Salmon is readily available, extremely versatile and simply delicious. Here we cover salmon basics from weeknight fillets to weekend entertaining: the cuts and types to buy, the equipment you’ll need, essential methods for preparing it and sauces for dressing it up.
Before You Start
- Buy the largest spatula you can find, one that can lift and turn a substantial portion of a fillet and transfer the fish to a platter. Better yet, buy a fish spatula, which is designed just for this purpose.
- A cast-iron pan is excellent for searing fillets and then placing them in the oven. A reliable nonstick pan is also useful; look for one that can go into a hot oven. A sheet pan, reinforced so it won’t warp, is helpful for roasting and broiling.
- A pair of small needle-nose pliers from a hardware store does the best job of yanking out pin bones. Sturdy tweezers can be used but are less effective.
- Have parchment paper or aluminum foil on hand. Use them to enclose fillets for baking (fish en papillote), and for lining sheet pans, grill pans and roasting pans, which makes cleanup easier.
Cuts of Salmon
With salmon, one size does not fit all. There are a few basic categories of cuts, each with its own treatment and purpose. Small fillets and steaks are great for fast weeknight meals, while a whole side of salmon is an easy and elegant main course for a dinner party
Salmon fillets are the most commonly used cut of the fish, and for good reason: removing the pin bones is simple, and the cut lends itself to all methods of cooking. A fillet can be a small section of a boned side, intended to serve one or two people, or it or an entire boned side to serve a crowd.
With or without skin? That depends on how you expect to cook the fish. Certain methods, like pan-frying fillets, are designed to give you crispy skin, and that skin is delicious. For poaching fish, however, the skin can be removed before cooking and discarded.
For filleted, skinless fish, about six ounces per person is an average portion. With skin, add another ounce.
These crosscut sections are best for grilling, broiling or pan-searing, though they can also be baked in a sauce. When buying more than one steak, be sure they are of uniform thickness so they cook at the same rate.
Thicker steaks will be easier to cook so they acquire an attractive burnish and remain moist and succulent, roughly 10 to 12 ounces per steak. Consider serving half a large steak per person, divided in the kitchen after cooking and plated without the skin and bones.
A side of salmon is the piece from which smaller fillets are cut, and it’s a great choice for when you want to serve a large group of people. A side can be grilled, roasted or broiled, or even poached if you own the right equipment. If you’re looking to cook a whole salmon, try two sides instead.
Farmed vs. Wild
There are significant differences between farmed and wild salmon. Wild salmon comes from Pacific waters, and has a silky texture and a brilliant vermilion hue. It has a superior taste, with fewer calories and less fat than farmed salmon. It is also expensive, and there is less of it in the market. Farmed salmon is much more plentiful, and cheaper. It comes from Atlantic salmon stock, and bears the color of the feed it is given, most often the light pink flesh we associate with “salmon.” There are significant environmental concerns surrounding the farming of salmon.
The wild salmon sold in the United States come from the Pacific. (Salmon has all but disappeared in the wild in the Atlantic, and the pockets that exist are reserved for sport fishing.)
The season for Pacific salmon lasts from May to September; if you see it outside of those months, it has been frozen, though it will still be delicious. Wild salmon is usually more expensive and less readily available than farmed, but if you can get it, do it; it will elevate your meal.
The most prized is Chinook or king salmon, which is the largest and most succulent of the species. Sockeye salmon, with its deep vermilion red flesh and firm texture, has acquired a following, especially when it’s from the Copper River in Alaska. Coho or silver salmon is a milder-tasting salmon and is generally wild, though there is some farm-raised Coho salmon.
Steelhead trout is is a fish in the Pacific salmon genus. It has meaty pink flesh and comes in small sizes, which like two to three pounds that makes it convenient to cook whole. Tasmanian sea trout or ocean trout is another fish with salmon-colored flesh that’s closely related.
SEASONAL AVAILABILITY FOR WILD SALMON
|May – September||King|
|Early May – June||Copper River Sockeye|
|June – September||Coho|
|July – September||Pink|
Readily available all year round, farmed salmon generally has a rich, mild flavor, but lacks the salinity of wild salmon. It is also more affordably priced. Much of the farmed salmon in the United States is Atlantic salmon, though there are now some operations in the Pacific. (Some high-quality king salmon, branded Ora, is farmed in New Zealand.) Some of the farmed fish are labeled organic, but that term, when it comes to creatures swimming in the sea, is controversial.
Arctic char, which is also in the Salmonidae family, is usually farm-raised in the most northern reaches of the Atlantic. The fish has deep orange-pink flesh and a texture that is more delicate than that of regular farmed salmon. And because Arctic char is small, about 3 pounds, it is also an appropriate choice for cooking whole.
Genetically modified salmon, which has a growth hormone gene from king salmon so it will grow two to four times faster, has been approved for sale in the United States. It will be at least a couple of years before it reaches the market, however.
Salmon fillets and sides have pin bones, the inch-long, flexible bones that stick up vertically in a row down the center of the fillet. Removing them is an easy maneuver; you don’t have to do this, but it makes for a prettier piece of fish and easier eating. A pair of pliers and a simple technique will get you smooth, boneless salmon. Here’s how. Link
Lay your salmon fillet flat on a board or on a sheet of foil on your counter, skin side down (even if there is no skin). Run your hand across the surface of the fish. You will feel a ridge of the tiny bones sticking up.
Starting at the thickest end of the fillet, use needle-nose pliers to grab the tip of the bone and firmly yank it out. There may be as many as 20 of these bones in a whole fillet.
Cooking on the Stovetop
Cooking salmon on the stovetop is the ultimate in ease: if you don’t want to heat up your oven or spend too much time in front of it, sautéing a fillet is the way to go. Or if you’re looking for a low-fat option, poaching salmon produces tender, clean-tasting fish.
Sautéing salmon means to cook it quickly in a little fat over fairly high heat. The method is easy and fast, and it works best for fillets, making it a great way to get a delicious weeknight dinner on the table.
Here’s how to do it:
In a nonstick skillet, melt about 1 tablespoon butter over medium-high heat and cook until foam subsides and turns deep gold in color, about 3 minutes.
Season the fillet with salt and pepper and add to pan, skin side up. Cook without turning for about 6 minutes, until fish turns deep brown. Flip the fish and cook until done to taste, 2 to 4 minutes longer.
Poaching salmon gives you cleanly cooked fish that makes a beautiful palette for sauces, or a delicious base for a salmon salad, croquettes or burgers. It’s also a good way to get perfectly cooked fish without any added fat.
Here’s the basic method:
Fill a sauté pan with enough water to cover a fillet, and lower the fish in. Sprinkle in salt, a few peppercorns, and a bay leaf.
Bring the water to a fast simmer, and turn off the heat. Cover the pan and let the fish cook for 20 to 30 minutes. The salmon should be medium-rare.
Note: To add extra flavor to your poached fish, try using a classic court bouillon, a simple cooking broth that is simmered for 20 to 30 minutes with slices of lemon and onions, herbs, salt, and pepper. There should be enough to submerge the fish in a pan that the fillet or fillets with fit. Use it in place of the water in the basic cooking method above.
Originally published in The New York Times.