Glazed, oven-roasted salmon is at once sensible and elegant: The glistening fish is uncomplicated enough to be a no-brainer for the workday scramble, but it’s also glitzy enough for guests. Like any straightforward dish, though, a little care and attention go a long way. Here, I hoped that a thoughtful preparation would lead to juicy, bronzed fillets glossed with a spectrum of sweet-tart-savory flavors.
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Tart citrus juice or vinegar pops against the rich, fatty fish.
Potent ingredients such as fresh thyme, liquid smoke, and ginger offer complexity.
Soy sauce adds salinity and umami savoriness.
In lieu of extra sugar, cornstarch contributes cling.
Double-glazing the fillets (before and after roasting) ensures a substantial glassy layer.
Doing the Two-Step
Before I could dream up glazes, I needed to settle on a cooking method. Sending the salmon for a quick swim in a salty brine was a critical first step: It ensured that every bite was moist and well seasoned and greatly limited the formation of unsightly albumin (white blobs of protein).
After lifting four fillets (for equal sizing, buy a center-cut piece and divide it into four) from the saline solution, I patted them dry in preparation for a stove-to-oven approach. I seared the fish flesh side down in a little vegetable oil in a nonstick skillet before slipping them into a 300-degree oven, where the pinky-orange centers cruised to a moist, buttery medium-rare in about 15 minutes.
It was a promising start, but I wanted to improve the browning, which was rather spotty. Rather than searing the fish longer, which would overcook the exteriors, I whisked ¼ cup of sugar into the brine. This helped the salmon develop an evenly, deeply caramelized surface (but it didn’t taste sweet). Now it was ready to be fancied up.
The Science of Shine and Viscosity
Whether they’re meant to lacquer proteins, fruits, or vegetables, glazes usually contain a generous amount of sugar. That’s because sugar not only adds sweetness and encourages browning but also helps a glaze turn thick, clingy, and shiny: Dissolved sugar molecules have charges that make them stick to each other slightly, impeding the flow of liquid. The sticky mixture then immobilizes water on the surface of the food, making it shimmer. (Since dissolved sugar is transparent, it doesn’t hinder the luster.)
In our glazes for roasted salmon, which are relatively low in sugar, we lean on cornstarch for viscosity. Cornstarch is made up of long polymer molecules that bump into each other when they’re suspended in a liquid, slowing the flow of water in a glaze. Like a sugar-heavy glaze, a glaze containing a small amount of cornstarch also turns translucent and glassy, so the beauty of the fish can shine through. –Paul Adams
Almost all recipes for glazed salmon rely on lots of white or brown sugar or honey to produce a thick, clingy lacquer. I’m not antisugar, but it’s no fun to eat your way through one-note sweetness. For a multidimensional glaze, I started by dissolving a modest 2 tablespoons of sugar in 3 tablespoons of water and then bolstered it with 1/4 cup of brightly acidic lemon juice. The fish itself was nicely seasoned by the brine, but to make sure that the glaze was also properly salty—and to layer in umami depth—I stirred in several teaspoons of soy sauce. Finally, an herbal component: I chose fresh thyme, as it pairs wonderfully with salmon and citrus. Six sprigs were required to fully realize the earthy-minty expression of the herb.
Science: Why a Low Oven Is Best
What if, instead of feverishly checking the salmon at the end of cooking, you could ease your way toward the ideal medium-rare serving temperature and ensure opaque-at-the-edges and translucent-at-the-center fillets? It’s entirely possible: Just cook the fish in a relatively cool oven.
When I roasted fillets at a variety of oven temperatures, I found that 300 degrees was ideal: The salmon heated up more slowly than it did at higher temps, affording the cook more control. A low oven also produced less carryover cooking: Fillets roasted at 300 degrees averaged just 8 degrees of carryover after 5 minutes, while fillets roasted at 450 degrees rose a whopping 27 degrees on average in the same amount of time. –L.L.
The glaze didn’t have enough sugar to develop syrupy body, but I had a fix: 11/2 teaspoons of cornstarch. After bubbling on the stovetop for a few minutes, the mixture turned satisfyingly thick and translucent and tasted lightly sweet, sour, and savory—just what I wanted—so I painted it onto the fillets, where it gripped the surfaces and became tacky as it roasted.
To double down on the enticing flavors and striking appearance, I brushed on more glaze as soon as the salmon emerged from the oven and then showered it with minced fresh herbs.
Highly satisfied with this formula, I put together a couple more glaze permutations, pairing zingy ginger with fruity apple cider in one and liquid smoke with toasty maple syrup and gutsy red wine vinegar in another. No matter which one you try, your next salmon dinner is sure to dazzle.