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How to Cook Salmon — The Mom 100

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On a busy weeknight, a salmon dish can be one of the fastest dinners around. It takes well to almost every kind of cooking treatment — sautéing, baking, roasting, poaching. And, you can’t get bored with it because you can shower this fish with seasonings from any cuisine: Asian, Mediterranean, and any version of “New American” ingredients. (I’m thinking of salmon dishes that you would find in a cool neighborhood restaurant.)

Read on to see how to pick the best salmon, the different ways to cook it, how to tell when it’s done, and a guide to cooking times! And make sure to check out Easy Salmon Recipes for a whole lot of ideas. You’ll find recipes for weeknight dinners, casual entertaining, and family meals.

How to cook Salmon: Everything you need to know to prepare and cook salmon to perfection.
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What Kind of Salmon to Buy

Salmon is available everywhere because it’s so damn good and so damn popular. You can use farmed salmon or seek out wild Alaska salmon when it’s in season. There are a whole bunch of varieties to choose from Coho to King to Sockeye. Explore the different types to see which you like best.

Also, importantly, different types of salmon have different levels of sustainability. Seafood Watch is a good resource to see if the fish you are buying is environmentally friendly. You can buy sustainably raised fish that is line-caught and also some that are farmed. But where it’s harvested and how it’s farmed make a difference, so get to know the market!

Wild Alaska salmon has a more pronounced flavor than farm-raised, so you’re getting the full salmon experience. And the Alaskan seafood folks are extremely vigilant about sustainability and harvesting practices. So, you know you’re eating salmon that has no growth hormones, artificial coloring, preservatives, or additives that you might be concerned about.

How to Cook Salmon

Poached Salmon

Let’s start with three of the most popular ways to cook salmon. Here’s everything you need to know about:

How to Cook Salmon Without Flipping It

I love starting fish in a pan and then transferring it to the oven to finish cooking. Make sure your fish is fairly thick for this method (about 1 inch or even thicker) so it doesn’t overcook or dry out. Here are the three main reasons why I like finishing salmon in the oven:

Use the hot oven to cook something else to go with the fish — whether it’s roasted potatoes or other vegetables. If the side dish calls for a longer cooking time than the fish, start it first, then put the fish in the oven.

Starting the fish in the pan means that if you are cooking fish with the skin on it, you can get a really crispy skin. Make sure your pan is very hot, and then place the fish in the pan skin side down. The skin will get nice and crispy against the hot pan.

You don’t have to flip the fish, which doesn’t always end well even for the most confident and experienced cooks. The top of the fish will cook through in the oven.

Salmon Cooking Tips

If possible, buy filets of similar thicknesses so they cook at the same time. If you have some thinner filets, you will probably want to take them off the heat earlier than the thicker ones. 

For a few extra dollars, you can buy the filets from the center of the fish, which are thicker and more uniform in size.

To thaw frozen salmon, place it well-wrapped in the fridge overnight to defrost. If the packaging isn’t airtight, place a plate under the salmon to catch any drips. If you are in a rush, place the salmon in an airtight zip-top bag and place the bag in a bowl or sink of ice water. The salmon should defrost in a couple of hours. Do not defrost salmon at room temperature, which could encourage bacteria to grow.

How to Know When Salmon is Done

Fully cooked salmon will be opaque throughout and flake easily with a fork. The FDA recommends a safe internal temperature of 145 degrees for fish and shellfish. However, if you are using fresh, high-quality fish, you can cook it to medium-rare (135 degrees internal temperature), or even rare (125 to 130 degrees).

Tips for Marinating Salmon

One of the many good things about seasoning fish and seafood is how quickly they absorb flavors. Therefore, you never want to marinate any fish or seafood for too long because you don’t want to overpower the delicate deliciousness of the fish itself. You also don’t want to let it marinate too long, or it could affect the firm texture of the fish.

Most salmon recipes should marinate in the fridge for between 1 and 2 hours, but follow the recommendations in your specific recipe.

Any acidic ingredients in the marinade (like citrus juice or vinegar) can also start to cure or “cook” the fish after enough time goes by. That can affect the firm and flaky texture of the salmon.

If you don’t have the hour-plus to marinate the salmon in the fridge, just leave it out for 15 minutes at room temperature. A short room temperature marinating is safe; just don’t let it sit out for much longer than that.

Salmon Cooking Times

The chart below shows the approximate cooking times for (6 to 8-ounce) salmon filets, about 1 1/2 inches thick, to different levels of doneness.

Level of DonenessTotal Cooking TimeRare (dark pink in the center)7 to 9 minutesMedium-Rare12 to 16 minutesMedium10 to 13 minutesMedium-Well11 to 14 minutesWell Done12 to 15 minutesCooking time for (6 to 8 ounce) salmon filets, about 1 ½ inches thick.

If you like your salmon cooked all the way through, that’s super fine; cook it how you like it. I have a vivid memory of being at a very fancy restaurant, and the waiter brought my friend a brick-sized cut of barely seared tuna. My friend sent it back, asking that it be cooked all the way through. The waiter huffily removed the fish and returned it several minutes later. Cooked exactly the same way. Clearly, the chef was having none of this “cooked through” business, but here’s the thing — who was eating the fish, the chef or my friend?

Salmon with Dill Sauce

FAQs

Should you wash salmon before cooking it? No, and please don’t! Some cooks worry that there might be bacteria on the fish, but any bacteria will be destroyed when the fish is cooked. Washing your fish increases the risk of spreading bacteria. This is because the sink and anything that gets splashed could become contaminated. And, unless you dry the salmon completely, it will prevent marinades from sticking to the fish. It will also prevent it from browning when seared or roasted. Should you always marinate salmon? Salmon often benefits from marinating, gaining extra flavor. Follow the recipe instructions, and don’t marinate salmon too long, as this could affect its texture. If you need to get that fish into the oven or pan pronto, try marinating it for 15 to 20 minutes at room temperature so it absorbs some of the marinade flavors. When you don’t even have time for that, coat the fish with the marinade. You’ll taste the flavors, but it just won’t penetrate the fish as deeply. You can also reserve some marinade (don’t let it touch the fish) and drizzle it over the cooked fish at the end as a kind of sauce. Do you have to flip salmon fillets? It depends on the recipe! When cooking the fish in a pan, you may need to flip it for even cooking. Another option is to cover the pan for part of the cooking to trap the heat and allow the top to cook through before the bottom overcooks.If you are transferring the pan to the oven, you do not need to flip the salmon. And if you are cooking fish in the oven, then no need to flip in most cases. Is it better to cook salmon in the oven or on the stove? That also depends! I like cooking the fish in the oven at a higher temp, which is nicely hands-off. It’s also great to start the fish in the pan and transfer it to a preheated oven (and usually, something else is roasting in there already!). Is it better to bake salmon at 350 or 400 degrees? Either one is fine, though the salmon will bake a bit faster at the higher temperature (that stands to reason, right?). I usually make the decision based on what else is in the oven since all you have to do is adjust the cooking time, and you’ll still get perfectly cooked salmon at either temperature.

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