Once upon a time I loved salmon; then 5 or 6 years ago my family passed around a particularly bad stomach virus. The night it nailed me, what do you think I had for dinner? Why salmon of course. After that night I swear I could hardly even look at cooked salmon without feeling a little lightheaded, let alone eat the stuff! As the years went by though I slowly regained my taste for cooked salmon; a little at first, sampling small bites here and there, then by preparing my childhood favorite, salmon cakes. Before long I was actually cooking and enjoying salmon again.
My wife came down with that nasty virus that same night and she too refused to touch cooked salmon for even longer than I did! In time, she came around and once again she too enjoys cooked salmon (especially that crispy skin). So what is the point of my story? Well I believe that salmon, more than any other fish, is an acquired taste. Like coffee, caviar, and even beer; salmon is one of those foods that, for many people, seems to be an acquired taste. My wife and I learning to love salmon all over again is a perfect example.
Think about how many people you know that love fish yet claim to hate salmon. Curiously, I also know those that would tell you that salmon is the only fish they will eat! Why? Because for whatever reason salmon is a fish they developed a taste for or for those that hate it; maybe they never ate enough salmon to learn to like it. Which brings me to my final point, that salmon is one of the healthiest and sustainable foods in the ocean…it is well worth giving it another chance!
If until now you’ve avoided salmon I encourage you to give it try. If you’re ready…here are a few ideas on how best to enjoy this wonderful fish.
What to choose…
When it comes to fish, I have been known to preach about freshness and with salmon, freshness is paramount! Why? Simply put, the fresher the salmon is, the sweeter and milder the flavor will be. If you’ve had unpleasant, strong tasting salmon it may be that it wasn’t the freshest. When buying fresh salmon look first for whole fish with bright (not cloudy) eyes, and skin that is so moist that it has a sparkle to it (never dry looking!).
The gills should be bright red or healthy pink (not dull or off-color) and if you poke the fish in the shoulder (I’m snickering at the mental image of poking a salmon in the shoulder but it works!) the flesh should spring back firmly rather than leaving a divot. Finally, there should be no “fishy” smell. A fresh fish should have little smell, perhaps only the pleasant scent of the mist from a breaking wave or an ocean breeze, if any smell at all.
Once you’ve found your perfectly bright, moist, firm, and nice smelling whole salmon, most fishmongers will be happy to fillet it for you. But, you’re not always going to be able to find whole salmon…the next best thing to whole salmon is fresh, skin-on, salmon fillets. Again, look for firm, moist (the skin helps retain some of that moisture) fillets with little or no smell at all. I often buy fresh salmon fillets at Costco and I have no qualms at all about opening one little corner of a sealed package to sniff the fish for freshness. If it smells fishy…don’t buy it!
What about frozen?
Salmon actually freezes quite well and I often buy frozen salmon when fresh fish is not available. Look for a package that states the salmon is ICQ or “Individually Quick Frozen”. (These fillets are usually flash frozen while still very fresh, sometimes even still on the boat.) It’s ok if the fish portions are individually wrapped…I actually prefer it since I’m usually cooking for only two.
Frozen salmon to avoid would be whole fillets that are packed loosely, fillet portions that are not individually wrapped and are all stuck together in one big frozen lump, or any fillets that have frost directly touching the flesh. If the only salmon fillets you can find fit any of the descriptions in this paragraph; now might be a good time to go with the canned salmon!
To thaw frozen fillets, move them from the freezer to the fridge the night before you plan to cook them. In a pinch, if you forget to thaw your fish ahead of time, you can also thaw them quickly by placing them in a cold heavy bottomed steel pan. Cast iron works very well for this but a good heavy stainless pan will work too. The metal of the pan draws the cold out of the frozen fish and will thaw frozen salmon portions completely in about ½ hour or less. (This is also a good trick for quick thawing frozen boneless chicken breast.)
OK, I’ve got my fish…now what?
Now that you have found your salmon, treat it with respect and do not overcook it! For the best flavor, cooking the fish properly is nearly as important as freshness. When overcooked, salmon dries out very quickly which ruins both the texture and the taste. It’s actually amazing to me how often restaurants serve dried out, overcooked salmon. It’s so rampant in fact that I would bet many of the people that do not like salmon have simply never had a piece that was perfectly cooked.
Salmon should be cooked just through to the center leaving just a trace of pink in the very middle. There is really no trick to it, just keep a close eye on the fish while it’s cooking and when you think the fish is almost ready, use a fork to test for doneness. When the fish is done the flesh will flake easily but still hold together towards the center. It’s important to note: If you wait to remove it from the heat, until the fish flakes all the way to the center, then it will likely end up overcooked. This is because residual heat will continue to cook the fish for a little while, even after you take it off the heat.
Again, baked salmon, like most fish, is done perfectly when you can flake it easily with a fork, but the flesh still holds together towards the center. Below is a rough guideline for baking your salmon. Remember, this is strictly a guideline so start checking your fish early…if you let it go too long it will overcook.
If baking at 400 degrees salmon fillets 3/4” to 1” thick should be done in 8 to 10 minutes, 1” to 1-1/2” thick, 10 to 12 minutes, and 1-1/2 to 2” thick, 12 to 15 minutes.
Quite often salmon fillets will have small pin bones running along part of the center line. These should be removed prior to cooking. To easily remove pin bones, drape the fillet skin side down, over an inverted bowl. This will arch the fillet so that the pin bones stand out making them easy to find and remove using just your fingers or a pair of kitchen tweezers. Needle nose pliers will even work in a pinch.
Are you ready?
This is a super easy recipe, so easy actually, that for just the two of us, I baked it in our toaster oven!
I sprinkled my fish with a little dried dill but you can use any herb you like. Fresh rosemary or parsley would also be good with salmon and even a little lemon zest would be nice…don’t be afraid to use your imagination. On the plate pictured, I served the baked salmon over a bed of fresh spinach sautéed with just a little olive oil and lemon juice. Along side is a white bean puree topped with a few green onion curls, lemon wedges, and a little creamy dill sauce. Dinner was on the table in about ½ hour and was elegant enough to serve to company.
Salmon is a versatile, healthy, and delicious fish that can be very easy to prepare. If it’s been a while since you’ve tried it…I hope you will give it another try!
Oven Baked Salmon with Lemon and White Wine
2 to 4 – Salmon fillets, 3/4″ to 1 inch thick, in 4 – 6 oz portions
Kosher salt & fresh ground black pepper
Dried dill (or your herb of choice)
Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees. Rinse and thoroughly dry your salmon portions by patting them with a paper towel. Cover a ½ or ¼ size baking sheet with aluminum foil and place your fish on the sheet with plenty of space in between. Drizzle the salmon evenly with roughly ½ tablespoon of the olive oil, turning it over a time or two just to coat. With the salmon skin side down, drizzle with roughly ½ tablespoon each of the lemon juice, then the wine.
Sprinkle the fish with a pinch of kosher salt and approx. ¼ tsp each of fresh ground black pepper, and dried dill. Place the fish in the pre-heated oven and bake 8 to 10 minutes, checking for doneness after 8 minutes. Remove the fish from the oven when the flesh flakes easily with a fork but still holds together slightly towards the center.