How to Cook Salmon So It's Perfect Every Time
Cooking salmon — especially cooking salmon with skin — can be fraught with peril if you don't do it regularly. This meaty, luscious fish can easily end up overcooked, rubbery or dry, or with flabby skin that is wildly unappealing, rather than the gorgeously crisp skin that makes salmon so wildly popular. But you can easily avoid the most common mistakes that we all make when cooking salmon, and it all starts with how you place it.
Not starting the salmon skin-side down for maximum crispiness
Salmon skin is where a lot of the healthy oils reside, so making it delicious is paramount to getting all those benefits when you are cooking cuts of salmon that are skin-on. So, you want skin that is super crisp and flavorful, just as you would want with chicken. Starting your salmon skin-side down, and cooking it until it is well rendered, lightly browned, and crisp, and then turning the salmon to finish the cooking, will make for a terrific dining experience.
Cooking at too high a temperature
While you do want your heat high enough to crisp skin if your filets are skin-on, what you do not want is that white goo that can often seep out of the flesh, which is not dangerous, but certainly not attractive. That liquid protein escaping is a sign your fish is being cooked at too high a temperature, which also means you are likely drying it out. Keep things stovetop to a medium low, or even better sear on the stovetop then transfer to a hot oven to finish cooking in a more steady, even-heated environment.
Not checking the internal temperature of the salmon
Salmon is a fish that is at its best between medium and medium rare. Not overcooking it can be tricky to sense by feel or timing, so use a meat thermometer to ensure that the interior of your fish is where you want it to be. As with meat, the fish will have some carryover cooking, so pull it about five degrees before it hits your target temp and rest it for 5 minutes before eating.
Not checking for pin bones
Nothing puts a damper on an evening like performing the Heimlich. Salmon, depending on the cut you have chosen, may have little pin bones lining the flesh that are a choking hazard. Luckily, they are fairly easy to remove with a tweezer or needle-noses pliers, and easy to find by running your hand along the flesh side of your filets in both directions to feel for them. It is always worth taking this extra step for safety sake, but if you do not have the bandwidth to tweeze your fish, at least warn diners about the possible presence of bones when you serve them.
Using too little fat in the pan
While fish is often considered a lighter meal, that doesn't mean it doesn't need fat. Fat carries flavor, and also helps the fish not to stick to your cooking surface. Fish in general is delicate, and too easy to adhere to pans and grills if you are not careful. The fish will not absorb much of the fat you cook it in, so err on the side of a good slick of oil in the pan, or on your grates, or even on that cedar plank. The fish will taste better and stay intact.