Salmon can be both a quick weeknight dinner or an elegant for-company centerpiece. Plus, it pairs well with a wide range of vegetables and side dishes. Our guidelines will help you achieve perfect results.
What You'll Learn
- Shopping for Salmon
- Wild versus Farmed
- Fresh versus Frozen
- Whole Side versus Individual Fillets versus Steaks
- Smoked Salmon
- Storing and Prepping Salmon
- Cooking and Reheating Salmon
- Our Favorite Salmon Recipes
- What to Serve with Salmon
SHOPPING FOR SALMON
These days, you're increasingly likely to find multiple salmon options at the fish counter, including the species, and whether it is wild or farmed, and fresh, frozen, or smoked.
Wild versus Farmed
The flavor and texture differences between wild and farmed salmon can be significant.
Wild versus Farmed Salmon
Wild: The salmon was caught in open waters, usually in areas of the Pacific ocean.
- Alias: Pacific
- Species: Chinook (king), chum (dog or silverbrite), coho (silver), masu (cherry), pink (humpy or humpback), sockeye (red)
- Flesh color: Deep pink due to compound called astaxanthin from crustacean-based diet
- Texture: Firm and meaty
- Availability: Late spring to early fall
Farmed: The salmon was bred and raised in a confined aquaculture system.
- Alias: Atlantic
- Origin: Raised on farms primarily in Norway, Scotland, Chile, and Canada
- Flesh color: Naturally gray but turns pale pink from synthetic astaxanthin and carotenoid pigment in feed
- Texture: Soft and buttery
- Availability: Year-round
Fresh versus Frozen
It’s Fine—and Potentially Better—to Buy Frozen Salmon
Fresh salmon should look moist and shiny, not dull, and should smell of the sea rather than overtly fishy. But don't shy away from frozen salmon. If it’s been vacuum-sealed and the label indicates that it was flash-frozen immediately after harvest, it may taste fresher than the fish behind the counter (which is often flash-frozen fish that’s been thawed).
Whole Side versus Individual Fillets versus Steaks
Which cut you buy depends on what you’re making and how many people you need to serve.
- What is it? A single fillet that runs the length of the fish
- Weight: 4-5 pounds (serves 8-10)
- Preferred cooking methods: Roasting, curing
- What are they? Single-serving pieces cut from a whole side
- Weight: 6-8 ounces each (1 per person)
- Preferred cooking methods: Pan-searing, roasting, poaching, grilling, grill-smoking
- What are they? Single-serving, uniformly thick pieces that are cut perpendicular to the spine, so they include skin and bones that might be removed before cooking
- Weight: 8-10 ounces each (1 per person)
- Preferred cooking method: Pan-searing
Why Does Salmon Smell Fishy?
Virtually all fish contain the compound trimethylamine oxide (TMAO), which transforms into a fishy-smelling compound called TMA when the fish are killed and can be detected when the fish is raw or cooked. But cooked salmon produces an even more pungent fishy odor for a different reason: Its highly unsaturated fat oxidizes when exposed to heat. To minimize fishy odor, consider choosing leaner wild salmon.
Most smoked salmon sold in supermarkets is cold-smoked: It’s cured to draw out moisture and then smoked at temperatures ranging from 75 to 85 degrees for anywhere from 1 day to 3 weeks to produce a dense, silky, translucent texture. (Hot-smoked salmon, which is far less widely available in supermarkets, is smoked at temperatures ranging from 120 to 180 degrees for 6 to 12 hours to produce a flaky texture.) We tasted five nationally available products and found that neither the type of salmon (farmed or wild) nor the wood used to smoke it affected our preferences. What did matter were the curing method and the thickness of the slices. Our winning salmon was cured with only salt (no sweetener or spices), and we liked its thin, nicely tender slices. Our favorite, Spence & Co. Traditional Scottish Style Smoked Salmon ($10.99 for 4 ounces), is “silky,” “delicate,” and “lush.”
STORING AND PREPPING SALMON
Put It On Ice
Good-quality fresh salmon can last up to two days if stored close to 32 degrees, rather than up to one day at the typical home refrigerator temperature of 40 degrees. Place the fish in a zipper-lock bag on ice in a bowl (or cover it with ice packs) and place it at the back of the fridge, where it’s coldest.
Filleted fish has had the backbone and ribs removed, but the thin, needle-like pinbones must be removed separately. Most fish are sold with the pinbones removed, but they are difficult to see and are sometimes missed by the fishmonger. Here’s how to look for any stragglers and remove them without damaging the flesh:
- Drape fillet over inverted mixing bowl to help any pinbones protrude. Then, working from head end to tail end, locate pinbones by running your fingers along length of fillet.
- Use tweezers to grasp tip of bone. To avoid tearing flesh, pull slowly but firmly at slight angle in direction bone is naturally pointing rather than straight up. Repeat until all pinbones are removed.
Skin It (If You Like)
When well-rendered and seared to a crisp, salmon skin can rival great roasted or fried chicken skin. But when you want skinless fillets, you can easily remove the skin before or after cooking.Before Cooking
- Insert blade just above skin about 1 inch from 1 end of fillet. Cut through nearest end, keeping blade just above skin.
- Rotate fish and grab loose piece of skin. Run slicing knife between flesh and skin, making sure knife is just above skin, until skin is completely removed.
- Gently slide thin, wide spatula between flesh and skin and use your fingers of your free hand, if necessary, to help separate skin. It should easily peel off in 1 piece.
What’s the Gray Layer Just Below Salmon Skin?
The gray tissue just below a salmon’s skin is a fatty deposit rich in omega-3 fatty acids and low in the pink pigments found in the rest of the fish. Many sources claim that it tastes fishier than the rest of the fillet and recommend removing it, but our tasters could barely detect a difference between fillets with the gray tissue attached and fillets with the gray tissue removed. If you do choose to remove it, simply peel the skin off the cooked fillet and scrape it away with the back of a knife.
Trimming a Whole Side of Salmon
Most of the fillet is uniformly thick and will cook evenly; however, the tail end tapers, so we prefer to trim off that portion if the fillet weighs more than the recipe calls for. Ideally, your fishmonger will do this for you, but you can easily do it yourself with a sharp knife.
Trim or Tuck the Belly
If your salmon fillet comes with the belly flap attached, this thinner, heavily marbled strip will overcook when roasted or seared. You have two options: Trim and discard it (see above illustration), or fold it over and pin it in place to ensure that it cooks on pace with the rest of the fillet. Here’s how to do both:Trim
- Run a sharp knife along the edge of the belly. We like to save the trim for making salmon cakes or gravlax.
- Cut away any chewy white membrane on the surface, flip the fillet skin side up, and gently fold the flap over so the skin is facing down. Secure the flap by horizontally inserting a toothpick through it and into the thicker portion of the fillet.
Cut Your Own Fillets
When making any salmon recipe that calls for fillets, it’s important to use fillets of similar thickness so that they cook at the same rate. We find that the best way to ensure uniformity is to buy a large center-cut fillet (1½ to 2 pounds if serving four) and cut it into four equal pieces.
Though it may seem odd to brine something that spent much of its life in salted water, it’s worth doing. Brining salmon helps the flesh stay moist, seasons it, and reduces the presence of albumin, a protein that can congeal into an unappealing white mass on the surface of the fish when heated. Plus, brining works a lot faster on fish than on meat because fish’s shorter, looser muscle structure allows the solution to penetrate more rapidly. Here’s how to do it:
- Dissolve 5 tablespoons of salt in 2 quarts of water, add 6 fillets, and let them sit for 15 minutes. Dry the fillets well with paper towels just before cooking them.
COOKING AND REHEATING SALMON
What Is the Ideal Doneness Temperature for Salmon?
The answer depends on whether you're cooking farmed or wild fish. We’ve always cooked farmed salmon to 125 degrees, at which point its flesh is firm yet silky. But in tests we've found that wild varieties taste dry at this temperature, and that all varieties of wild salmon taste better cooked to just 120 degrees. Why? Wild salmon has more collagen (and thus connective tissue) and, more importantly, a significantly greater number of chemical cross-links between collagen molecules. When the wild varieties are cooked to just 120 degrees, the muscle fibers contract less and therefore retain more moisture. The leanest wild salmon also contains less fat—about half as much as farmed salmon—so there is less fat to provide lubrication and the perception of juiciness when cooked.
How to Reheat Salmon
Reheating salmon can increase its fishy smell since heat oxidizes its abundant fatty acids into aldehydes. But reheating it gently will minimize the oxidation.
Place fillets on wire rack set in rimmed baking sheet, cover with aluminum foil (to prevent exteriors from drying out), and heat in 275-degree oven until fish registers 125 to 130 degrees, about 15 minutes for 1-inch-thick fillets (timing varies according to fillet size).
OUR FAVORITE SALMON RECIPES
From pan-searing to grill-smoking, our recipes offer a wide range of ways to enjoy salmon.
This is the quickest, easiest way to produce tender flesh and a flavorful browned crust. You don’t even need to add oil to the pan.
All of the mixing happens in the food processor. Then we coat the cakes in panko and pan-fry them until crisp.
We cook the fish in minimal liquid, prop up the fillets on lemon slices to prevent the bottoms from overcooking, and turn the reduced poaching liquid into a quick, flavorful sauce. The whole dish comes together in less than half an hour.
Our teriyaki-inspired glaze complements the rich salmon and sticks to the fish thanks to a little cornstarch, which we sprinkle onto the exterior along with brown sugar and salt.
Two keys to prevent salmon from sticking to the grill grate: thoroughly drying the fish before cooking, and seasoning the grate with multiple layers of oil to build up a nonstick surface.
To prepare the salmon for smoking, we quick-cure it with a mixture of salt and sugar to draw moisture from the flesh, which seasons it and firms up the flesh. We then cook the fish indirectly over a gentle fire with ample smoke to produce salmon that is sweet, smoky, and tender.
Pressing the salmon under the weight of a few cans helps it release moisture and gives the fillet a firmer, more sliceable texture. We baste the salmon with the released liquid once a day to help speed up the curing process and to keep it from drying out.
WHAT TO SERVE WITH SALMON
Salmon is a rich fish, so we like to serve it alongside dishes with bright, fresh flavors. See our salmon menus below for some ideas.
Roast Salmon for Company
- Roasted Whole Side of Salmon
- Cucumber-Ginger Relish
- Modern Cauliflower Gratin
- Spinach Salad with Orange, Carrot, and Sesame
- Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie
Easy Skillet Salmon Dinner
- Pan-Seared Salmon
- Mango-Mint Salsa
- Braised Potatoes with Dijon and Tarragon
- Broiled Broccoli Rabe
- Lemon Posset with Berries
Salmon from the Grill
- Grilled Salmon Fillets
- Almond Vinaigrette
- Grilled Corn with Flavored Butter
- Ginger Frozen Yogurt
Smoky Salmon Dinner
- Grill-Smoked Salmon
- Apple-Mustard Sauce
- Corn Fritters
- Pita Bread Salad with Tomatoes and Cucumber (Fattoush)
- Peach Shortcakes
Gravlax for Brunch
- New York Bagels
- Shiitake Mushroom Frittata with Pecorino Romano
- Peaches, Blackberries, and Strawberries with Basil and Pepper
Salmon in 30 Minutes