How to Cook Salmon
How to pan-sear, bake and grill salmon.
Follow just a few steps, and you can achieve perfectly cooked salmon: tender and buttery with crisp skin. We walk you through how to buy salmon (including the different cuts you might see in the grocery store) and three simplest ways to cook it as well.
What to Know about the Different Cuts of Salmon
At most seafood counters, you can buy several cuts of salmon, including a whole side, individual fillets and steaks.
A whole side is exactly what it sounds like: it’s an entire side of the salmon. Typically, it’ll weigh four to five pounds and serve about ten people. Sides of salmon are well-suited to grilling because they don’t dry out, but you can also roast them in the oven.
Fillets of salmon are simply pieces cut from a side of salmon. They can look long and skinny or squarer, depending on the way the side was cut. They typically weigh six to eight ounces and feed one person each. This is the most common type of salmon cut you’ll find in the store, mostly because it’s the most versatile: you can pan-sear it, bake it, poach it or grill it.
Finally, salmon steaks are thick slices of salmon that are cut from the entire body of the salmon — perpendicularly to the spine. They weigh eight to ten ounces and feed one person each. Pan-searing and grilling are the most common preparations for salmon steak (check out Food Network Kitchen's lovely recipe for Grilled Salmon Steaks and Summer Beans).
How to Cook Salmon
1: Bring the Salmon to Room Temperature
Pull the salmon from the refrigerator about ten minutes before you plan on cooking, so it comes to room temperature and cooks evenly. Place it skin-side down on a plate lined with two layers of paper towels to soak up moisture. Eliminating moisture makes for super crispy skin.
2: Brush Both Sides with Olive Oil and Season with Salt and Pepper
When it’s cooked well, salmon is so tasty that you need not add flavorings other than salt, pepper and olive oil (although of course if you’d like to get creative, full steam ahead). Brush the salmon in olive oil and generously season both sides with salt and pepper.
3: How to Pan-Fry Salmon
Pan-frying salmon is one of the fastest and easiest methods to cook it. It makes for super crispy skin and tender flesh. Here’s how you do it. Start with a large nonstick skillet, which will ensure the delicate salmon skin doesn’t stick and tear in the pan. Heat it over medium-high, then place the salmon skin-side up in the pan. Cook until golden brown on one side (about four minutes for five ounce filets). Flip the salmon with a large thin flexible spatula (slotted fish spatulas are quite useful if you plan on cooking salmon often) and cook until it feels firm to the touch and the skin is crisp (about three more minutes).
4: How to Bake Salmon
Baking salmon is convenient because it’s hands-off and there’s very little mess or smell. This technique is not only great for fillets, but also larger pieces of salmon. Here’s what you do. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F and line a baking sheet with foil. Place the salmon skin-side down on the baking sheet and crimp all four sides of the foil to create a border around the salmon: this will help collect the juices so they don’t spread and burn. If you’d like, you can place lemon slices on the salmon, brush the surface with Dijon mustard or season the flesh with your favorite spices at this point. Bake until the outside is opaque and slightly firm to the touch and the inside flakes easily. Insert a small paring knife between layers to check; the color will vary from bright pink (rare) to pale pink to orange (well-done ).
5: How to Grill Salmon
Best for smoky flavor and super crisp skin, the grill is a great way to cook salmon when the weather’s fair. Just make sure you clean the grates of your grill and oil them before starting to cook, otherwise your salmon can easily stick. Preheat the grill to medium high, place the sinless side of salmon down on the grates and let the salmon cook. Don’t touch it — it’ll release itself from the grill when it’s ready. When it does, use a flat spatula to flip the salmon over. Need some inspiration? Check out Food Network Kitchen's Sweet and Spicy Grilled Salmon, Grilled Cedar Plank Salmon and Indoor-Grilled Salmon. Alternatively, if you value smoky flavor but not the stress of your salmon potentially sticking to the grates, you can wrap up a side of salmon in tinfoil and place the foil pack straight on the grill. For a full recipe, see Food Network Kitchen's Grilled Salmon in a Foil Pack.
6: How to Know When Salmon’s Done Cooking
Much like tuna, salmon can be cooked depending on your preference: rare, medium-rare or cooked through. Color is a great indicator of how well done your salmon is. As it cooks, the flesh turns lighter pink. A paring knife is your best friend when checking for doneness; slide the tip into the center of the fish to look at the color between the layers. When you remove it, feel the side of the knife. If it’s cool to the touch, the fish is rare; if it feels warm, the fish is medium-rare; and hot means the fish is cooked through.