked.
Now, we think the BEST way to prepare salmon for smoking is to wet brine it for at least 4 hours, but preferably 8 hours overnight in a mixture of brown sugar and salt.
You will need:
- A Baking Dish with a Cover (or plastic wrap)
- Dark Brown Sugar
- Kosher Salt
To dissolve the sugar and salt, boil 6 cups of water in a pot, then stir in the sugar and salt.
Continue stirring until dissolved.
Cover the pot and place the brine in the refrigerator to chill.
Once the brine has cooled to the temperature of the fridge, prepare the salmon.
Brining the Salmon
The first thing you want to do when you get the salmon out of the packaging is to give it a good rinse under cold running water.
The place it on your cutting board and pat it very dry with paper towels.
Once it is dry, run your fingers along the salmon checking for any pin bones that were not removed previously.
If you feel any, remove them with your fingers or some tweezers and discard.
Lastly, if your salmon isn't already sliced into fillets, slice it into about 2 inch portions.
Pour some of the chilled brine into the baking dish, then place the salmon, skin side up, in a single layer into the brine.
Add more brine to cover the fish if needed.
Cover the dish, and place it in the refrigerator for 6-8 hours overnight.
Drying the Salmon
Take the salmon fillets out of the tray and rinse them off really well under cold running water, pat dry with paper towels, and place them on a wire rack to air dry.
Keep them on the wire rack in the refrigerator for about 1-2 hours while you start to get your Pit Boss ready.
Over the course of an hour or so the dry brined salmon will form what is known as a pellicle on the exterior.
This is just a fancy term for a sticky layer that forms as some of the salt and sugar that infused last night makes its back way to the surface.
Just like we did on our smoked tuna steaks, we want a good pellicle because it is the ideal surface to absorb smoky flavor and form a delicious crust on the salmon as it smokes, so give it time to form.
If you are in a rush, the pellicle will form even faster if you bring the salmon outside or set up a box fan to circulate air gently on the salmon while it dries up on the racks.
Oiling the Salmon
After the pellicle has formed, it's time to oil the salmon skin to prevent it from sticking to the grill grates of the Pit Boss.
Since we are keeping the temperature low, any oil will do. We use olive oil and apply it with a silicone basting brush.
Our Favorite Wood Pellets and Chunks
Fish absorbs smoke very quickly and a little goes a long way.
The best woods for smoking salmon include the fruitwoods like apple, cherry, and peach, but also the milder smoking woods like pecan, oak and alder.
Mesquite and hickory will give a very aggressive smoke flavor and should only be used if mixed in with some of the other types mentioned above.
For the best results, store your unused pellets in a sealed room temperature container like this 20 lb pellet container rather than in the Pit Boss hopper outside.
Pellets do not last forever, but will definitely last a LOT longer if stored indoors in a quality airtight container.
We like to add a smoker box when making smoked salmon and fill it with charcoal and wood chunks.
Any fruitwood, oak, or alder wood will work well for this.
Smoking Salmon with Cedar Planks, Grill Baskets, or Grill Mats
Due to it's bottom skin, salmon actually works well being smoked directly on the Pit Boss grates.
You do have other options which also work for other more delicate fish or vegetables or if you choose to remove the skin from your salmon before cooking.
Option 1: Cedar Planks
You can experiment with smoking your salmon on cedar planks for some added woodsy flavor.
Make sure to soak the cedar planks in water for at least an hour before putting them on your grill or smoker so that they don't char and burn.
This also helps release steam and flavor the salmon fillets while they are smoking.
Option 2: Use a Grill Basket or Grill Mat
Because salmon is more delicate than other cuts of meat, you may be more successful if you place the fillets in a grill basket rather than directly on the grill grates.
We are particular fans of the ORDORA Portable Grill Basket because it comes with its own handle, making it much easier to manage and move lots of delicate food around with one quick motion.
Our personal favorite is the Grillaholics Mesh Grill Mat.
Just throw it down on your grill to keep your fish (or any other food) from sticking or falling through. It keeps your grates really clean, and when you are done, you just throw it right in the dishwasher!
Set Up the Pit Boss
We have previously covered how a pellet grill works, how to season a Pit Boss, how to start a Pit Boss, as well as how to troubleshoot the smoke level of your pellet grill.
So if you need a more in-depth review on how to use your Pit Boss for the first time, check those articles out first!
First, add hardwood pellets into the side hopper.
Set the temperature dial to "Smoke" and press the "Power" button, allowing the grill to go through the startup cycle.
Check out our Ultimate Guide to How to Keep your Family Safe by using ONLY Bristle Free Grill Brushes, along with a selection of some of our favorites!
It's also a good idea to change your grease bucket liner at this point.
Technically today we are "Hot Smoking" our salmon, as Cold Smoking is an entirely different process that can take 6-8 hours and is more akin to preserving the salmon like beef jerky rather than cooking it.
That said, we are still going to set up the Pit Boss for very low and slow indirect cooking at only 180°F.
This will give the salmon about 2-3 hours to cook and absorb plenty of smoky flavor while remaining SUPER tender and delicate.
The lower temperature when smoking salmon on the Pit Boss also helps prevent any albumin, that milky white substance that sometimes comes out of cooked fish, from leaking out.
This keeps the smoked salmon not only more visually appetizing, but also keeps more moisture in the meat where we want it.
Because our goal is to bring the temperature of the fish up slowly, we are going to do a few tricks to help achieve this.
Add a large disposable foil pan filled with ice water on the bottom grates. Then place a small disposable foil pan filled with ice water on the left side of the top rack. If you need help installing your top rack, check out How to Install and Remove the Top Rack of a Pit Boss Pellet Grill.
Next, we are going to add a firebox to help reduce the cooking temperature even lower than 180°F.
Using a Smoke Box
We add a smoke box when smoking salmon for two reasons:
- to add more smoke flavor
- to artificially lower the temperature inside the Pit Boss
We have recently started adding the Flip Smoker Box to the grill to enhance the smoke flavor. Check out How to Add More Smoke Flavor to a Pellet Grill for step by step instructions and a video. We use charcoal and chunks of apple and alder wood.
We want to bring the temperature of the salmon up as slowly as possible. Unfortunately, the lowest temperature you can set a Pit Boss is the "smoke" setting, which is 180°F. Ideally, we want the temperature to be lower than that.
As we demonstrated in our Pit Boss Temperatures Problems article and video, hot air flowing from the fire pot can blow at the Pit Boss thermometer and make the grill think it needs to slow down to maintain temperature. This causes the actual temperature in the grill to be lower than the temperature reading.
In the case of the salmon, we purposefully place the hot smoke box next to the temperature probe so the grill actually runs cooler than the set temperature.
We found that although our Pit Boss was reading 180°F, the actual ambient temperature on the top rack where we are smoking our salmon was actually closer to 130°F!
Slow Smoking the Salmon
Place your salmon fillets on the top rack of the Pit Boss, toward the middle and right sides, skin side DOWN. You do not need to flip them at all during cooking.
You may rotate the fillets during cooking if you notice one part of your grill is hotter than another. For us, the left side is hotter, so we rotated our fillets as needed to ensure even cooking.
We like to smoke the salmon for about an hour BEFORE adding seasoning to allow the smoke to penetrate the pellicle.
You can go big and spicy with a creole or Cajun blackening blend of paprika, oregano, thyme, cayenne pepper, brown sugar, salt, and pepper that's your thing.
You can also substitute smoked paprika for more color and depth of flavor.
You can mix your own custom Cajun rub in a re-usable plastic shaker and sprinkle directly on your salmon.
Go easy on the amount of salt in your rub since we already brined the salmon for smoking.
You can always add more after tasting but you can't put that genie back in the bottle if you overdo it.
If you don't have the time or inclination to make your own seasoning blend, one of our latest favorite rubs for smoked salmon is this Blues Hog Cajun Seasoning.
We also like is Rufus Teague Fish Rub. It has a great sweet and salty profile with some garlic, lemon, pepper, and a touch of heat that works great on all kinds of smoked fish.
You want to continue cooking the salmon with the Pit Boss set to 180°F (but hopefully really cooking closer to 130°F through the use of the smoke box and ice water pans) for about 2-2.5 hours (so about 1-1.5 hours more after adding the seasoning), until the internal temperature of the salmon reaches 110-115°F.
At this point, you can remove the smoke box, as all of the smoke flavor has already been added.
You can also remove the upper rack water pan. It's now time to add the glaze and turn up the temperature to finish cooking the fish.
Adding the Glaze and Raising the Temperature
For this salmon, we used a simple honey glaze of honey, water, and butter on the salmon at this point.
You can apply it to the surface and sides of the fish using a silicone pastry brush.
Then, it's time to raise the temperature of the Pit Boss to 250°F.
Cook the salmon until it reaches a final internal temperature of 145°F. This is the recommended temperature according to the USDA. You may remove your salmon from the grill a few degrees before 145°F, but keep in mind it will not rise up in temperature as much as a larger piece of meat when resting.
Make sure you are either using the supplied Pit Boss meat/food thermometer or a good instant read meat thermometer.
We are particular fans of this one from ThermoPro because of its durability and affordable price.
While we have used and recommended ThermoPro for years, lately we have also become big fans of the MEATER leave in thermometer.
It is extremely accurate and has an incredible 165 foot Bluetooth range and works right with your smartphone so you don't need to carry a separate controller around with you like many other remote thermometers require.
It's got a great free app that is constantly being updated and even has an algorithm to predict how much longer your type of meat will take to cook based on cooking temperature, target temperature, current internal temperature.
It's like a GPS for your meat!
Serving the Salmon
Your Pit Boss smoked salmon should be served immediately after removing from the smoker.
No need to rest or wait to eat!
You can squeeze on some fresh lemon on them or top with a little sprinkle of parsley for added color.
You can also refrigerate and then incorporate it into a smoked salmon dip for a party for all to enjoy!
Pit Boss Smoked Salmon with Cajun Honey Glaze
- Pit Boss Pellet Grill
- Wood Pellets preferably a fruitwood like apple, cherry, or oak
- Fillet or Boning Knife
- Cutting Board
- Paper Towels
- Baking Dish
- Plastic Wrap or Lid to Baking Dish
- Large Baking Sheet with Wire Rack
- Instant Read and/or Leave in Probe Thermometer
- Grill Mat optional
- 1 2 lb Large Salmon Fillet
- ¾ Cup Dark Brown Sugar
- ¼ Cup Kosher Salt
- 6 Cups Water
For the Skin
- 1 tablespoon Olive oil
Cajun Blackening Rub
- 2 tablespoon Paprika
- 1 tablespoon Dark Brown Sugar
- 1 tablespoon Dried Oregano
- 1 tablespoon Dried Thyme
- 1 teaspoon Cayenne Pepper
- 1 teaspoon Kosher Salt
- 1 teaspoon Course Ground Black Pepper
- ½ teaspoon Celery Salt
- ⅓ Cup Honey
- 1 tablespoon Water
- 1 tablespoon Butter
Prepare the Wet Brine
- Boil the water in a pot.6 Cups Water
- Stir in the brown sugar and salt until completely dissolved.¾ Cup Dark Brown Sugar, ¼ Cup Kosher Salt
- Cover pot and place in refrigerator until the solution is chilled.
Rinse, Dry, and Fillet the Salmon
- Rinse the salmon under cold running water.1 2 lb Large Salmon Fillet
- Place it on your cutting board and pat it very dry with paper towels
- Once it is dry, run your fingers along the salmon checking for any bones that were not removed previously.
- If you feel any, remove them with some tweezers and discard.
- Lastly, slice your salmon into about 2 inch portion sized fillets if you did not buy the fish already sliced.
Brine the Salmon
- Pour some of the brine solution into the bottom of a large baking dish.
- Place the salmon fillets, skin side up, into the brine.
- Pour brine on top of the salmon to completely submerge.
- Place lid or plastic wrap on top of baking dish.
- Place the baking dish in the refrigerator for at least 4-6 hours or overnight.
Rinse and Dry the Brined Salmon
- After the salmon is finished brining, take the fillets out of the tray and rinse them off really well under cold running water.
- Pat dry with paper towels, and place them on a wire rack to air dry for 1-2 hours in the refrigerator to allow the pellicle to form on the outside.
Start the Pit Boss Pellet Grill
- Add your pellets to the hopper, start the Pit Boss pellet grill and put it on the "Smoke" setting and allow it to go through the startup cycle.
- Fill a large aluminum pan with ice water to place on the bottom grates. Fill a small aluminum pan with ice water to place on the left of the top shelf.
- If using a smoke box, get it lit and place it on the left of the bottom grates, near the temperature probe.
Smoking the Salmon on the Pit Boss Pellet Grill
- Brush oil on the skin of the salmon if you are cooking them directly on the grill grates.1 tablespoon Olive oil
- Place the salmon fillets on the top rack of the Pit Boss with the skin side DOWN if they are skin-on. No need to flip during the cook. You can even leave them on the wire rack if you wish.
- Mix the Cajun Blackening Rub Ingredients together well in a bowl.2 tablespoon Paprika, 1 tablespoon Dark Brown Sugar, 1 tablespoon Dried Oregano, 1 tablespoon Dried Thyme, 1 teaspoon Cayenne Pepper, 1 teaspoon Kosher Salt, 1 teaspoon Course Ground Black Pepper, ½ teaspoon Celery Salt
- After 1 hour of smoking, sprinkle and rub the blackening mixture over all sides of the salmon fillets.
- Continue smoking the salmon, rotating occasionally, for an additional 1-2 hours, until the internal temperature reaches 110-115°F.
Add the Honey Glaze and Finish Cooking
- Combine honey, water, and butter and heat in microwave for a short time to melt the butter and thin the honey. Whisk to thoroughly combine.⅓ Cup Honey, 1 tablespoon Water, 1 tablespoon Butter
- Use a silicone basting brush to apply the honey glaze to the tops and sides of the fillets.
- Turn the Pit Boss up to 250°F and continue cooking the salmon until it reaches 142-145°F internally.
- Remove the salmon to a wire baking rack to rest and reach a final internal temperature of 145°F.
- Serve immediately with lemon wedges, if desired.