Salmon is a wonderful fish that can be prepared and cooked in many different fashions. The fish contains high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids which is why it is most commonly referred to as a “good fat” food such as avocados or eggs. This oily fish is similar to other fish like mackerel or tuna but is set apart from the bright pink or red coloured flesh it possesses. There are about a dozen different breeds of salmon in the world but for the most part, the majority of salmon eaten comes from the Pacific Ocean with breeds such as Coho, Sockeye, King or Pink Salmon. There are others that are very similar to these breeds like Scottish salmon or Atlantic salmon but are not as common. There are also crossbreeds of salmon such as Arctic Char which is a cross between a trout and a salmon with similar textures, tastes and colours as well.
While there are many different ways to prepare a salmon, there are only a few ways to do it right. For starters, when eating salmon, usually the skin is removed. You are able to eat the skin but is usually not recommended without a hard sear or grilling. Removing the skin of the salmon is probably the easiest amongst all the fish breeds. Lay the salmon with the skin side down, then using a boning knife or a filet knife, make a small incision at the tail of the fish to separate the skin from the flesh. Then you may either nail the skin to the cutting board or grab ahold of the skin with a very tight grip. Press the blade of the knife against the skin of the fish as close as you can get it then gently work the knife down the side of the fish while pulling on the skin of the tail. The knife should easily work its way down the body of the side, separating the skin from the flesh. Discard the skin and flip the fish over. Remove any excess skin you may have not removed as well as any unwanted silver skin or fatty tissue. Flip the fish back over and using a pair of tweezers or a small pair of pliers, remove the long pin bones that run in a straight line down the fish. Be careful and graceful when you do this as to not damage any of the flesh. Then cut the side of salmon vertically about 2 inches in width to create portions of the salmon. Now you are ready to get cooking!
1. Seared Salmon
Aside from grilling, searing salmon is the most common method of cooking. In order do this, there are a couple of tricks to know so your salmon comes out perfect. When searing a salmon, you will want to use vegetable oil or canola oil. Other oils will not work as well due to their smoking temperature points. To get a really good sear on the fish you will want to use a sauté pan. You may use a non-stick skillet, but these pans do not do well in ovens and the sear will not be as great as it would be if you used a sauté pan. Place the sauté pan over high heat and add a liberal amount of oil to the pan. You want the pan to become extremely hot (be very careful when working the pan as the oil could splash back and burn you very badly). Season the fish lightly with salt and pepper. Right before the oil starts to smoke, lay the fish in the pan, flesh side down, away from yourself so the oil doesn’t splash back on you. Gently work the pan back and forth once the salmon is in the pan to keep the fish from sticking to the pan. Allow the fish to cook in the pan for at least 2 minutes, then remove from the heat. Pour out the oil from the pan, flip the fish over and place the pan in the oven at 350 degrees for no longer than 5 minutes. Salmon is usually severed medium to medium-well so, depending on how thick your filet is, the cooking time will differ. Remove the pan from the oven using a towel or hot pad and place the fish on a plate to serve.
Tip: If you want to glaze the salmon with a sauce, it is best to do so after searing and before placing it in the oven to allow the sauce to caramelize and adhere to the fish.
2. Smoked Salmon
Smoking salmon is a very common cooking technique. Usually, when you buy smoked salmon in the store, it is usually cold smoked or cured. This is what is referred to as “Lox” or “Gravlax”, which is usually served on a bagel with cream cheese. Since most people do not have a cold smoker, we will cover how to hot smoke a salmon. You will want to smoke the salmon using whole sides of the fish, just be sure to remove the pin bones before doing so. Also, it is best to leave the skin on the fish when smoking so that when the salmon is done smoking, the meat will stay intact and not fall apart.
You will want to soak the salmon in a brine before smoking to try and get some salt content into the fish. Create a very salty brine using 1 gallon of water, 1 pound of kosher salt, 1 cup of sugar and a couple of bay leaves. Make sure the brine is mixed well then submerge the fish in the brine. Allow the salmon to soak in the brine for at least one hour but no more than 4 hours. Remove the fish from the brine and rinse under cold water to remove any of the excess brine. Pat the fish dry with a towel.
Start your smoker using charcoal or wood, but make sure if using wood, it is very mild and subtle smoke as to not overpower the natural flavor of the fish. Maintain a temperature of 225 degrees and place the salmon on the smoker. The fish will not need to be smoked any longer than 2 hours and once done the flesh will be almost white but still very pink. The fat will have also seeped out of the fish and have the appearance of coagulated milk, this is all fine. Allow the fish to rest for 10 minutes before digging in. It is best to eat with a fresh squeeze of lemon. If you prefer, you may also grind the fish up in a food processor with cream cheese to create a smoked salmon rillette for spreading on crackers as well.
3. Grilled Salmon
Very similar to searing, grilling is the healthiest way to cook salmon. Start the grill and make sure the temperature is very high. Allow the grill to be on for at least 10 minutes before grilling so that the grates are very hot. Gently cover the fish in oil and season with salt and pepper. You may want to oil the grill grates as well to avoid any sticking that may occur as well. Once the grill is hot, place the salmon flesh side down on the grill and cook for a couple of minutes. Using tongs pick the fish up and turn it 45 degrees to the left or right and lay back down. This will give the fish that nice cross-hatch grill marks that are so coveted. After a couple more minutes, flip the fish over and fish cooking depending on the thickness of the fish and how well done you prefer your salmon to be. Remove from the grill and serve with fresh lemons wedges and maybe a garnish of fresh dill.
4. Salt Baked Salmon
This is a wonderfully innovative way to cook salmon and really not that hard to accomplish as well. First, you will want to use the whole fish and keep it intact with the skin, tail and head on. Just make sure the fish has been gutted and rinsed with clean, cold water. Using a large mixing bowl, add 3-5 pounds (depending on the size of the fish) of kosher or large grain salt and ½ cup of water. Mix the water and salt together until the salt becomes the consistency of wet sand. You do not want the mixture to be loose or runny in any way. So, if it is, add a little more salt. Place some of the salt mixtures on a sheet pan then place the fish on top of the salt. Cut up some lemon slices and place them in the cavity of the fish along with a generous amount of fresh aromatic herbs like dill or lime kafir. Place some of the fresh herbs and lemon slices on top of the fish as well. Then use the remainder of the salt, place on the fish a form all around it to create a mound. Do not allow any openings on the fish, cover it completely and pack down firmly. Place the sheet pan in the oven at 400 degrees for 45 minutes and bake. Remove the fish from the oven and allow to rest in the salt for 10 minutes. Then, remove the salt from the fish. The salt will come off in large chunks, just discard it or throw away. Transfer the whole fish to a serving platter then peel back the skin and serve out portions of the cooked salmon. This is great to eat just as is, but you may serve with a citrus mustard sauce, a sauce of your liking or just with fresh lemon wedges to elevate the salmon’s natural flavours.
5. Salmon Papillote
This is a fun and interesting method of cooking that can also be used for any sort of flaky fish. The method is generally a mix of sautéing, baking and steaming all at once. Using a piece of parchment paper, fold it in half. Then you will want to cut out a half heart shape a little bit bigger than the size of your hand. Once cut, you should have a heart-shaped piece of parchment paper. On one side of the heart, place 1 tablespoon of butter down and spread it around. Place the salmon on the buttered parchment (if the salmon filet is too big or is very thick, cut it up into smaller pieces before placing on the paper). Next, add some vegetables cut into half-moons of matchstick size such as yellow squash, onion, tomato, zucchini or spinach. Also, if you want you may add a few shrimp or oysters to the batch. Once all the ingredients you want have been added, lightly season with salt and pepper. Fold the other side of the heart over to match the other side, then start fold and crimping the sides together to create a nice tight seal around all of the ingredients. The finished result should be a solidly enclosed package with all the ingredients sealed inside.
Using a sauté pan, add a tablespoon of oil to the pan and place over high heat. Once the pan is hot, place the enclosed package on the skillet and cook for a couple of minutes. The package should start to puff up and fill with air. Once this happens, remove from the heat and place in the oven at 400 degrees for no longer than 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and transfer the parchment package to a plate. Rip the top of the parchment open and squeeze with lemon or add a sauce. Then you may eat it right out of the envelope, sort of like a foil dinner off of the grill.