Salmon is an incredibly versatile fish, whether cooked simply, or paired with bold spices and flavours. Both hearty and delicate at the same time, it works well in many dishes, which explains its popularity; yet one common sight in commercial and home kitchens alike is that of stringy, dry salmon with sad bits still left stuck and abandoned in the bottom of frying pans.
If cooked properly, salmon can be amazing. It should ideally possess a crisp, crackly skin with moist, buttery flesh and a soft pleasant texture. The key to perfect salmon lies understanding the types of salmon, cooking methods, and the white stuff that congeal on the surface of the fish in the cooking process – albumin.
Here’s everything you need to know about how to cook salmon properly…
Types of salmon
Salmon sold in supermarkets in the UK are generally categorised into wild and farm-raised, with significant differences between the two. Wild salmon tend to be leaner and lower in fat compared to their farmed counterparts. An easy way to differentiate them is by colour – wild salmon have a deep orange-red colour, whilst farmed salmon have a lighter pink shade with visible fat stripes running through the flesh.
Deciding which type of salmon to purchase is very much a personal choice, given the on-going debate about whether wild or farmed salmon is better. The advantage of farmed salmon is that with its higher amount of fat, there is less chance of it drying out in the cooking process. However, wild salmon offers more protein and has fewer calories and less fat; it is also more expensive and prone to overcooking.
How to choose the best salmon for cooking
Regardless of the type of salmon you decide to purchase, fish should have shiny scales, look moist, slime-free, and feel firm; whole fish should have perfectly clear eyes, springy flesh, bright red gills and be free from any whiffs of ammonia.
How to cook salmon
To learn how to properly cook salmon, we need to first understand albumin – the white globules of protein that coagulate and get forced out of the muscle fibres, and onto the surface as the fish cooks. The higher the heat, the more the fish will shrink which results in rapid loss of juices and more albumin being produced. A lot of albumin on a piece of cooked salmon is a tell-tale sign it has been cooked a few shades well past medium – the flesh is likely to be dry, crumbly, and void of taste because the flavouring minerals inside the flesh have been squeezed out.
The solution to overcooking is to vastly reduce the cooking temperature, and here are a few cooking suggestions for salmon…
How to pan-fry salmon
Pan-frying salmon is popular and works best for all fillets, regardless of the cut. Contrary to popular belief, salmon benefits from an initial high heat to sear the skin, followed by low gentle cooking. Always cook fish with their skin on, which will help to hold the fillet together, thus prevent it from falling apart when you flip it over or move it.
In a non-stick frying pan, heat one tablespoon of oil over a medium-high heat. Season fillet and add to pan, skin side down. The salmon will curl up on itself as the skin shrinks immediately, so press down firmly using a spatula or spoon for 15 seconds, and make sure all parts of the skin are in contact with the pan. Immediately turn the heat right down to low, then continue to allow the fillet to gently cook. Continue to cook with the skin side down until most of the flesh is opaque – a 250g fillet of one-inch thickness should take about seven minutes on the first side.
The most important thing is not to flip the fillet before it is ready – we recommend spending 90 percent of the total cooking time on the first side, and only 10 percent on the second side. Once your fillet is nearly opaque, flip using a fish slice and remove pan from heat right away. The residual heat is sufficient to cook the second side – this will only take one minute, so be sure to have your plate to hand. To check for doneness, use a fork or tip of a finger and carefully press. The flesh should flake apart easily, and the inside still slightly pink. Finish by squeezing some lemon juice over the top.
How to roast salmon
Roasting salmon fillets in an oven is a great way if you are cooking more than a couple. The key again is to go low and slow.
Preheat your oven to 120°C (100°C) or gas mark ½. Line a roasting sheet or tray with foil and lightly oil. Place fillets skin-side down on tray and season with salt and spice(s) of your choice. Place tray in oven and check after 10 minutes. A 250g fillet will cook in 18 to 20 minutes.
For a North African-inspired dish, try marinating salmon fillets with lemon zest, oil, ras el hanout spice mix and a dash of honey. Roast in oven and serve with steamy couscous and generous dollops of mint yoghurt.
How to cook salmon en papillote
‘En papillote’ simply refers to a cooking method in which food is cooked in an individually sealed packet of parchment paper or foil in the oven. The fish is essentially steamed and perfumed by the ingredients in the parcel.
Heat the oven to 120°C (100°C fan) or gas mark ½. Place a layer of lemon slices or pre-cooked leeks or onion on one side of a piece of parchment or foil. Lay a salmon fillet on top of vegetables with a generous drizzle of olive oil and sprinkle of dill or dried herbs. Fold one edge of the parchment or foil to meet the other edge, then crimp the edges and close tightly to create a parcel. Place on oven tray and cook for 15-25 minutes, depending on thickness and weight of salmon.
For an Asian take, try using spring onions and fresh shiitake mushrooms as the base, and drizzle soy sauce and sesame oil over salmon, and top it off with thinly sliced fresh ginger and coriander leaves.
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