Tips to pan roast a perfect salmon

Fresh salmon ready for pan roasting. BY JACK CLEMONS
August 5, 2013

A few weeks ago, we ordered salmon for dinner at a local seafood restaurant. What arrived on the plate was a bit of a disappointment. The skin was still attached and had been cooked into a rubbery rectangle connected to a layer of brownish-gray flesh. It took quite a bit of surgery to get to the pink meat. And although it was tasty, the experience raised some questions about the best way to prepare a salmon filet.

To start my research, I bought a piece of fresh salmon from the fishmonger (there are several good ones in this area). After rinsing off both sides, I began my inspection of the bright orange meat, looking for scales or bones and finding neither. The color of salmon ranges from dark red through orange to a pale pink, depending upon the species.

Between the skin and colored flesh is a layer of dark brown subcutaneous fat. This serves as an energy reserve and helps insulate the fish’s body when it’s in colder waters. In less expensive farmed salmon, you’ll find a thicker layer of this than you will in wild salmon because of differences in diet and exercise (sounds familiar to those of us with a little extra padding around our midsection).

The final layer is the skin. Properly cleaned of all the scales, this is similar in thickness and texture to chicken skin. For that reason, the skin can be just as delicious as a crackling crisp piece of roasted chicken skin, but proper technique is essential. Even if you plan to remove the skin before serving, it’s important to leave it on during cooking, so the flesh reaches a perfect degree of moist tenderness.

The ideal internal temperature for a piece of pan-roasted salmon is between 115 F and 125 F. At this point the meat has become opaque but remains juicy and silky. If cooking continues beyond 125 F, the meat will begin to flake and exude albumin that coagulates into clumps around the edges of the salmon. After 140 F, you have the dreadful salmon of hotel buffet steam tables and grade school cafeterias.

Here’s where the salmon skin can assist: it serves as a heat barrier between the hot pan and the interior flesh, slowing the rate at which the heat is transferred within. This allows you to crisp the skin while gently cooking the meat - all without desiccating the flesh and destroying the flavor.

The technique for successfully pan roasting salmon requires a few simple steps. First, barely cover the bottom of your metal skillet (don’t use a nonstick pan) with a thin layer of oil. Heat it on high until it begins to shimmer slightly and form “legs” that spread across the pan. Dry the salmon to remove any external water droplets that would reduce the oil temperature. Place the fish in the pan, skin side down. Your goal here is to have the proteins in the skin contract before they have a chance to bond with the surface of the skillet.

Once the salmon is in the pan, immediately reduce the heat to medium low.
You don’t want to chase out all the moisture before the meat is cooked. If the skin starts to curl as it shrinks, press lightly on the salmon with a fish spatula to flatten the edges. Continue cooking until the skin lets go of the pan - you’ll know you’re ready to flip the salmon when you can slide the spatula beneath the skin and it releases without a fight.

After turning the salmon, check the internal temperature and continue cooking on low, stopping when you reach the magical 125 F. Now you can serve the fish with its crunchy layer of skin, or remove the skin and serve the tender flesh as the star of the plate. I’ve included these cooking instructions, as well as recipes for a few different sauces, but all you need is a splash of fresh-squeezed lemon.

Pan Roasted Salmon

skin-on salmon filet
1 T coconut oil
salt and pepper
lemon wedges

Add oil to a metal (not nonstick) skillet and place over high heat to melt. Meanwhile, thoroughly dry the salmon with paper towels. Season both sides with salt and pepper. When the oil is showing “legs” spreading out across the pan, add the salmon, skin side down. Immediately reduce the heat to medium low and cook until the skin releases from the pan, about 4 minutes. Flip the fish and continue cooking until internal temperature reaches 125 F, about another 3 minutes. Serve with sauce or lemon wedges.

Caper Sauce

1 T butter
1 minced shallot
1 T capers
1 T lemon juice
1 T white wine

Melt butter over medium heat in a small pan. Add shallot and sauté until wilted. Add remaining ingredients and cook until slightly reduced. Serve over pan-roasted salmon or grilled chicken breasts.

Creamy Dill Sauce

1/4 C Dijon mustard
1/2 C sour cream
2 t dried dill weed or 1 T fresh
juice of 1 lime

Combine ingredients in a small bowl, whisking to a smooth consistency. Serve with pan-roasted salmon.

Sesame Sauce

3 T soy sauce
1 T toasted sesame oil
1 t grated ginger
1 t sesame seeds

Whisk together ingredients in a small bowl. Drizzle over pan-roasted salmon or steamed vegetables.

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