Learn How to Cook Salmon by Avoiding These 6 Common Mistakes
Raise your hand if you love ordering fish at restaurants, but don't know how to cook salmon at home. We get it. Cooking fish can be intimidating! It's tough to know when it's cooked properly, can stick easily to a pan, and is a more expensive protein to mess up. We're here to help you get over your fears and avoid the biggest common mistakes people make when pan-searing, grilling, slow-roasting, and even poaching salmon at home. No matter which method you choose, these tips from the Bon Appétit test kitchen will ease you through the process swimmingly.
1. Taking Off the Skin
First of all—skin is tasty! So when you're cooking salmon, keep that skin on: It provides a safety layer between your fish's flesh and a hot pan or grill. Start with the skin-side down, and let it crisp up. It's much easier to slide a fish spatula under the salmon's skin than under its delicate flesh. The only exceptions? You should remove the skin when you're poaching or slow-roasting salmon—it will never get crispy in liquid and end up with a gummy, unpleasant texture. If you do want to leave it on, just discard it before eating.
2. Dramatically Overcooking
This is the most common mistake, which causes your fish to turn into expensive cat food instead of the elegant dinner you were envisioning. If using a grill or a pan, sear salmon skin-side down on high heat until the skin is crispy. (Use a non-stick pan if you're still afraid of the skin sticking!) You want to cook it about 90 percent of the way on the skin side (which takes about 3 minutes for a room temperature fillet) until flesh turns from translucent pink to opaque white all the way up the sides and starts to creep onto the top. After that, you're good to flip with a flexible fish spatula and let the residual heat of the pan cook the fish the rest of the way.
3. Not Knowing When It's Done
We have three ways to test doneness. One is a gentle poke with your finger in the center of the fillet, seeing if it yields to flaky pieces. You could also do this with a fork, but it is more likely to break up the beautiful fillet you're about to serve. One of our favorite methods in the BA test kitchen is to slide a cake tester or a thin piece of metal (like a chopstick!) into the salmon and touch it to your lower lip. If it feels hot, your salmon is probably done; if it's cool or barely warm, it needs a little more time. Cooking salmon to medium-rare or medium is totally okay—it will be tender and satisfying, not dry and sad.
4. Only Searing Salmon
A crispy seared piece of fish is wonderful, but a nearly foolproof method is slow-roasting. Contrary to its name, slow-roasting only takes about 30 minutes in a 275° oven for fish to cook through in a bath of aromatics like fennel, chiles, citrus, and herbs. You can also do this technique in parchment paper or, on the flipside, broil your salmon quickly in the oven for about eight minutes. (Six on the first side, two on the second.)
5. Poaching Salmon in Water
If you want to poach your salmon, don't use plain water—it's a missed opportunity to add flavor! At the very least, spike the water with lemon or a half head of garlic. Better yet, go all out and poach the salmon in dry white wine. Involving fragrant aromatics in the poaching process will help make your kitchen smell better while cooking instead of weird salmon tea.
6. Buying Poor-Quality Fish
When at the fish counter or fishmonger, consider your salmon options carefully. First off, don't turn your nose up at the belly—it's fatty, rich, and full of flavor. Plus, it tends to be cheaper than fillets. If you're going for a more traditional cut—like a steak or a fillet—make sure you get pieces that are all the same size. The best bet is to ask for a center cut for uniform thickness so it cooks evenly. The major difference between farm-raised and wild-caught salmon is in flavor. Wild salmon has a more vibrant color and savory, intense, and complex flavor than farm-raised. In a land-locked state? Buying frozen fish online at places like Sea to Table ensures high quality and peak freshness, no matter how close your house is to a body of water.