Simplest Pan-Fried Salmon

June 18, 2021
3 Ratings
Photo by Rocky Luten. Food stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop stylist: Fiona Campbell.
  • Prep time 3 minutes
  • Cook time 7 minutes
  • Serves 2
Author Notes

Contrary to what is often thought, pan-frying is a quick, simple method of cooking small pieces of fish, and as one of the easiest to control, there's less chance of overcooking. Here's a breakdown of the what, why, and hows behind it.

Which is the best fish to pan fry?

All fish can be pan-fried, but some white fish can be a touch delicate, making the darling of this method round, oily fish such as mackerel, tuna, and of course, salmon. The fat of these fish is distributed through the flesh, making them less delicate and giving them their distinct flavor.

Which part of the salmon to cook?

By far, the best piece is a thick piece of fillet (cut from the middle), but if you don't mind bone, then a steak also works well. As the fillet is cut perpendicular to the fish's spine, it's almost boneless, but may have a few tiny pin bones that are easy to remove. As you will see below, the fillet cooks quickly (10 minutes max) without much danger of drying out. A steak will, of course, take longer.

Skin on or off?

Skin-on is best as it protects the delicate flesh and keeps it moist during cooking. When pan-fried, the skin crisps up and is super easy to lift away, which is helpful if you don't like eating it (but it's very tasty, so I recommend you try!). However, if the thought of skin on is too much, then you can, of course, cook it without, but it needs a tad more attention so it doesn't overcook or burn.

Oil or butter for frying?

Butter has a great flavor in almost every context, but it gets lost when combined with salmon and will burn when heated too high. Oil is a much better bet: Use a flavorless oil with a high smoke point. Rice bran or rapeseed oils are both excellent choices.

What to serve with pan-fried salmon?

What not to serve is perhaps easier to answer. Salmon has a lovely soft, yielding flesh and is not overpoweringly strong in flavor. It is good served just plain and simple, hot and fresh from the pan with a basic salad. Yet, salmon can also stand its ground alongside many ingredients (ginger, soy sauce, and sesame are fantastic), sauces (take your pick from Hollandaise to parsley and everything in between), and side dishes from steamed veg, new potatoes, and even fries. —Elaine Lemm

What You'll Need
  • 2 (5-ounce, or 150g) thick-cut salmon fillets, skin-on
  • 2 tablespoons neutral oil, such as rice bran or rapeseed
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  1. Dry the salmon fillets with a paper towel or clean kitchen towel; if the fish is left wet, it will poach and not fry. Check over the fillets for tiny pin bones by gently running your fingers over the flesh in both directions. Remove the bones either with your fingers, if you can, or use a pair of kitchen tweezers.
  2. Add the oil to a large frying pan (ceramic-coated nonstick if you have one, but not essential) and place it over medium heat.
  3. Once the oil is hot, place the salmon, skin side-down, into the pan and sprinkle the flesh generously with salt and pepper. Allow the skin to start to crisp and brown; you may want to press the fish flat to the pan using a spatula to help prevent it from curling up. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes and try not to move the fish around.
  4. Flip the fillets over, lower the heat, and cook for a further 2 to 3 minutes. The skin should be crisp, and the flesh still soft and ever so slightly pink in the middle.
  5. Note: When cooking without skin, reduce times to 3 minutes for the first side and 2 on the other. Do not press with the spatula.

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