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Making the PERFECT Brine for Salmon (Wet Brine)

Salmon fillet in Brine

A lot of times people want to know how to make the perfect brine for cold or hot smoked fish.

The truth is that there is absolute or exact formula for getting the perfect brine. It takes a lot of trial error and a deep understanding of how the particular fish works and how salt interacts with the brine. For this article we’ll specifically talk about a fillet of salmon for cold smoking.

For Cold Smoked Salmon there could be a few variables; number one, does the fish have skin on it? If it does it would need a stronger brine than that of a fish without the skin on it. And, depending on the size of the fillet it would need a stronger or weaker brine, and if it is fresh or frozen is another factor. As you can see, there are many variables, and there are many things that will affect the degree of the brine.

Now there are a few things you need in order to measure the intensity of the brine but before we get into that we’ll talk about what a brine is. A brine (otherwise known as cure) for this article is a mixture of salt and water to a certain salt degree in relation to the water. Consider it like a ratio of salt to water and that is what makes the brine. Now, there are other kinds of brines but we’ll get into that at a later date.

First things’ first, you need a Salometer or Hydrometer. (Recommended: Salt Brine (% by saturation) Shatterproof Polycarbonate Plain Form Hydrometer) A Salometer measures the degree of salt to the amount of water from zero to hundred. This is probably the most important tool you’ll need when measuring brines. It isn’t just a “pinch of this, and a handful of that” to get it going. This is fish and it’s a science of sorts. You’ll also need a holding container to fill up with salt water to measure with the salometer. We recommend purchasing a cheap one, as the main expense is for the actual salometer.  Vintage Shop PW-COIA-QACH Hydrometer 12″ Test Jar with Removable Base However, it is important to stress that the salometer is extremely important for making a proper brine.

So now you have the tools. Now what? To see if it’s working properly you need to create a fully saturated solution. To test if it is working you need to take a handful of salt, and put about a cup of water and mix it until the salt is fully dissolved into the water. Then, add another handful of salt without adding any more water. At that point, you can fill up the holding container with the brine and put in the salometer. If it shoots up to 100 degrees than you’ll know it’s working properly. If it reaches 90 degrees or above than just add more water until it reaches 100. If after a few more handfuls in the same cup of water fully mixed doesn’t reach 100 degrees then it’s time to throw away the salometer and buy a new one.

So now, let’s assume you are working with a working salometer and decide to purchase a fresh 4 pound salmon fillet with the skin on. In order to properly brine a fillet that size through the flesh you’ll need to put it in a larger container (with enough space to fully immerse the fillet without folding or bending) and add the brine to the container. You should be aiming for approximately 25 degrees of salt to water content. Keep in mind that the fillet should be fully immersed in the brine and be kept face down, or skin side up, to make sure that the fillet gets properly salted.

Now, every day you should mix up the fillet and the brine to create uniformity in salt for the fillet. Keep doing this for 3 or 4 days total and it should be fully brined and is ready to be smoked. Now, depending on how much salt you like, we always recommend washing the fillet in fresh water or running water for approximately an hour to again, create uniformity for the salt content.

Fresh Salmon Fillet (4 pounds) in liquid brine:


Now, according to the size you need to add more salt and more time in brine.

  • For a 2 lb fillet put 25 degrees for 24 hours
  • For a 3 lb fillet put 20 degrees for 48 hours
  • For a 4 lb fillet put 25 degrees for 72 hours
  • for a 5 lb fillet put 20 degrees for 96 hours
  • for a 6 lb fillet put 40 degrees for 48 hours
  • for a 7 lb fillet put 40 degrees for 60 hours

We don’t recommend brining fillets that are over 7 lb’s. As it is hard to maintain uniformity and consistency for cold smoking.

So, get your brine on! And send us your photos of brines!