When I moved from New York City to Seattle in my early twenties, one of the biggest culinary culture shocks was the ubiquity and regional reverence to salmon. Salmon is a big deal in the Pacific Northwest, where savvy chefs have perfected the art of cooking this unique pink fish.
Having never taken the time to appreciate salmon beforehand, I quickly became a connoisseur. I came to appreciate the benefits of wild salmon, and learned the ins and outs of preparing this assertively flavored yet surprisingly delicate fish.
Plenty of people love the flavor and proven health benefits that come along with eating salmon. Few people, however, enjoy underdone, poorly prepared, or just plain “fishy” salmon. Here, we’ll talk about how to avoid common pitfalls so that you can have spectacular salmon every time.
How do people cook salmon? There’s more than one way to cook this upstream-swimming fish. Chefs employ a variety of cooking techniques to prepare salmon, including but not limited to pan-frying, grilling, and poaching (a method of cooking in a thin layer of boiling liquid which is often used for eggs, too). The tips in this roundup are designed to be relevant regardless of your preparation technique.
7 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Making Salmon. Usually, when salmon doesn’t come out as you’d like, it’s due to one of these easy-to-remedy reasons. Here, we’ll discuss some common mistakes and how to fix them.
- You don’t use good quality fish. There’s a lot of bad salmon out there, and it’s not going to get better once it’s cooked, no matter how perfect your cooking technique.
Ideally, salmon is local and recently caught. However, when this is not possible, or if you live many miles from the sea, buy your salmon from a reputable source that specializes in seafood, so that you’ll know they are receiving frequent shipments.
While yes, salmon is fish, it shouldn’t have an overtly “fishy” smell. It should have a mild aroma, sort of like being near the ocean. If it has a sour or “fishy” smell, or if smelling it gives you a whiff of ammonia, this is a big red flag and you should dispose of the fish. Your salmon may be past its prime, even if it looks completely fine.
- You rinse the salmon. You might think that rinsing your salmon will help keep it clean and bacteria free, but you’re wrong. Not only does rinsing the salmon not destroy bacteria, but it can in fact spread bacteria, not only on the surface of the fish but in your sink, too.
The USDA cautions: “do not rinse raw fish, seafood, meat, and poultry. Bacteria in these raw juices can splash and spread to other foods and surfaces. Cooking foods thoroughly will kill harmful bacteria.”
- You remove the skin. It’s OK if you don’t want to eat the skin. But at least leave it on while you cook. The skin not only seals in moisture, but acts as a protective layer. Many recipes call for starting your cooking process with the salmon aligned skin-side down–this allows the fish to form a sturdier “crust” which is easier to reach under with a spatula and flip when it’s time to switch sides.
An exception to the skin rule is when you are poaching salmon fillets. The skin can prevent the salmon from cooking evenly when poaching, so it is best to remove it before proceeding.
- You aren’t delicate when removing bones. Those skinny “pin bones” can be annoying when it comes to eating salmon, so you definitely want to remove them before cooking. But this should be considered a delicate operation, and you should not attempt to hack them out with a knife or your fingers, or you may end up with a flaky mess instead of a filet.
According to Fine Cooking, sanitized needle-nosed pliers or tweezers are the best tools for pulling out the fine bones. You can run your (clean) fingers down the surface of the fish to feel for them, because they may not all be clearly visible.
- You don’t add enough seasoning. Salmon can have an assertive flavor, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t add seasoning. Seasoning can be the difference between bland fish and a memorable meal.
Adding salt will not only help seal in moisture, but help infuse the salmon with flavor. Certain herbs and spices can also work beautifully with salmon, too. Dill, chives, and mint all work particularly well.
Often, herbs, spices, and salt are applied to salmon after it is brushed with olive oil, which helps adhere the flavorings to the surface of the fish and helps to prevent the salmon from sticking to your cooking surface.
- You overcook your salmon. The anecdotal wisdom is that salmon should be cooked “until it flakes”. Well, this conventional wisdom often leaves people with dry flakes of fish where salmon should be.
Instead of waiting for the salmon to flake, you want it to have a matte finish on all sides and for it to come apart in easy portions when cut with a fork. By the time the salmon flakes on its own, it’s likely overcooked.
- You use the same pan you cook in for preparing sides. You might think you can save washing another pan by tossing in side vegetables in the same pan as your salmon, but avoid the temptation, unless you want your green beans or kale to taste like salmon.
Salmon is a flavor that can take over, and it isn’t always the flavor you want to impart on your veggies. For best results, cook your side grains or vegetables separately, and then combine on your plate when serving.
Conclusion: While it’s not the easiest dish to cook, the art of preparing perfect salmon is worth mastering. Not only is salmon rich in vitamins, minerals, and heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids, but it boasts a delicious flavor and acts as a great source of protein. These tips will help you capture a perfect taste of the sea!
What is your favorite salmon dish?
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