How To Pan-fry Cook Salmon

I hate salmon. With a passion. Chalky, dry, smelly, slimy-skinned, the worst of the worst when it comes to fish.

At least, that’s what I would’ve said about a decade ago, when the only salmon I had tasted was over-poached at buffets or overcooked at restaurants that frankly didn’t quite know what they were doing. I don’t know if I was running the right circles, but it seemed de rigeur in my youth to cook salmon to a shade just past well-done. We didn’t seem to exit these culinary dark ages until some time in the ’90s, by which time my bias against the fish had already been firmly established.

It wasn’t until I started cooking in nice restaurants (the kind that I could never afford to go to as a civilian) that I realized that it wasn’t the salmon that was at fault, but rather (as usual) the cook. Properly cooked salmon is amazing. Crisp, crackly, crunchy skin that can rival the best roast chicken’s; tender, moist, flavorful meat that melts across your tongue like butter. There’s a reason, after all, why salmon is the most popular fresh fish in the country.

But before we even begin cooking it, let’s take a quick look at what you might find at the fish counter.

Samplin’ Salmon

There was a time not long ago when salmon was salmon. It was the pink fish that skinny people ordered at restaurants or fancy ladies in French hats would pick at on a high class buffet. These days, diners are a little more aware of what’s out there, or at least that there are options when it comes to specific salmon species.

Here’s a quick guide to what you might find in the market. Over the course of the next few weeks, the folks at Copper River Salmon will be sending us samples of various salmon species, so stay tuned for some more detailed updates!

  • King Salmon, also know as chinook, are the largest salmon species and one of the most popular at the fish counter. In the wild they an grow to over 100 pounds and live for several years, making them prized amongst game fisherman. Large, thick filets make for relatively easy cooking, though they are not the most flavorful species. Farm-raised king salmon tend to be smaller with a bit more intramuscular fat, giving them more richness.
  • Coho are far smaller than King Salmon with denser, brighter, more flavorful flesh. With relatively little intramuscular fat and a very fine texture, they’re great for cured preparations such as gravlax.
  • Sockeye Salmon get their name from a Halkomelem word from the indigenous people of British Columbia. Nothing to do with either socks or eyes. Known for their deep red flesh and full flavor, they are quite small, which makes them difficult to cook—thinner filets are prone to overcooking.
  • Arctic Char are… not salmon. But they have a similar reddish-orange flesh colored by the carotenoid pigments they get from feasting on small shellfish. Their flavor and cooking qualities are quite similar to Sockeye Salmon, though they tend to be a little fattier.

In general, I prefer larger, fattier King Salmon for high-heat cooking methods like pan roasting. Their thicker size and higher fat content offer a little more protection from overcooking or drying out, things that salmon is prone to do in the high heat of a pan or an oven.

That said, any salmon will do as long as you are careful with how you treat it.

Bad Salmon Playbook

There’s an unholy trinity of fates that can befall salmon. If you’ve ever cooked salmon, these are probably all too familiar a site: