How to Cook Salmon Perfectly Every Time

Grill, sear, poach, and roast this popular fish successfully with these tips.

Americans love salmon. It’s often at the top of the most popular seafood charts (second only to shrimp). And it’s easy to understand why. The pink-fleshed fish has a rich, mild flavor, is high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, and can be cooked any number of ways. It’s great for a quick weeknight dinner and can also be easily gussied up for a dinner party. Here’s what you need to know about shopping, cooking, and serving salmon.

How to cook salmon

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What to Look for When Shopping for Salmon

Don’t shop by color. Jaison Scott, co-owner and fish thrower at the legendary Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle, has noticed that customers often ask for the salmon with the deepest hue, but that’s not always the best way to shop for salmon. “The flesh can be pale and it will still be just as good, if not better than something that's darker red,” he says. Take, for instance, King salmon, which is a prized salmon variety. Because of all that delicious fat, King salmon often looks pale pink instead of red.

Use all of your senses. When you’re at the market, look for salmon that looks vibrant and fresh. It shouldn’t smell fishy or have any kind of film on the flesh.

Shop at a place that’s busy. Even if they aren’t throwing fish at your market, you want to shop at a spot that sells a lot of seafood. For example, Scott estimated that he handled 2,000 pounds of salmon the day we chatted. That’s an extreme example, but the more fish a place sells the fresher the fish will be.

Do your homework. As with all seafood, it’s important to make sustainable choices when you’re shopping for salmon. For Gregory Gourdet, Chef-Owner of Kann and Sousòl in Portland, Oregon, wild salmon is at the top of his list, but farmed salmon is the next best, if it’s rated sustainable. When he’s shopping, he checks for the Marine Stewardship Council’s “blue fish” symbol on the label and also asks the fishmonger if the fish is sustainable or not. You can also check your choices via Seafood Watch, a resource backed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

RELATED: A Guide to Every Type of Salmon You Can Buy

How Long to Cook Salmon

For moist, tender salmon, the fish should be cooked to about medium, which means it will be semi-translucent in the center. To test for doneness, you can gently poke the fish with a fork to see if the flesh will flake, but that can mess up the look of your dinner. 

Bob Broskey, chef and partner for RPM Restaurants in Chicago, likes to use a thin metal cake tester to see if his salmon is done. Insert the tester horizontally into the thickest part of the fish, leave it for a few seconds, then touch the tester to the back of your hand (or the inside of your wrist) so you can get a good sense of the temperature of the tester. “If it's just warm, it's perfect. If it's cold, it's not ready. And if it's screaming hot, it’s overcooked,” he says.

“My preferred trick for testing doneness — beyond using a thermometer — is by color,” says Gourdet. “When baking, you’ll be looking for when salmon goes from bright pink to light orange and you see the tiniest white beads on the surface of the fish at the thickest part. Alternatively, the center should register 120°F on a thermometer.” 

How to Cook Salmon in the Oven

For both Scott and Broskey, it’s hard to beat the convenience and ease of roasting salmon in the oven, on its own or as part of a sheet pan salmon dinner. “I keep it really simple,” says Scott. “I just rub a little bit of olive oil on it, add a little bit of salt and pepper, and bake it 375°F or 400°F for 15 to 20 minutes. If it's good salmon, then why do you need to do anything more?”

Broskey takes a lower and slower approach. “I like to cook salmon in the oven at 250°F for a long time,” he says. “I'll put it on top of whatever I have in the kitchen. Say I have some leeks. I’ll put the leeks in a baking dish, top them with the salmon, brush the fish with olive oil, season it up, and then just slowly cook it. No need to cover it at all. When you cook it slowly, you're going to end up with salmon that has a much truer, pinkish orange-ish color.”

Want even more insurance? Wrap your salmon in a parchment packet with aromatics, citrus, veggies, and a drizzle of olive oil. The steam trapped in the packet will infuse the fish with flavor and cook it gently, making it tender and juicy. Bonus: The parchment packets only take about 15 minutes at 425°F and the cleanup is minimal. 

And don’t forget about cooking salmon under the broiler. The quick, high heat is a great way to cook salmon really quickly and easily. Just be sure to keep a close eye on the fish.

How to Pan-Sear Salmon

Quick-cooking salmon fillets are perfect candidates for searing. A few minutes in a hot pan can make the skin irresistibly crispy, which is a delicious contrast to the tender flesh. Gourdet uses a two-pronged approach (searing then baking) to create this combo.

“First, you’ll want to heat a large, heavy nonstick or well-seasoned skillet (wide enough to hold the fillets without crowding) over medium-high heat for a minute or so, until it gets nice and hot,” he says. “Once the pan is hot, add avocado oil and swirl the pan, then add the fillets, skin-side down. Reduce the heat to medium and use a spatula to gently press each fillet for a few seconds so it lays flat in the pan (fillets like to curl up). Cook until the skin is completely crispy and golden brown, about 5 minutes. The salmon should release easily from the pan; if it doesn’t, keep cooking until it does. Then transfer the pan to a 350°F oven for about 5 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fillets.” 

How to Poach Salmon

One surefire way to make sure your salmon isn’t dry is to poach it. Cooking it slowly in liquid will infuse the fish with flavor and make it very tender. Poached salmon can be served warm or cold

When poaching, you can fully submerge the fish or you can do a shallow poach, which involves cooking aromatics in a skillet, adding your fish and some herbs, pouring in a bit of wine, and covering the fish with a cartouche, or a round of parchment paper. The parchment helps trap the steam from the liquid as the fish bakes in the oven. The salmon will be tender and delicious and cooks in less than 10 minutes. 

How to Grill Salmon

Because salmon is a bit fattier and sturdier than other fish, it’s great cooked on the grill. Many cooks worry about the fish sticking to the grill, but there are several ways to prevent that from happening.

When he grills salmon, Broskey heats the grill to medium-high and brushes the grates with a little oil. If the fillet is wet, it will stick immediately, so he pats the fish dry with a paper towel. Next, he rubs the salmon skin with a little bit of oil. “As long as those things are all correct, you'll have absolutely no issues with sticking,” he says.

Scott likes to add even more insurance. He puts a piece of foil directly on the grill, drizzles the foil with oil, and then adds the salmon. You can also grill salmon on a cedar plank that has been soaked in water. These set-ups means you won’t get grill marks on your fish, but does get rid of the sticking stress. 

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