I picked up my love for salmon at a pretty young age. Spending my childhood years in a small island town in Washington state meant I was as likely to find fish at a cookout as hamburgers or hot dogs. A family friend even used to catch salmon from his backyard stream and grill it up on the spot!
Even though I now live in the Midwest, I was determined to learn how to properly cook a salmon. I used to make a decent fish-a decent healthy dinner, though it was never as good as the salmon I ordered at restaurants or remembered eating back home. Turns out, a few common mistakes were dragging down my game.
Common Mistakes When Cooking Salmon (And Other Fish!)
Mistake #1: Cutting up the fillet
Nothing is worse than purchasing a nice (and potentially pricey) salmon fillet, only to have it turn out dry after cooking. Avoid this fate by keeping your salmon piece whole as you bake. Why? Cutting it up small exposes more surface area. That means the fish cooks much quicker and can go from just done to overdone in a flash. The larger the salmon is, the harder it is to overcook. Simply cut into smaller portions after it’s baked.
Mistake #2: Using loads of fancy ingredients
Salmon is like steak: it only needs a bit of seasoning because its natural flavors are so delicious. Salt, pepper and a smidge of olive oil will enhance and highlight the fish. Keep it simple, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the resulting rich taste.
Mistake #3: Not watching for the flake
There’s a visual cue for knowing when salmon is fully cooked. Flaky white-ish protein, called albumin, will emerge from the fish as it bakes. The longer it’s cooked, the more albumin is forced out. Pay attention to this as you check for doneness. The fish is ready when it flakes: gently press the tines of a fork into the fish and twist. If the fish flakes, it’s ready. It not, keep cooking a little longer. (It will grow tougher as it continues to cook, so check early and stop as soon as it flakes!)
Mistake #4: Not knowing how to shop for salmon
For the best-tasting salmon, try to source from a local fishmonger. Specialized fish markets often have a more knowledgeable staff and fresher fish (due to higher turnover).
But there or at the supermarket, always check these for these signs of freshness:
- It smells good. A fresh fish won’t have any offending “fishy smell.” If a fish smells sour or ammonia-like, it’s old and should be avoided.
- It looks good. Avoid any fish that appears discolored or has bruised skin.
- It feels firm-and there are no gaps where the flesh is pulling apart.
Knowing a little about salmon helps, too. Any commercially sold Atlantic salmon is farm-raised. If you’re looking for wild-caught salmon, opt for Sockeye, Coho, or Chinook. Farmed or wild, both are good for you-but you might have a preference, so know what the labels mean.
Got your fresh fish? Got your simple seasonings? Good. We’re ready to cook. Follow our recipe for step-by-step instructions and tips for success:
How to Make Baked Salmon
1 center-cut salmon fillet (1-1/2 pounds)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
Step One: Prep your pan and season the fish
Place a large oven-safe skillet in a cold oven and preheat it to 450°.
While the oven is warming, slather your salmon with olive oil using a brush. Then, sprinkle salt and pepper on each side.
Test Kitchen Tip: Putting the oil on first allows the seasoning to adhere to the fish.
Step Two: Place fish on the pan
Carefully remove the hot skillet from the oven. Place the fish, skin side down, on the skillet. Because the pan has been heated, the initial contact will help sear the skin, giving it an irresistible crispy texture. You should hear a hiss as you lower the fish into the pan. (Be careful; you don’t want oil to splatter on you.)
Step Three: Bake
Return the skillet to the oven and bake, uncovered, for 14-18 minutes, or until the salmon flakes easily. (Insert a fork into the fish and gently twist. You should see flakes separate.)
You can also test doneness with a thermometer. The temperature should be 125°.
Step Four: Serve
Take the skillet from the oven and remove the salmon with a metal spatula. (Metal spatulas are thin and can more easily slip under the fish and transfer it to a plate without breaking it. You can also use a plastic spatula, if that’s all you have.)
Test Kitchen Tip: The skin will naturally stick slightly to the pan. You can serve the fish with the skin. If you prefer your salmon skinless, just wiggle the spatula under one corner between the skin and the flesh, and gently push to release the rest.
Cut the salmon into four equal portions. Get moving! Send it right to the dinner table, as fish is best when it’s nice and hot. We like to add a squeeze of lemon juice to the fish as we eat.
Salmon is a versatile protein that’s great for pairing with salads and grains. Try out this Northwest Salmon Salad, or serve a fillet on top of a Colorful Quinoa Salad. It’s an extra-healthy entree that every home cook should have in their repertoire.
For more healthy (but totally delicious) dinners, browse through our 30 Healthy Dinners in 30 Minutes.