Salmon

The Absolute Best Way to Cook Salmon, According to So Many Tests

May 13, 2020
Photo by Ella Quittner

In Absolute Best Tests, Ella Quittner destroys the sanctity of her home kitchen in the name of the truth. She's boiled dozens of eggs, mashed a concerning number of potatoes, and seared more Porterhouse steaks than she cares to recall. Today, she tackles salmon.


I did not grow up eating much fresh fish. My parents were exceptional cooks, but they mostly steered clear of the stuff—perhaps because they were raised in landlocked places, or because they learned to cook in the ’80s, when swordfish carpaccio reigned troublingly supreme. On the rare occasion my dad would fire up the broiler for, say, a hunk of halibut, my mom would run from the room with her pointer finger and thumb clamped firmly around her nostrils, throwing open all the windows as she retreated.

So when I left home and discovered the salmon fillet—a single-serving dinner with so much alacrity, it came bone-free—I felt I’d achieved some feat of modern magic. For a sophisticated dinner in 20 minutes, I’d pat it dry, season it with abandon, and send it for a spin in a mid-temperature oven while I tossed together a salad. Once in a while, I might humor a friend by attempting something faddish involving aluminum foil, but I always came crawling back to my trusted salmon protocol, reliable as it was. In retrospect it’s easy to see how, eventually, I fell into a salmon slump. I told myself there were better fish in the sea, more satisfying proteins on land, more rewarding ways to cook dinner in 20 minutes.

You can imagine my expectations, then, when my editors broached the topic of salmon for my latest round of Absolute Best Tests, in which I pit popular cooking methods against one another as if they’re my children. Reluctantly, I agreed to sear, broil, and poach, to steam and roast, to dig out some charcoal for the grill, a knowing smile fixed to my face: It would all come out to varying degrees of good, fine, and less fine. A day’s work. And so I patted a couple fillets dry and got to it.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“My go to method is to roast at high heat - 450º or so - for 10-15 minutes depending on the size of the fillet. If the side is particularly thick I might give it a minute or two under the broiler to finish the top but I don't often find it necessary. I preheat so the fish goes into a screaming hot oven and cooks quickly. I rarely get the albumen coming to the surface with this method unless I'm preoccupied and don't pull it out quite quick enough. I have to cook it longer than I'm accustomed to in order to experience that - I just don't find it a problem. The only drawback to this is losing the possibility of crispy skin - I think you really need a stovetop method for that - and much smaller pieces than a whole side. ”
— carswell
Comment

Here’s what I’ll say upfront about that smug smile: It was deeply unwarranted. A better candidate than I to tell you how gleefully I reacted to my first bite of sous vide salmon would be my dog Larry, who scampered beneath the couch to protect himself from my high-pitched shriek, because I blacked the whole thing out. That mid-temp oven protocol I used to swear by? Didn’t even make the list.

Behold, an investigation into the absolute best ways to cook salmon, according to 12 tests.


Controls & Methods

Calm before the salmon storm. Photo by Ella Quittner

For all 12 tests, I used boneless, skin-on, center-cut salmon salmon fillets, which were roughly six ounces apiece. I seasoned with salt and white pepper. For some methods, I used olive oil. For others that involved high heat, I used avocado oil.

My goal for each fillet was a perfect medium just on the side of rare, between 120 and 125 degrees Fahrenheit on an instant-read thermometer. This means just opaque all the way through, flaking easily when gently pressed. (Another clever way to tell if salmon is done, according to Food Editor Emma Laperruque: “This line-cook trick works almost as well as a thermometer: Pierce the fish with a cake tester, skewer, or paring knife for a few seconds, then touch the metal—cold is not quite ready, warm is good to go, hot is get that fish out of the oven ASAP. The smaller the instrument, the prettier the fillet.”)

Finally, a note on albumin, or that white coagulated protein goop you’ll sometimes see on salmon: It’s perfectly fine to eat, if unpleasant to peruse. Alex Delany at Bon Appétit explains: “Think of what happens when you wring out a wet towel. The water inside the fibers of the cloth is pushed out as you squeeze the fibers closer together. The same principle applies to salmon. As salmon cooks, the flesh contracts, pushing out albumin to the fillet’s surface. The higher the heat, the more quickly the flesh contracts, and the more albumin becomes visible.” In other words, more albumin can be an indicator of a particularly aggressive cook method.

Below, I’ve broken out the 12 methods into “Most Delicious,” “Most Efficient,” and “Fine But I’m Not Renting a Plane to Skywrite About Them Anytime Soon,” categories, based on the results of side-by-side tastings. Within each category, methods are presented in alphabetical order, because I thought about this too hard, for too long.


Most Delicious

Hey, who unwrapped my personalized gift? Photo by Ella Quittner

En Papillote

In addition to providing endless opportunities to say en papillote to my significant other and dog, cooking salmon this way—folded into a parchment paper packet, then roasted at 400 degrees Fahrenheit—offered many benefits. The steam trapped by the parchment seal ensured that the fillet was juicy. The close quarters created the opportunity for deeply flavored fish; were I not conducting a strict experiment, I could’ve stuffed it with aromatics and seasonings, like ginger and garlic. And perhaps most importantly, salmon en papillote provided the opportunity to unwrap a personalized gift before tasting.

Ease of Method: The main drawback was the tricky business of determining whether the salmon had finished cooking, since it lurked beneath an opaque layer of parchment. (I used a finger to press the center of the packet and judged by feel.)

Internal Texture: The fillet cooked en papillote was full of flavor and tender, despite bare-bones seasoning and a layer of albumin that hinted otherwise.

Skin Crispness: None to speak of; in the future, I’d use skinless fillets for this method.

Oil Poach

As a child, I regularly faked sick so I could stay home from school and watch cooking shows. There’s a lot to unpack there, but in the spirit of filing my draft on time, I’m going to skip ahead to the relevant bit, which is this: I once saw someone poach a piece of salmon in olive oil. This memory became wedged in the recesses of my mind: decadent, intimidating, frivolous, impossibly pink.

I never worked up the courage—or olive oil reinforcements—to give it a go until this round of Absolute Best Tests, but man am I glad I did. The method is simple, if extravagant: Bring a saucepan of olive oil—enough to cover the fillet—to a gentle simmer, around 180 degrees Fahrenheit, then add the seasoned salmon and cook for 13 to 15 minutes. This produced a wonderfully nuanced piece of fish with concentrated flavor layered with grassy olive oil notes and the perfect amount of salt.

Ease of Method: I would recommend this method only to a home cook with an instant-read thermometer. Otherwise, determining when the oil has reached 180 degrees Fahrenheit is at best confusing, and at worst, could result in a lot of oil past its smoke point.

Internal Texture: Oil-poached salmon was the sleeper hit of this whole thing. The fish was slightly less tender than some of the other fillets, but so delicious, I barely noticed. (I’d guess this was because the cooking temperature wasn’t quite as low as, say, sous vide.)

Skin Crispness: Zero for two. Skin-lovers, move along.

Slow Roast

The big idea behind slow-roasting salmon in the oven—a method that’s actually pretty quick—is that it’s difficult to overcook, since a few extra minutes at a low temp are a gentle tap compared to the punch of an extra minute under the broiler. I went for 275 degrees Fahrenheit for about 30 minutes, based on this Genius recipe, and the soothing heat produced a specimen so velvety and evenly cooked, it fell apart at the poke of a fork.

Ease of Method: Slow-roasting salmon was incredibly easy, and took only about 45 minutes when all was said and done. Placing the fish skin-side down on a parchment-lined sheet pan made for easy clean-up.

Internal Texture: The salmon was eye-rollingly soft, and consistently cooked all the way through.

Skin Crispness: Just the slightest hint.

Sous Vide

In the history of Absolute Best Tests, the sous vide method has rarely raked in top honors (see: steak, hard-boiled eggs). Because it takes a while and requires special equipment, I’m often underwhelmed with the output.

But—but!—in the case of salmon, I would emphatically recommend you break out your Joule, or even just a sealable silicone bag and a thermometer. Indirectly cooking salmon, packed into a bag with its seasonings, at 125ish degrees Fahrenheit for about 35 minutes (for a one and a half inch fillet), produced fish so tender I could’ve spread it on toast, with an intensely savory flavor.

Ease of Method: This was fussy, but you should still do it when you have especially good salmon on your hands.

Internal Texture: The fillet was buttery and soft, like kippered salmon gone weak in the knees.

Skin Crispness: Sous vide preserves the option for crispy skin. If you’d like to partake, pat-dry your fillet post-cook, and crisp skin-side down in a hot, oiled skillet for a few minutes before serving.

Steam

Steaming salmon turned out to be a very solid, minimally finicky method that retained more flavor than the cold-poached fillet (more on that later). I set the seasoned salmon in a steamer basket, which I placed above a saucepan of boiling water, and let it cook through, eight to 10 minutes.

Ease of Method: Steaming anything is a low-drama activity, assuming you have a steamer basket or a couple balls of foil with which to hack one.

Internal Texture: The salmon was less silky than the slow-roasted or sous vide fillet—buttery, but not creamy—and more tender than the cold-poached or any of the high-heat fillets (upcoming).

Skin Crispness: Pass.


Most Efficient

Broil

I espouse the benefits of my broiler for pretty much everything—pizza toast, bruléed bananas, last-minute croutons—because it’s quick and effective. In the case of salmon, the broiler did not disappoint on either front: The process (a quick broil of an oiled, seasoned fillet skin down on a high heat–safe pan) was beautifully quick, so efficient that my fish didn’t have time to develop the char I expected before cooking through. (This leads me to believe the broiler method would be better suited to a thicker piece of fish.) That said, the shock of heat caused the fillet to seize up more tightly than those treated with gentler heat, and it lost more of its juiciness in the process. Perfectly edible and still enjoyable, but not something I’d think about for days after the fact.

Ease of Method: Using the broiler to cook anything is extremely easy—just keep an eye on it so it doesn’t burn.

Internal Texture: Mediocre but fully passable.

Skin Crispness: I got a little crisp going—nothing crazy, but more crackle than any method listed above.

Roast (425°F)

When you Google-search “how to cook salmon,” the very first result, from The Kitchn, instructs you to roast it at 425 degrees Fahrenheit for four to six minutes per half-inch thickness. I followed suit, and wound up with a worthy specimen in about 10 minutes. The fillet was soft enough—more so than the broiled salmon and stovetop-seared salmon—with a middling amount of flavor and juiciness.

Ease of Method: Almost as simple as tossing under the broiler, except you have to remember to preheat.

Internal Texture: Middle of the road, more on the “good” side than not. Points for consistency.

Skin Crispness: Not much more than with the slow-roasted fillet, oddly enough.

Stovetop Sear

Eating stovetop–seared salmon—which I cooked skin-side down in a hot skillet for five-ish minutes before giving it a quick flip to finish—was like watching my favorite reality TV show: no less satisfying for its predictability, and the speedy comfort it provided made for a decently sized dopamine hit. The skin was perfectly crisped, the fillet cooked pretty evenly, and while it wasn’t the most tender of all the methods, it was certainly enjoyable to eat.

Ease of Method: Very. No preheating or special equipment needed.

Internal Texture: Pretty good—if you’re looking for a quick salmon fix, the stovetop sear produced a fillet much juicier and more tender than the broil method.

Skin Crispness: Top of class, A++.


Fine But I’m Not Renting a Plane to Skywrite About Them Anytime Soon

Citrus: salmon’s best friend. Photo by Ella Quittner

Cold Poach

The main argument behind the cold poach—in which you combine water and white wine or broth with seasonings and the fillet, then bring to a simmer—is that the gentle heat should keep the proteins in the salmon from becoming tough. Theoretically, your poaching set-up should lend flavor, as well. The salmon was pleasantly tender, but when stacked up against the other most-tender outputs (slow roast, sous vide, en papillote, oil poach), its flavor was lacking, perhaps because the liquid leached it away.

Grill

From a flavor perspective, the grill method worked wonders for my salmon fillet. But when I factored in the time it took to preheat, the logistics (charcoal! Having to find shoes! Salmon-y grate residue that was gross to clean!), it didn’t seem worth it. If I were already grilling and had room to add a couple of salmon fillets, I’d do it again. But I wouldn’t turn on my grill just for a solo salmon dinner.

Skillet-to-Oven

I had high hopes for the skillet-to-oven method, which begins like the stovetop sear, but has you finish your fillet still skin down in a 350 degrees Fahrenheit oven, rather than flipping it and finishing in the pan.

While the skin was exceptionally crispy and the fillet had more wiggle than its stovetop sear counterpart, I found that the salmon was a bit overcooked on the bottom, and had an odd texture toward the top, more like cold-smoked salmon than roasted fillet. The flavor and succulence were there, but I wasn’t sold on the varying textures.

Stovetop Cold

The stovetop cold method—place salmon skin down in a cold skillet before turning on the heat, cook for about 25 minutes, until the sides are opaque and the top is still bright pink—resulted in a juicy, tender fillet. But as with the skillet-to-oven salmon, I couldn’t get on board with the unevenness of the cook from bottom to top. (One huge benefit, though, was that the skin puffed up proudly, like a shrimp chip.) Next time I riff on this method, I’ll flip it before removing from heat.


Cheat Sheet

A lemon wheel (or 12) never hurt. Photo by Ella Quittner

A Mainstay You Can Evoke With Little Fanfare

Slow Roast:

  1. Heat the oven to 275°F.
  2. Place a salmon fillet in a baking dish. Rub all over with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper.
  3. Roast until salmon flakes easily, or a thermometer inserted in the thickest part reads 120°F (about 30 minutes for a 6-ounce fillet).

Generating Decadent Flavor for Occasions That Call for Pomp

Oil Poach:

  1. Season a salmon fillet with salt and pepper.
  2. Combine enough olive oil to cover your fillet, plus any aromatics (like sturdy herbs or garlic), in a small saucepan. Place over a medium-low heat, and heat until it reaches 180°F.
  3. Once the oil is hot, add the seasoned fillet and cook, adjusting the heat as needed to keep the temperature close to 180°F, until the fish flakes easily, about 15 minutes. Drain on a rack or paper towel before serving.

En Papillote:

  1. Heat the oven to desired cooking temperature—anywhere from 275°F to 425°F. (I tested this at 400°F.)
  2. Create a parchment paper packet for your salmon fillet. You can do this by either folding a large piece in half to cut out a semi-circle a few inches wider than your fillet (you’d then place the salmon inside at the seam and crimp the edges together) or by using two sheets of parchment paper of roughly the same size (more edges to crimp together, but no cutting needed).
  3. Rub a salmon fillet all over with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Place inside the parchment, along with any aromatics (herbs, garlic, lemon, ginger) or small vegetables, like halved new potatoes. Create a packet by crimping edges together to create a seal. (Here’s a crimping demonstration.)
  4. Roast until the packet has puffed up, and the salmon feels cooked when pressed at its thickest point with a finger, about 10 to 15 minutes at 400°F, depending on thickness.

An Immediate Salmon Fix

Stovetop Sear:

  1. Add a big splash of high heat–friendly oil to a skillet, and heat over medium-high flame until shimmering. While that heats up, season a salmon fillet with salt and pepper.
  2. Add the fillet skin-side down and gently press on the fillet with a fish spatula to keep the skin from curling away from the pan. Cook for 5 minutes or so, until the skin is crispy.
  3. Flip the salmon and cook another minute or so, until salmon easily flakes, or a thermometer reads 120°F.

What should Ella test next? Let us know in the comments, or send her a message here.

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Ella Quittner

Written by: Ella Quittner

Ella Quittner is a contributing writer and the Absolute Best Tests columnist at Food52. She covers food, travel, wellness, lifestyle, home, novelty snacks, and internet-famous sandwiches. You can follow her on Instagram @equittner, or Twitter at @ellaquittner. She also develops recipes for Food52, and has a soft spot for all pasta, anything spicy, and salty chocolate things.

40 Comments

Jillian L. June 27, 2020
Ever since my husband started grilling salmon for me (on our gas grill) with the skin on, I don’t order it in restaurants because it will never be as good as his. If you like crispy skin, which I do, grilling is 100% the way to go.
 
Erica M. June 11, 2020
"Finally, a note on albumin, or that white coagulated protein goop you’ll sometimes see on salmon: It’s perfectly fine to eat, if unpleasant to peruse." The "or" is superfluous. Although "peruse" CAN mean "to examine thoroughly", its main definition is "to read intently". I'm guessing both author and editor, if there IS one, are millennials whose reading is done on screens rather than in books.
 
marisa May 24, 2020
I always use the “en papillote” method and I poke a meat thermometer through the paper to determine doneness. Super easy. I guess the little hole may comprise the papillote integrity but it always turns out delicious 🤷🏻‍♀️
 
Cooking P. May 21, 2020
In the micro. Seriously. I learned it from James Peterson, so it can't be bad. You can do it en papillote, or in a dish with a lid. James is fairly minimalist, just S&P and a drop of white wine if I recall. I like a little julienned leek and carrots, and a bit of butter, then add the wine and fish, micro. You get a nice sauce and perfectly cooked fish in about 4 minutes.
 
Abbeydove May 21, 2020
Could you please test lemon bars? I'm just having such a hard time with them. I'll confess to being gluten free, but it's not the crust that gives me trouble, it's the lemon custard.
 
Regina June 4, 2020
Joann Chang's lemon lust bars are the best I've ever had. The lemon flavor is amazing.
 
Mike K. May 20, 2020
My fave: broiled under a 450 degree broiler with lemon juice, cook until it flakes but is still juicy. Utmost flavor and really simple. Serve with rice and a vegetable, jut like in the picture. Makes me hungry just to think about it.
 
John B. May 20, 2020
We live on the West Coast by the sea so salmon in all its varieties is very much a regular in out diet. Typical method is marinate the fillet in fresh lemons - they grow in the garden - then transfer fish and lemon to a hot cast iron pan which has already heated olive oil and then pop into the oven at 350 degrees for 10 minutes. Comes out slightly undercooked but with abundance of flavor. If there is skin on the fillet, I sear it for a couple minutes in the pan and then strip off the skin before putting the pan into the oven - never liked fish skin! Simple and delicious!
 
John B. May 20, 2020
We live on the West Coast by the sea so salmon in all its varieties is very much a regular in out diet. Typical method is marinate the fillet in fresh lemons - they grow in the garden - then transfer fish and lemon to a hot cast iron pan which has already heated olive oil and then pop into the oven at 350 degrees for 10 minutes. Comes out slightly undercooked but with abundance of flavor. If there is skin on the fillet, I sear it for a couple minutes in the pan and then strip over the skin before putting the pan into the oven - never liked fish skin! Simple and delicious!
 
Suzanne O. June 27, 2020
Have you taken ALL the scales off, then crisped up the skin? Delicious!!!
 
Regine May 18, 2020
I think my favorite one is the Slow Roast Method.
 
justen_m May 18, 2020
En papillote. In the microwave. Seriously, this method just steams the salmon, so put aside your retrogrouch bigotry and give it a shot. Takes just 3-4 minutes -- you can be eating your salmon before the oven would have even had a chance to preheat. A couple of my faves are asparagus, scallions, garlic, ginger, soy sauce and sesame oil; and sweet corn, tomatoes, cilantro, lime slice/juice, and chili powder.
 
tony-snead May 18, 2020
Interesting flavor mentions. I take it that you are using the corn. tomatoes, cilantro, lime juice, and chili powder as a quick relish and cooking the salmon with the rest as aromatics in the microwave steaming for up to 4 minutes wrapped in the parchment paper? --- Otherwise, pop in the oven and steam for up to 20 minutes to replicate the reported test. --- Wouldn't the microwave method cause the salmon to cook quickly and become a bit rubbery and bring up the albumin?
 
Bri L. May 15, 2020
pacific or atlantic salmon? the fat content is very different and the cooking strategies too.
 
Suzanne O. May 15, 2020
Yeah.....that's what I think. Experiment needs to be repeated with different kinds of Salmon. Not just Pacific or Atlantic....Silver, King, Norwegian farmed etc etc etc.
 
Corinne May 14, 2020
I will give the parchment packs a whirl! Sounds good. I’ve always grilled my salmon, but I have a gas grill for quick efforts! I season my salmon with dill, ginger, garlic and S&P! Any leftovers (the kiddos have flown the coop) become salmon salad with capers and pickles and mayo! I enjoyed reading your article. Thanks!!
 
Ann M. May 14, 2020
Would you also suggest that slow roast option, in addition to Sous vide, preserves the option for crispy skin?
 
CJ May 14, 2020
Have you tried cedar planked? My favorite way to cook salmon (on the gas grill, outside)
 
tony-snead May 18, 2020
My goto as well (at least so far over the years)
 
Michael S. May 14, 2020
What’s the best one?? Ain’t nobody got time to read all those words. I wanted to know the content but gave up.
 
Daryl May 15, 2020
I hear ya but I persevered and you should too. The author is funny and witty and gave really great details and suggestions.
En papillote and oil poached were her favs.
 
RGG May 14, 2020
Sous vide with a generous amount of butter in the bag is how we do it - it's basically butter poached, but under very close quality control. Absolutely delish!
 
Lisa W. May 14, 2020
Color me intrigued! At what temp and for how long do you sous vide with the butter (and what's "generous"? 2 tbsp? 3?)?? I'm keen to try sous vide the next time we get hold of some lovely salmon (not easy in New Orleans during our Covid-cation).
 
Lisa W. May 14, 2020
I like a shallow poach, with some white wine and fresh aromatics (thyme, dill, parsley), with some sliced shallots, a little coarse salt, and pepper. It's very silky, tender and very flavorful - not to mention super easy and quick.
 
Bruce B. May 14, 2020
This is such a brilliant article and I agree 100% with your love of sous vide. You didn't even mention the benefit that sous vide is foolproof: the salmon always cooked to the exact desired temperature (115 in my house) regardless of size, shape, etc. So yeah, it takes some time and effort, but no skill. I hate the feeling of even slightly overcooking a precious piece of salmon by any other method.

Another technique I like (though less than sous vide) is cooking it on a wood plank on the grill. The moistened plank adds indirectness and probably some flavor. At first I felt bad wasting a plank each time, but the cost ($1-3) is nothing compared with that of the salmon.
 
carswell May 15, 2020
If you are diligent about scrubbing the plank and drying it out after it cools down you can often get a second use out of it.
 
Suzanne O. May 14, 2020
You didn't state what kind of salmon you used in this test....King, Silver, Norwegian farmed, Atlantic farmed, etc etc etc. I'm betting that the fat content will make a difference. It would be fun to repeat the test with different kinds of salmon!
 
HeyOtis May 14, 2020
I like the old wet cedar plank on a hot Weber. I don't really mind having to find my shoes now and then, and the coals are just part of the deal. Coated with brown sugar, teriyaki and soy sauce, I also don't mind that he skin tends to stick to the wood. I would love a good suggestion on how to fix that.
 
John May 14, 2020
Oil and then sprinkle kosher salt on the plank before the salmon. You can put a layer of lemon slices on the plank as well.
 
HeyOtis May 14, 2020
Thank you!
 
carswell May 15, 2020
I use a marinade of maple syrup, balsamic vinegar and chilli flakes when I am going to do the cedar plank thing. I also boil down the marinade to a thick syrup for drizzling over the finished fish.