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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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++.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A Mainstay You Can Evoke With Little Fanfare
- Heat the oven to 275°F.
- Place a salmon fillet in a baking dish. Rub all over with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper.
- 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
- Season a salmon fillet with salt and pepper.
- 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.
- 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.
- Heat the oven to desired cooking temperature—anywhere from 275°F to 425°F. (I tested this at 400°F.)
- 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).
- 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.)
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- Flip the salmon and cook another minute or so, until salmon easily flakes, or a thermometer reads 120°F.