Because salmon is so rich and flavorful, I wanted a method for preparing it that would exploit the fish’s high oil content and natural moistness while also indulging my taste for fish that comes out of the pan with a crisp, even, deeply golden crust. So I zeroed in on exploring the techniques of pan-searing over a relatively high heat on the stove-top. Requiring little time and equipment, pan-searing heightens the flavor of the salmon and produces an appealing contrast in texture. Or at least it does when the fish is cooked right. In the past, I have struggled to attain the perfect degree of doneness. My fish was often overcooked to the point of being dry and chalky as I tried to create a nice crust, or, in an effort to protect against overcooking, I ended up with a poor crust.
The amount and type of fat to use was a real wild card in my research. There were recipes using everything from butter to canola oil, in quantities ranging from five tablespoons down to no fat at all for four fillets.
I chose the extreme first, cooking four fillets one evening with no fat in the pan. Though salmon supplies plenty of its own fat and a nonstick pan eliminates sticking problems, these fillets developed uneven, blotchy, unappealing crusts, especially on the skin side. Some fat in the pan, I thought, would improve matters. So I cooked four fillets in amounts ranging from one to three tablespoons of canola oil, moving in one-half tablespoon increments. These larger amounts might work well for lean fish, but for a fatty fish such as salmon even one tablespoon of oil was too much. Eventually, I found that a mere teaspoon of fat in a large skillet was all I needed to promote a deep, even crust on both sides of the fillets.
I also experimented with different types of fat in my research. To risk repeating, salmon is extremely rich to begin with, and butter simply pushed it over the top (not to mention the fact that it burned). The flavor of olive oil seemed at odds with the fish, and a butter-olive oil combination offered no advantage. Cooking spray was sub-par. Peanut oil worked nicely, as did both canola and vegetable oil. Because these two oils are more of a staple than peanut oil and are neutral in flavor, they were my first choice. Some recipes suggested oiling the fillets themselves instead of the pan, but this practice diminished the crust I wanted.
While I was at it, I also tried dredging the fish in coating meant to cook up crisp, including seasoned flour, bread crumbs, and cornmeal, but I disliked them all for uneven browning, dull flavor, and pasty texture.
Without a doubt, the type of pan would be an important variable. The good news concerning pans was that every one of the four I tried – including a cheap, thin stainless steel model, heavy-bottomed stainless steel and nonstick models, and my faithful cast-iron skillet – produced a decent crust. Though the nonstick pan ensued easy cleanup and no sticking, the crust it developed was marginally less deep than the others, and the necessary preheating of the pan is not kind to the nonstick finish. The heavy stainless steel and cast-iron pans produced exemplary crusts, while the lighter, cheaper pan scorched almost fatally during cooking. While any one of them will work, my favorite were the heavy stainless steel and cast-iron models. Whichever pan you choose, make sure it is large enough to accommodate the fillets comfortably; the edges of the fillets should not touch, as this can cause steaming, instead of searing, to occur, I found a 12-inch skillet to be just right.
Preheating the pan and choosing the right heat for cooking the fish were also critical. I tried preheating for lengths of time ranging from one to five minutes and found that three minutes over high heat did the trick. But the high heat was too much once the fish was in the pan, cooking it too fast and producing billows of smoke, so I reduced the heat to medium-high. Because the pan loses some heat when the fish is added, I waited about 30 seconds before reducing the flame so the pan could regain some of the lost heat.
Timing, of course, was also crucial. I did not want to overcook the salmon. Because my fillets were consistently 1-1/4 inches thick, I decided to start by following the old kitchen maxim of 10 minutes per inch of thickness. The fish overcooked. It overcooked at 10 minutes and at nine minutes, too. At eight minutes, though, it undercooked ever so slightly. Fortunately, as with many cuts of meat, I learned that salmon fillets have enough residual heat to continue cooking briefly after they come out of the pan. In fact, I found that a one-minute rest before serving brought the eight-minute fillet to a perfect medium with no danger of overcooking.
Though many sources suggest shaking the pan after adding the salmon to prevent sticking, I found this step to be unnecessary. Provided that the pan is hot enough and the fat is shimmering, I decided it is best to just drop the fillet skin side down in the pan and leave it be. When the fish turns opaque and milky white from the bottom to about halfway up the fillet, it’s time to flip it. Then simply slide a thin, flexible metal spatula between the pan bottom and the skin and flip it quickly so the flesh side is down; make sure not to move the fish for the first two minutes. After that, you can lift it gently at the corner with the spatula to check the bottom crust. I also suggest peeking inside the fillet with the tip of a paring knife. The center should still show traces of bright, translucent orange. If it is completely opaque and the orange color is a little duller, as it is toward the exterior of the fillet, the fish is overcooked.
Please click HERE for my pan-seared salmon recipe.