Salmon: Does food get much better? Salmon is fatty, full of vitamins and omega-3s, flavorful. It’s local and traditional in the Northwest. It’s fast and easy to cook.
And yet there are so many ways salmon can go wrong. There’s farmed salmon, whose failings have been detailed plenty of other places. There’s old salmon, tragically not eaten while it was fresh. And then there’s overcooked salmon, a chewy, dry reminder of what it could have been. Breaks my fish-fond heart.
I credit my perfectionist-scientist mother with my salmon-cooking skills. We spent summers in Seattle when I was a kid, where my mother, standing at the little Habachi grill (which I think was $5 at Pay ‘n’ Save?), or at the oven set to broil, produced perfect salmon with the same meticulous attention she applies to research. Flaky, flavorful, moist. We ate it with Northwest vegetables, homemade tomato sauce, blackberry pie, leaving permanent Northwest flavor imprints in my memory. The salmon even converted salmon-haters like my friend Ellie, who had never liked salmon until my mother made it for her the night Ellie and I met, when she was ten.
The secrets lie in selecting the salmon carefully, and serving it very slightly underdone.
~ Choose salmon that is very fresh. Ask when it was caught. It should look firm and bright, not dull. It shouldn’t smell funny. Buy from a reliable vendor. I love the fish from Wilson Fish at the Ballard, Wallingford and Madrona farmers markets, and Loki’s stuff is also good. There are great vendors down at Pike Place. I’ve had some luck at Madison Market and at Mutual Fish on Rainier.
~ Choose belly fillets (the one that’s thick on one side and thin on the other) as opposed to tails. Belly has more fat and the thickness gives the fish better consistency. King is the fattiest and best, but is also expensive. Go for as thick and high-fat as you can find/afford.
~ Look for nice, pronounced fat lines
~ Buy wild salmon
~ Fresh is better than frozen. Fresh has better consistency. Frozen is okay if you can’t get fresh.
~ Alaska, BC and Washington have more sustainable salmon fisheries than other locations
How to Cook Salmon (but NOT overcook salmon)
Salmon on a grill is still the best. If you’re doing that, follow the directions below for doneness and seasonings. Cook it face-down first, so the fat from the skin soaks into the meat. Then, flip and let it cook until it’s done, while letting the skin get a bit grilled for added deliciousness. Get one of those cage-like fish-flipping devices; it’s a good investment to make this process easier.
This recipe is for salmon in your oven set to broil. It’s easy and comes out great.
- 1 fillet of salmon, preferably belly.
- olive oil
- optional toppings (not too much): lemon juice, olive oil, black pepper, smoked paprika, fresh tarragon, fresh garlic sliced thinly
1. Set broiler to high and position rack right under the flame at the top of the oven.
2. Line a baking dish or oven-proof skillet with aluminum foil. (You can skip the foil if you don’t mind serious scrubbing). Place salmon on the foil. It’s okay if the thinner side is a little folded, so it doesn’t dry out. This helps you get away with using a slightly-too-small pan, too.
(ADDED NOTE: You can place the salmon one of two ways: 1. You can use my original recipe here, which cooks the salmon cut side up the whole way. 2. Alternatively, you can start with the skin side up to crisp the skin for maybe two minutes and then flip the fish after two minutes. I recommend starting with the simple way and then experimenting with the other one if you like the original recipe.)
3. Drizzle with olive oil. Add on bits of other toppings if you like. You don’t need much, because salmon is so flavorful on its own, but a bit of smoked paprika can be nice, as are any of the flavors listed above. If using herbs like tarragon, press them down into the oil coating the fish.
4. Set under the broiler. Check frequently. Estimates vary between 7-10 minutes per inch of thickness, but I prefer to watch it.
Here’s how to tell it’s done:
~ The top is slightly brown and/or tiny bits sticking up get a little charred
~ A little whiteness appears at the sides from the fat
~ When a wooden spoon pressed on top gives back a little resistance but not too much
~ And the MOST IMPORTANT: cut into the thickest part. At the bottom, you should have some translucent, raw-looking fish. BUT! This fish is easily parted with a butter knife. If there’s raw-looking salmon that can’t be teased apart with a butter knife, it needs another moment. If it can, DO NOT cook the salmon any longer! The fish is moistest and most delicious when you leave this translucent area as so.
Photo evidence: This salmon is perfectly done! That translucency is your friend!
Serve salmon simply with a side of steamed vegetables and butter, or with some vehicle for homemade tomato sauce, or whatever you like with salmon. Remember also that the skin is delicious and full of nutrients. If it’s too chewy for you, fry or broil it on its own a bit until crispier.