It’s easy to overthink things sometimes and this is undoubtedly true in the kitchen. For instance, when considering the various ways to cook salmon—like roasting, grilling, poaching and so on—you might find yourself wondering if certain techniques are better in certain situations.
If your situation is crispy skin, then yes, there’s a technique that is best for achieving that outcome. Working with fillets? Then, you may have to consider a different style of cooking. Similarly, if you’re looking to make a quick and easy family dinner, salmon is perfect—but breaking out the cedar planks and firing up your charcoal grill probably isn’t.
Salmon is Simple: There’s no magic formula here. The best reason to cook salmon on the grill is when you want grilled salmon and the same applies to poaching, roasting, and broiling.
We have salmon’s straightforward anatomy to thank for this. Unlike beef, where cuts from the shoulder, flank, rib, or rump each call for vastly different cooking techniques, salmon only comes two ways: steaks or fillets.
There’s also the whole salmon and you could endeavor to cook it whole, but at $20 per pound and up, cooking a whole 10- to 15-pound whole fish is not a task to be undertaken casually.
Nor, for that matter, is butchering salmon yourself (to say nothing of descaling it!). Unless you’re a trained fish cutter armed with a very sharp fillet knife, you’ll probably leave a heartbreaking amount of flesh on the bones and the fillets you do produce will lack uniformity.
In other words, if you’re looking to feed at a minimum 12 people and you’re buying a whole salmon, you would be wise to have your fishmonger cut it up into steaks or fillets (or some of both).
(And be sure to ask for the bones and head, as these will make absolutely magnificent salmon stock.)
What’s the Difference Between Salmon Steaks and Fillets?
Steaks are cut across the body and they resemble horseshoes, each with a set of rib bones and a section of backbone. Fillets, on the other hand, are cut lengthwise, along the body and thus contain no bones. They tend to be roughly rectangular (or trapezoidal).
Steaks most likely have the skin on and fillets are more likely to be available in both skin-on and skinless forms, although when making your selection, consider that crispy salmon skin is one of the greatest culinary pleasures known to the world.
Cooking Salmon in the Oven: Salmon is a moist, fatty fish, which means you can cook it at high temperatures with relatively little worry of it overcooking or drying out. With that said, it’s still fish, which means the cooking time will be fairly short. Here are three different techniques for cooking salmon in the oven.
Baked Salmon: In this case, we’re cooking the salmon uncovered on a sheet pan or shallow baking dish in a 425 F oven, for around 12 to 15 minutes assuming a thickness of about 1 inch. Note that we’re not enclosing the salmon in foil (which we’ll talk about next). You can coat it with olive oil, season it with Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, and add whatever herbs, aromatics, lemon slices, and whatever else your stomach desires. This method will work equally well for fillets and steaks, whether skin-on or skinless.
Salmon cooked in foil (or parchment): This is technically a way of steaming the salmon, but don’t let that fool you—salmon cooked in foil or parchment is incredibly flavorful and luxurious. It’s also fast, easy, and light on the cleanup. Basically, it involves sealing up the salmon, along with the usual herbs and citrus and all, in a pouch of aluminum foil and baking it in a very hot oven for 7 to 10 minutes. If you substitute parchment paper for the foil, you can even do it in the microwave in a mere 3 to 4 minutes. For more detail, check out this 101-level tutorial on cooking salmon in foil.
Slow-roasted Salmon: Here’s a low-temperature variation that uses the oven, and if you’ve got time to let it cook for up to an hour, this technique will produce moist, brightly colored salmon with a firm, springy texture. All it requires is a baking sheet and a shallow pan of water. While your oven heats to 225 F, brush a 2-pound fillet with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Set the pan of water on the bottom rack and the salmon, skin-side down on the baking sheet and bake on the upper rack for about an hour.
Cooking Salmon on the Grill: Yes, salmon can withstand high temperatures, but let’s not get carried away. A gas grill is best for grilling salmon since you have finer control over the temperature. For cooking salmon on the grill, you should shoot for 350 to 450 F, which in charcoal grill terms corresponds with about 1/2 to 3/4 of a chimney of charcoal. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes, covered, without turning. Three words of advice here: oil your grates.
A less stressful way to cook salmon on the grill, however, is on a cedar plank. Simply soak the plank in water for 30 minutes, then place the fish on the plank and the plank on a medium-high grill and cook, covered, for 20 minutes.
Cooking Salmon in a Pan
This is how you get crispy skin. Because you want the skin to get in contact with the hot pan, use skin-on fillets here, not steaks, which have their skin around the edges. A cast iron pan, by the way, is very good for this, but whatever cookware you use, it’s impossible to overemphasize the importance of getting your pan very hot.
The key to getting a good sear on your salmon is making sure the skin—which is the side going into the pan—is very dry. As the oil in your pan gets shimmering hot, it’s a good time to pat the skin over with a paper towel. After seasoning, place the fillets skin-side down in the hot oil and let them sit there, untouched, for five minutes, assuming your fillets are 1-inch thick. At the end of that time, gently turn and let the salmon cook for another 30 seconds and that’s it. Then, remove from the pan and serve, skin-side up. A squeeze of lemon won’t hurt at all at this point, but avoid dousing with sauce as that can get the skin soggy.
Poaching Salmon: There’s no reason to poach a salmon steak. The delicate, almost creamy texture obtained by poaching is rendered completely moot by the presence of bones. Similarly, since poaching will have no crisping effect whatsoever on the skin, the best pieces of salmon to poach will be skinless fillets.
The most important thing here is to make sure your poaching liquid is flavorful. At a bare minimum, salt your water, but ideally, make a simple court bouillon from water, Kosher salt, wine, lemon, aromatic vegetables, and herbs.
Note that poaching isn’t boiling or even simmering. Your cooking liquid should be between 160 and 180 F, which means you’ll see very few bubbles. Add the salmon, cover, and cook for about 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the size of the fillets. It should be fully opaque and just starting to flake.