Having worked in professional kitchens for many years, I offer this advice for cooking salmon: Slow down, and go big. Let me explain.
I've learned the hard way that it's easy to overcook a fillet of salmon—or any fish, for that matter—especially if you are trying to cook several pieces at once. Better to cook one big piece gently at a low temperature.
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The method is easy and foolproof: The window of optimal doneness is wider and the fish is harder to overcook. Plus, salmon flesh takes on a silky, buttery texture when cooked gently. And finally, there's less splattery mess and fishy smell when you slow-roast salmon in the oven. That's a lot of benefit for a little extra time.
Knowing I wanted to work with a 2½-pound piece of fish that would feed about six people, I tested roasting temperatures ranging from 170 to 350 degrees. Not surprisingly, I found that lower temperatures produced salmon that was moister, silkier, and more evenly cooked. That said, I didn't want to wait 2 hours (or longer) for the fish to cook. I found that the happy medium of temperature and time was 250 degrees for 1 hour.
The texture of the salmon was amazing, and I wanted to bump up the flavor to match it. Many of our recipes for grilled or smoked salmon call for rubbing the flesh with a mixture of salt and sugar and then letting it sit for an hour or more before cooking; as the salmon sits, the salt-sugar mixture lightly cures it, drawing out excess moisture and deeply seasoning the fish.
But I didn't want to wait, so I tried sprinkling the salmon with sugar and salt and immediately popping it in the low oven. My tasters loved the sweetness the sugar provided, but they wanted a bit more complexity. A switch to brown sugar did the trick and, as a bonus, gave the cooked salmon a lovely rusty hue.
TEST KITCHEN TIP: To remove the pin bones from a salmon fillet, drape the fillet on an overturned bowl skin side down and remove the protruding bones with tweezers or needle-nose pliers.
For a final flourish, I decided to whisk together a simple lemony vinaigrette—just olive oil, lemon zest and juice, and sliced chives—to pour over the fish as soon as it came out of the oven. This dressing mingled with the juices in the baking dish to create a light, bright, savory sauce that perfectly accented the richness of the salmon. This method proved so successful that I made a variation with cayenne and parsley, as well as a version with garlic, mustard, and dill. A worthy mantra for cooking salmon, and for life: Slow down, and go big.
Success Starts at the Market
This recipe calls for a 2½-pound center-cut salmon fillet. If the thin belly portion on the side is still attached, remove it and reserve it for another use before cooking. We developed this recipe with farm-raised salmon. You can substitute wild salmon, but be sure to adjust the cooking time to 45 to 50 minutes.