Cooking salmon is one of those things that sounds harder than it actually is. Is it different from cooking meat? Yes, completely. Will you find yourself making salmon multiple times a week once you’ve tried these methods? Absolutely! The cooking methods in this article are perfect for beginners because they require very little in terms of ingredients, equipment, and time. The first step? A visit to the fish counter!
The Fish Counter (the Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship)
Your local fish shop or fish counter at the grocery store will almost always have the freshest salmon. The salmon on display should smell fresh and faintly briny; an overly fishy smell indicates that it’s past its prime. Don’t be afraid to ask questions! Fishmongers are more than happy to give you cooking tips and prep suggestions, and they can help make your life easier by removing bones and skin (especially if you call ahead to place your order).
Farmed vs. Wild Salmon
As a general rule, it’s the safest bet to opt for wild salmon over farmed salmon. Farmed salmon has a mixed reputation. Critics say that salmon farms have been shown to have detrimental effects on both the fish themselves and the ocean at large. Farmed salmon is more likely to carry diseases (and to potentially spread those diseases to wild salmon if they escape their pens). There are also environmental concerns about the chemicals that are used to treat farmed salmon. That said, as farming methods have changed, some varieties are considered safer than others. And not everyone has access to wild salmon, so buying farmed fish may be the only option in some areas.
A Quick Reminder of How Nutritious Salmon Really Is
An incredibly versatile protein, salmon is high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids (which are thought to contribute to healthy brain and cardiovascular function). Salmon is also a good source of vitamin B12, selenium, and niacin. Vitamin B12, found most commonly in animal-based proteins, is essential for blood cell and nerve health and the production of DNA. Selenium, a trace mineral, is crucial for healthy thyroid function. Niacin lowers cholesterol levels and cardiovascular risks.
Prepping Salmon for Cooking
The best practice when cooking salmon is to either cook from a fresh fillet that hasn’t been frozen or to cook directly from frozen form. Since salmon is so perishable, it can be risky to attempt defrosting before cooking. Use fish tweezers (such as these Kotobuki Japanese fish bone tweezers) to remove any pin bones left in the flesh. Resist the urge to rinse fresh salmon under cold water, as this can potentially splash bacteria all over the fish—or even contaminate your sink or other items in your kitchen. Use a paper towel to pat the fish dry; the drier the surface of the salmon the better for searing over high heat. Once the salmon has been thoroughly dried, it’s time to get cooking!
Avoiding Overcooking Salmon
Overcooking is often the biggest fear people have when it comes to learning how to cook salmon. Although it’s true that salmon overcooks easily, the trick is to remove it from the heat just before you think it’s done. LaDonna Rose Gundersen, an Alaskan fisherwoman and author of My Tiny Alaskan Oven, Salmon, Desserts & Friends, and The Little Alaskan Salmon Cookbook, offers these words of advice for beginners: “Do not overcook salmon, and remember it continues to cook when you remove it from the heat. Better to undercook it slightly than to overcook it.” Salmon is cooked when it reaches an internal temperature of 145° F. Aim to take it off the heat at 140° F and let the residual heat do the cooking in the last few minutes before you check the internal temperature again. Salmon that has been properly cooked will be opaque throughout and will flake easily with a fork.
Sides and Wine: What goes with salmon?
Diane Morgan is the author of the best-selling cookbook Salmon: Everything You Need to Know + 45 Recipes and a huge fan of this versatile fish. When it comes to pairing with wine, it’s all about what’s in season at any given moment. Wine-wise, salmon and pinot noir are a lovely pairing, as is true for a Beaujolais. That said, an Austrian grüner veltliner is terrific if the fish will have a smoky flavor. When tomatoes are at their peak, I pan roast salmon and serve it with sautéed green beans, yellow pear tomatoes, and drizzle it with a homemade basil oil. That dish is grand with a French white Burgundy or Orvieto. Salmon is so versatile that it can also take on Asian flavors, creamy sauces like an aioli, or Mexican accents as in grilled salmon tacos with a chipotle sauce. Gundersen likes to pair salmon with classic comfort food. “This sounds crazy, and yet simple baked beans pair well with [pan-seared] salmon. …Or, a nice Caesar salad or asparagus roasted alongside the salmon.” Wine and beer that is slightly acidic can stand up to salmon’s assertive flavor, while buttery wines like chardonnay complement salmon’s milder flavors.
How to Cook Salmon
Pan Searing Salmon in a Skillet
Whether you pan sear salmon in a skillet exclusively or you finish the fillet in the oven, the secret to crispy skin remains the same: plenty of heat and patience.
- 2 center-cut fillets about 1” thick (use fillets with a uniform thickness for best results)
- 2 Tbsp. grapeseed oil (or another neutral oil with a fairly high smoke point)
- Kosher salt
- Freshly cracked black pepper
- Paper towel
- Sharp chef’s knife
- Heavy skillet (either cast iron or stainless steel; it should be oven safe if you choose to finish the salmon in the oven)
- Long-handled tongs
- Fish spatula/turner (we love this OXO Good Grips Fish Turner)
- Remove the salmon fillets from the fridge 15 minutes before cooking. Carefully pat all sides down with a paper towel—the drier the salmon the crispier the skin.
- Using a sharp chef’s knife, make four shallow cuts (aim for a depth of ¼”) diagonally across the salmon skin. Repeat in the opposite direction so that you end up with a crosshatch pattern. This extra step will allow the salmon to lie flat over high heat and on your plate (otherwise the skin has a tendency to curl under).
- Generously season the salmon fillets with kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper.
- Add the oil to the pan and heat over medium-heat high until the oil is just beginning to shimmer. Resist the temptation to add the salmon before the pan preheats!
- Using long-handled tongs, carefully add the salmon fillets skin-side down to the pan. Cook the salmon for 4 minutes undisturbed (again, resist the temptation to move the fillets around in the pan or flip them after only a moment or two).
- Carefully flip the salmon fillets over using a fish spatula and cook for another 3 minutes. The salmon should feel firm but not dried out. Remember, it’s always a good idea to remove the salmon from its heat source just before it’s done, as the residual heat will continue cooking the fish.
- Serve the salmon fillets with the skin on while still hot.
From skillet to oven method:
- Preheat the oven to 350° F.
- Follow steps 1 to 4 exactly as described above.
- Gently place the salmon fillets in the hot oil skin-side down and cook for 2 minutes. Carefully turn the fish skin-side up with a spatula and cook for 2 more minutes.
- Transfer the hot skillet to the preheated oven and cook the salmon for another 8 to 10 minutes or until the fish flakes easily and has turned opaque.
Pan-seared salmon is a great match for a crunchy broccoli slaw dressed with soy sauce, sesame oil, and rice vinegar. A bottle of cold, crisp lager with an optional squeeze of lime is all that’s needed to round out the meal.
How to Poach Salmon on the Stovetop
Poaching is an elegant, easy cooking method that results in perfectly flaky, coral-colored salmon. This method uses white wine, but feel free to use water or fish stock in its place.
- 1 large salmon fillet (¾–1 lb)
- Kosher salt
- 1 cup dry pinot gris
- Small handful of fresh dill, stems included
- 1–2 sprigs Italian parsley, stems included
- 2 scallions, white and pale green parts only
- 2 thin slices of lemon
- Freshly cracked pepper
- Shallow straight-sided sauté pan with lid (All-Clad’s Stainless Steel Sauté Pan will last you a lifetime)
- Fish spatula/turner
- Lightly season the salmon fillet with kosher salt. The skin can be left on or removed (many fish counters will do this free of charge).
- Add the wine, dill, parsley, scallions, and lemon slices to the sauté pan along with an extra teaspoon of salt.
- Set the salmon fillet on top of the aromatics and fill the rest of pan with cold water so that it just covers the salmon.
- Bring the poaching liquid to a rolling simmer over medium-high heat. Immediately turn down the heat to medium-low and place the lid over the salmon.
- Allow the salmon to gently simmer in the poaching liquid for 5 minutes. Check to make sure the salmon is opaque (give it another 30 to 45 seconds if not) and carefully remove with a fish spatula.
Poached salmon can be served hot or at room temperature and tastes particularly delicious when served with steamed snap peas and asparagus. Poached salmon can also be served chilled as part of a green salad or cold grain dish. Enjoy the rest of that pinot gris used in the poaching liquid; its slight acidity is a fantastic match with oily fish.
How to Grill Salmon on a Plank
Morgan is a huge fan of grilling salmon using the plank method. In fact, it’s the only method she’ll use for grilling salmon. “If I had to name my absolute favorite way, it would be to grill salmon a la plancha* or on a cedar or alder plank. I never grill salmon directly on the grill grates because the delicate flesh inevitably sticks to the grill,” she says. To get started with this method you’ll need a wooden plank (preferably cedar) that has been soaked in cold water for several hours.
- 1–2 large salmon fillets, ~1 lb each.
- Olive oil
- Kosher salt
- Freshly cracked pepper
- Wooden grilling plank (like these cedar grilling planks from Grill Gourmet)
- Grill (gas or charcoal)
- Fish spatula/turner
- Soak the grilling plank for 2 to 4 hours in cold water.
- Heat the grill to medium heat and arrange the pre-soaked grilling plank directly on the grill rack.
- Brush the salmon with olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper.
- Carefully place the salmon on the grilling plank. Close the lid and cook the salmon for 12 to 15 minutes, depending on the size of the fillet.
- Remove the cooked salmon from the plank. It should separate easily from the skin. Serve while hot.
*A la plancha is a Spanish cooking technique seldom seen in North America. It involves cooking food on a flat-top metal grill that resembles a griddle.
Classic barbecue sides like corn on the cob and grilled veggies are right at home next to salmon cooked via the plank method. A mellow lightly chilled pinot noir will complement the salmon’s buttery flavor.