Spot on Salmon
Spot on Salmon
Salmon is quite possibly one of the most accessible and nutrient rich food sources in the world. It contains incredibly high levels of vitamins A, B12 and D, which are all crucial in human bodies for great overall health. In perfectly cooked fish the high selenium and iodine levels remain present as well, so here are a few tips to cooking salmon just right:
- The right piece
Most commonly salmon is bought from the chilled fish counter at a supermarket or fish market. While whole fish can be purchased, these three- to five-year-old fish are large and you should know what to do before carving them up. Any fishmonger worthy of business will have trimmed the fish into manageable portions and kept all the trimmings to be used as well.
- How much fish?
The two thick flesh sides of a salmon are filleted from the spine and then can be cut into an array of sizes or kept whole to feed a crowd. These long thick fillets will weigh between 800g and 1.5kg each, depending on the age and quality of the fish.
For the average diner, a 150-250g piece of this fillet is all that is required. If you are feeding more than four people, it can be better economy to buy a whole side fillet to cut into pieces than buying pre-cut pieces – but that is up to the discretion of the cook. It means the pieces can be cut to the same size and thickness, and all cook evenly. The average whole side available in store will feed between six and eight people.
- Pre-cook check
Prepare the salmon by checking for bones. Good quality salmon will have the pin bones extracted before sale, however, this may not always be true and some bones can be missed. Any time you cook salmon, you should check for these bones. Run your fingers up and down the surface of the fish. If you “knock” a bone, hold your fingers around the bone, gently pushing the flesh down to bring more of the bone to the surface. Then use a pair of clean tweezers, or even small pliers to get a good grip on the bone and pull it out. Most chefs will have a special pair of pliers designated for this, and they are good to have in your kitchen if you cook a lot of salmon. Don’t even attempt to pull the bones out with your fingers; they are too tough and the surrounding flesh will be damaged.
- Bloom the fish
Although it is usually recommended to always keep fish chilled, leaving the prepared fillets to “bloom” for 5-10 minutes at room temperature will bring it to the right temp for cooking. If the flesh is too cold, for example, straight out of the chiller or packed ice, when it hits a hot pan the white albumin will seep out causing an ugly white coating on the fish. Blooming the fish will reduce this considerably.
- Skin on or off?
Unless you have a skin hater at the table, it is best to leave the skin on while cooking. It will help keep the firm yet fragile fish together, plus it will insulate the bottom of the fish from high temperature and allow it to cook through evenly. To get the skin as crispy as possible, cook the fish for three quarters of the time on the skin side down, flip and cook the top for the remaining quarter of the time. The skin holds most of the valuable long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, so it is worth of keeping and digesting. Check for stray scales on the surface before cooking, and scrape off.
- Marinate or not?
Salmon by nature is super tender. It does not need hours of marinating to break down tough pieces. Acids like lemon juice or vinegars will “cook” the flesh while it marinates, so they are not ideal. However, the flesh will absorb flavours very easily. Any spices, seasonings and marinades will affect the flavour dramatically and as salmon is a subtle flavour, you should try not to overpower it too much. A quick brush with a marinade or a sprinkle of coating while the fish is being left to bloom is usually enough for the required flavour. Leave the lemon juice and vinaigrettes to be drizzled over at the end.
- How to cook
To cook a whole side of salmon, leave the skin on and bake, roast, grill, poach or barbecue. The general rule is that one side of salmon will take 25 minutes in an oven heated to 180°C/350°F. As the thickness of the salmon varies from tip to tail, the weight of the fish is irrelevant. Salmon is best cooked to a medium rare. This means that the thickest part of the fish will be just cooked, to the point where it is slightly underdone. The average temperature of the thickest part of the fish should be 53°C, measured with a meat thermometer. The flesh will appear opaque and still slightly squishy, and firm on resting.
For smaller pieces or escalopes of salmon, a 180g piece will take 3-4 minutes, for one side and then turned, about another 1-2 minutes only. In a 180°C oven the same piece will take no more than 7-8 minutes to cook through properly. Under-cooked fish is far nicer than over-cooked fish, so err on the side of less is more.
- Have a rest
When the fish comes out of, or off, the heat source, it will continue to cook and therefore if slightly undercooked will come to the perfect texture on resting. Salmon protein like any other meat protein needs this resting to allow the protein fibres to relax after the tightening of cooking. Make sure the cooked fish is covered loosely with foil to retain the heat.
- What not to do?
Salmon does not like to be cooked twice. Fresh raw salmon is delicious, perfectly just-cooked salmon is delectable, but reheated salmon is dry, chewy and devoid of all flavour. It doesn’t take long for the salmon to lose its quality and goodness this way. If there are leftovers, allow the flesh to cool then use it in cold salads, sandwiches or entrees.
- Reduce waste
Nothing of the whole salmon fish need go to waste. Once all the delicious thick cut of meat has been used, any extra skin can have stray scales removed and be cooked in hot oil to make fish-flavoured crisps. Smaller trimmings of salmon can be quickly steamed, poached and fried for salads, soups or savoury rice dishes. The head, bones and fins can be boiled with vegetables to make a nutritious fresh fish broth. This stock will be oily, but these are the good oils that we need in our diet, so they’re well worth having.