Deep, even browning
The vast majority of the time when I cook salmon, I buy individual fillets for quick weeknight meals. They're easy to pan-sear, poach, roast, or grill, and their uniform shape means they cook evenly. But salmon is ideal for entertaining, too. It requires little prep work; cooks faster than a roast or stew; dresses up beautifully with countless sauces, glazes, and rubs; and makes a striking centerpiece.
But cooking a whole side of salmon—a single fillet that weighs 4 to 5 pounds and serves upwards of eight people—demands different considerations than cooking individual fillets does. The large fillet doesn't fit in a skillet, so you can't cook it on the stovetop. But cooking it in the oven comes with hurdles; namely, browning is more difficult without the stove's intense heat.
I wanted to come up with an approach for a whole roasted fillet that would be evenly moist inside and gorgeously browned on top. And since this salmon would be a for-company dish, I wanted bulletproof methods for shuttling the cooked fillet from pan to platter and for cutting tidy portions.
Embroiled in Problems
I tried one recipe that actually called for flipping the fish halfway through cooking, which was a cruel proposition. I knew I could come up with a more straightforward approach that would deliver the results I sought. I was interested in experimenting with the broiler, which would be the surest way to apply concentrated heat to the fish's surface.
I placed a 5-pound (average weight for a whole side) salmon fillet on a rimmed baking sheet, slid it onto an oven rack placed about 7 inches beneath a preheated broiler (which I hoped was enough distance from the element that the fish wouldn't burn before it was cooked through), and cooked it until the thickest portion registered 125 degrees. That took about 20 minutes, by which time the surface had quite a bit of uneven color. A whole side of salmon slopes considerably on the tail end, so the browning was mostly isolated to the thicker portion that was closest to the broiler element. Meanwhile, the fierce heat had overcooked the top ½ inch of the thicker part and all of the thinner ends and caused the fish to shed loads of albumin, the unsightly white protein that seeps out of overcooked fish.
The easiest way to prevent the tapered portions from overcooking was to do away with them. I had the fishmonger lop off the tail portion and belly flap, leaving me with a uniformly thick fillet that weighed about 4 pounds, which was still plenty for at least eight guests.
Next, I salted the fish, which we've found helps it retain moisture and prevents the albumin from seeping out during cooking. After 1 hour, I patted it dry and repeated the broiler experiment. This time, the albumin stayed inside the fish and the flesh was nicely seasoned. But the uppermost part of the fish was still parched.
What I needed was a way to help the fish brown as quickly as possible under the broiler so that I could lower the oven temperature and the salmon could cook gently for the bulk of the time. Sprinkling sugar over the top of the fish helped, but the color was still spotty—it was hard to evenly distribute the crystals—and rather pale. But what about honey? The sugars it contains caramelize more readily than white sugar. I used 2 tablespoons, which was enough to coat the entire fillet but not so much that the fish tasted sweet, and it was easy to brush on in an even layer.
Recipe Testing: The Sweet Spot for Even Browning
To find the best way to brown the salmon as quickly as possible, we coated one portion of the fillet with granulated sugar and another portion with honey and left the remaining portion uncoated. After broiling the fillet, we compared the results. The sugar-coated portion was spotty and almost as pale as the uncoated portion, but the honey-coated portion was deeply and evenly browned. Why? The sugars in honey caramelize more rapidly than does white sugar (sucrose), which must first break down into fructose and glucose before it can caramelize.
This time, the surface began to caramelize in 5 minutes and was nicely browned after 15, at which point I turned the oven to 250 degrees and slow-roasted the fish until done. The flesh was almost uniformly cooked from top to bottom, and it was better still when I tried again and turned down the oven temperature after 10 minutes (doing so accounted for any carryover cooking that occurred while the broiler cooled).
But here's a quirky thing about broilers: While they fiercely heat the upper half of the oven, they leave the bottom half surprisingly cool, particularly when the bottom is blocked by a side of salmon and a baking sheet. In fact, I found that the salmon needed a good 25 minutes to cook through after the broiling step, presumably because the lower portion of the oven took a while to heat up. That made me wonder if I couldn't speed up the cooking by preheating the oven before turning on the broiler. Sure enough, preheating the oven to 250 degrees before broiling the fish raised the temperature of the oven's top portion by 50 degrees and the bottom portion by 125 degrees. This shaved 10 minutes off the cooking time. (Some broilers also don't heat evenly from edge to edge; in those cases, it helps to cover the browned portions of salmon with a piece of aluminum foil to shield them while the paler sections catch up.) I also moved the fish onto a wire rack to raise it off the baking sheet, allowing for better air circulation, which helped it cook more evenly.
Going to Extremes For Perfection
Broiling can deeply brown a large piece of salmon, but it’s not a good method for cooking the fish from start to finish because the intense heat overcooks the outermost layer. To achieve a deeply browned exterior and a silky interior, we used the broiler to jump-start browning and then used very low (250-degree) heat to bake the fish gently.
Foiling the Fumble
A side of salmon is quite sturdy when raw but very fragile once cooked, which meant I had to be strategic about getting it to the table in one piece. So I made a long foil sling, coated it with vegetable oil spray, and placed it on the wire rack before loading on the raw salmon. Once the salmon was done, I grabbed the ends of the sling, transferred it to the serving platter, and gently slid the foil out from underneath the fish. I then experimented with a few ways to portion the fish.
A squeeze of fresh lemon juice was all it took to temper the richness of my salmon, but a pair of vibrant, no-cook condiments—an arugula-based pesto and a crisp cucumber relish—offered even more dress-up potential.
Keys to Success
Deep, even browningSalting the fish helps dry the exterior, and brushing the surface with honey promotes browning.
Silky interiorPreheating the oven to 250 degrees before broiling ensures that the remaining cooking happens quickly and evenly when the broiler is turned off.
Perfect presentationCooking the salmon on an aluminum foil sling, which facilitates easy transfer from the baking sheet to a serving platter, means there's no risk of marring the fragile cooked fish.