By Chuck Anderson
Published on Wednesday, March 23, 2016
I had a customer ask how to prepare salmon at home that tastes as good as it does in restaurants. My answer is too long, but here goes.
I will probably get criticized by some for recommending farmed salmon, but that is probably the first step to preparing great salmon for most people. For great salmon, fat is where it's at. Fat in salmon means flavor and moistness. This is good fat too, high in omega-3's and low in saturated fat.
Freshness is also critical. Use a good fishmonger. Or, the sniff test is always good. It should not smell like fish. Fishy smell comes from the spoilage bacteria that breaks down fish flesh. No odor, which means few bacteria, is new, well handled fish. A fishy odor, with lots of bacteria, means older fish that may have gotten warm. Fresh fish will look moist and plump. Fish dries as it ages, and will lose that natural wet sheen. The meat should be intact, avoid fillets or portions with gaping in the meat.
One more tip for finding great quality salmon is to check the twitch muscle. Salmon have a thin layer of twitch muscle between the skin and the meat. When salmon is very fresh, the twitch muscle will be orangish, almost the color of the meat. As twitch muscle ages, it will turn dark orange, light brown, brown, dark brown, and then green. Orange or dark orange twitch muscle will be very fresh salmon. Even skin off salmon will still have a little of the twitch muscle on the bottom of the fillet, right in the center.
There are five Alaskan salmon species and one Atlantic salmon species. The fattiest salmon is king salmon. However, only 1 percent of the wild harvest is king salmon. King salmon can be hard to find and expensive. Atlantic salmon is the next fattiest, almost as fat as king salmon. Most farmed salmon are Atlantic salmon species. Most restaurants buy and prepare farmed Atlantic salmon. It is widely available and reasonably priced.
The other four wild Alaskan salmon range in fat content from very little (pink salmon) to moderate fat content (sockeye or coho salmon). These are great fish, but not as foolproof as Atlantic salmon for cooking. Wild salmon are only available fresh from about May to October, mostly from June to September. There are a few wild troll caught salmon available year round, but very scarce and expensive. Frozen wild salmon is good, but it loses moisture when frozen. Fresh farmed Atlantic salmon is easier to prepare and will stay moist.
Preparation is the easy part. The simpler, the better. Let the salmon be the star.
If the fish has any odor, it is ok to rinse the fillet in cold water and then pat dry. This will remove much of the surface bacteria which causes odor when raw, and more odor when cooked. If the fish still has a fishy odor, use a little lemon or lime juice. I use my hands to rub it on all surfaces of the fish. This will add a little lemon or lime flavor. But the citric acid will kill most of the bacteria and eliminate the odor.
For seasoning, there are lots of ways to go, but to me, a little dried dill weed and salt are perfect. Dill goes great with salmon.
I usually pan sear salmon portions in a non stick fry pan. Individual portions are easier to handle and flip than whole fillets. Individually cooked portions look better on the plate too. A cast iron skillet is even better, but not everyone has one or is comfortable using one.
I use maybe a teaspoon of canola oil, or another high heat oil. Just a little oil is needed. The salmon will excreet some of its natural oils as it cooks, because it is so fatty. Once the pan and the oil is hot, gently place two portions into the pan. Start with one end and lay the portion down. This will keep hot oil from splattering on you. Allow the salmon portions to sear about 5 minutes. Then flip. Reduce the heat to medium, cook for three minutes more.
The general cooking rule for fish is to cook for 10 minutes per inch of thickness. For salmon, I like 8 minutes per inch of thickness. A one inch thick salmon portion cooks for 5 minutes on one side, then 3 minutes on the other side. Show the 5 minute hard seared side up on the plate.
Do not overcook. Fish is safe to eat raw, it is definitely ok to eat a little under done. It should look like medium well done steak, opaque meat with a little orange in the center. This is where the fat Atlantic salmon helps. It is so fat, that even when fully cooked or slightly overcooked, Atlantic salmon will stay moist.
Notice that the thin edges of the portion are the belly meat. This section will be overcooked and crispy on the outside. That is ok. The belly meat has more fat content and will stay moist. This is the best part of the fish. I call it, melt in your mouth goodness. Fat is where it’s at.