How to Cook Salmon

How to Cook Salmon: A Guide to Enjoying This Delicious Marine Treasure

“Versatile” is probably one of the best words to describe salmon. It can be baked, broiled, grilled, poached, roasted, smoked, added to salads or stews or minced to be mixed in burgers and savory fish cakes. You can even whip up salmon in dips and spreads. But if you’re a novice in the kitchen, chances are you may not be familiar with how to best cook this delicious but delicate fish. If you’re not careful, you may end up with a charred, tasteless and unappetizing mess.

This guide will help you learn the basics on how to cook salmon — from choosing the right variety (read: Wild Alaskan salmon is the best), storing it and prolonging its shelf life, to actual preparation methods. But first, you must know the importance of why choosing the right fish is essential, not only to satisfy your palate, but to safeguard your health as well.

The Basics on Salmon: Why Choosing Wild Alaskan Salmon Is Crucial

Oily fish like salmon are rich in omega-3 fats, particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which are both essential for your brain, heart and immune system health. Plus, salmon is an abundant source of protein, B vitamins and the antioxidant vitamin E.1

However, most fish farms today are actually aquatic versions of CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), where fish are not only fed an unnatural diet, but also fall victim to diseases and parasites that threaten their viability (for more information, read my article on the dangers of farmed salmon). Because of this, the only salmon I recommend you to buy is wild Alaskan salmon (Salmo).

So how can you tell if salmon is wild or farm-raised? The clue is in the flesh. True wild sockeye salmon is bright red because of its natural astaxanthin content, which is one of the highest concentrations you’ll find in any food. Plus, wild Alaskan salmon is very lean. Hence, its white strips (fat marks) are quite thin. So if you buy salmon that’s pale pink with wide fat marks, it’s likely farmed.

You should also avoid salmon labeled “Atlantic salmon,” as these are almost always farmed. Instead look for salmon (whether fresh, frozen or canned) that’s labeled “Alaskan salmon,” “wild Alaskan salmon” or “sockeye salmon.”

How Long Is Salmon Good For?

The shelf life of salmon depends on a variety of factors. Ideally, once you buy fresh salmon, you should cook it immediately to maximize its freshness. But if you want to cook it at a later time, that’s all right — just remember to put it in the freezer. As much as possible, do not leave raw salmon out at room temperature (between 40 to 140 degrees F) for long periods of time, as this may cause bacteria to grow rapidly. If left out for more than two hours at room temperature, discard the salmon.

However, if properly stored and frozen, the fish will maintain its quality for two to three months, but may remain safe to eat even after that. Another way to maximize the shelf life of this fish is to wrap it in its original packaging and then overwrap it with freezer paper. This will help prevent freezer burn.2

How to Tell If Salmon Is Bad

The best way to know if salmon has gone bad is to use your senses. Remember that fresh salmon should have a bright and moist flesh and does not have a strong or smelly odor. If you’re hit by a strong fishy odor upon opening the packaging, then that’s a sign that the salmon should no longer be consumed. 

Other undesirable traits include a slimy and milky flesh and discoloration around the edges,3 and sunken, cloudy eyes.4 Fresh salmon should have a silvery and shiny skin (scales), bright red flesh and clear eyes (if buying a whole fish). The skin should also be resilient to the touch.5

How to Cook Salmon Like a Pro: Different Methods You Can Try

How long you cook salmon depends on the preparation method you’ve chosen, but overall, it usually takes anywhere between 12 to 15 minutes.

The preparation method also dictates on which cut of fish work best. If you’re feeding a large group and you want to cook the salmon in the grill or in the oven, a whole fish works well, but if you opt to pan-sear the salmon on top of the stove, individual fillets may be better.6 Below are some examples of how to cook salmon efficiently.

How to Cook Salmon on the Stove: Pan-Frying Salmon

Pan-frying is great for salmon fillets, mainly because it’s easy and quick. Another bonus is that frying gives the skin a crunchy and crispy texture (some even compare it to bacon). Just remember that when frying salmon (or any food), it’s best to use coconut oil instead of other cooking oils. Here’s what you should do:7

  1. The fillet should be room temperature, not cold. According to The Kitchn:8

    “When cold fish is added to a hot pan, the fillets will immediately seize up and are more likely to cook unevenly. Instead, remove the fish from the refrigerator about 15 to 20 minutes before you're ready to start cooking, in order to bring them up to room temperature.”

  2. Dry the fillets properly before frying. Pat the salmon fillets dry with a clean dish towel or a paper towel. This will prevent them from sticking to the pan and will also give the skin a nice crisp. Sprinkle with salt and pepper before putting the fish in the pan.
  3. Make sure the pan is really hot before adding anything in. The flame should be medium or medium-high. Pour in a thin layer of coconut oil and let it heat up until the oil is shimmering. To check if the oil is hot enough, flick a few drops of water into the pan — if they sizzle and evaporate at once, it’s good to go.
  4. Put the salmon on the pan skin side down.Salmon skin is durable and tough, and is able to withstand more time on the hot skillet without overcooking.9 Don’t forget to season the fillets before adding it in the pan. Add them one by one as well, careful as you do so, to avoid being splattered by oil.
  5. Don’t be tempted to move around the salmon.Do not prod or poke it with a spatula or it might break apart. Instead, let it sizzle for five to six minutes before flipping it to cook the other side.

Remember that when pan-frying salmon, the large portion of the cooking process happens when the skin is resting against the pan’s surface. Keep a close eye on the fish without touching it — you’ll see the fillet’s color beginning to change, lightening from deep dark red to pale pink.

Once the color has changed to three-quarters from the bottom, you can flip the salmon. Let it cook for a couple more minutes — you’ll get a tender and flaky fish with a super-crispy skin.

How to Cook Salmon in the Oven

Baking salmon in the oven is one of the easiest and fuss-free ways to cook this fish. The cleanup is also minimal, as long as you remember to line your baking tray. Follow these easy steps from Greatist:10

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Line your baking dish or sheet tray with parchment paper and place the salmon fillets on top. Pat them dry with a paper towel.
  2. Drizzle coconut oil all over the salmon and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste (you can use any other seasonings you prefer).
  3. Place in the top half of the oven and allow to bake for 10 to 12 minutes. Around the 10-minute mark, you can start checking for doneness, but remember that if the fillet is thicker, it will need more time. When the flesh flakes easily with a fork, it’s ready to be served.
  4. Optional: Squeeze a wedge of lemon all over the salmon before serving for an added citrusy flavor.

How to Grill Salmon

A summertime favorite for many people is grilled salmon steak or fillet, and for good reason — grilling not only imparts a smoky flavor to the fish, but less cleanup is needed as well. Keep in mind these tips:11

  1. Make sure you start with hot coals, placing the lightly oiled fish skin-sides down on the grate diagonally, giving them the lovely grill marks
  2. Flip it after five minutes. To do this, simply slide a spatula under the fish — if the flesh refuses to separate from the grate, leave it for another minute or two and then try again.
  3. Make sure that you do not char the meat while cooking.

How to Poach Salmon

If you don’t like your salmon to be too oily because of using coconut oil, poaching is a great alternative you can try. It’s also great if you want to “sauce up” your salmon or are planning to transform it into fresh salmon fish cakes.

To poach salmon, simply simmer the fish in water flavored with a pinch of salt, a few whole peppercorns, or a bay leaf. Make sure there’s enough water (you can also use homemade bone broth for a deeper flavor) covering the fillets. For a gentle poach, let the water or other liquid simmer, slide the fish in and cover the pan. Turn off the heat and allow the salmon to gently cook for about 25 minutes.12

How Will You Know If Salmon Is Done Cooking?

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, most seafood, including fish like salmon, should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit.13 You can use a meat thermometer to check the doneness of your salmon. Push the tip into the middle of the fillet, at the thickest part.

Ideally, check the internal temperature of the salmon a few minutes before it’s finished cooking, so that you will avoid overcooking the fish. Look for salmon that is opaque — the meat should slightly resist flaking or pulling away from the bone.

Pressing the top of the fish also lets you check if the salmon is cooked. The fish should be firm to the touch, but will give a bit when pressure is applied to it. Signs that the salmon is overcooked is opaque meat that easily flakes or breaks apart — this means there’s a lack of moisture in it.

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