When I first started cooking as an undergrad, I clearly had no idea what I was doing because I hated salmon. I tried to like them because they are “healthy or whatever” but I came to a point where I just couldn’t do it anymore. I bought them frozen, chucked them in the oven straight from frozen (*wide-eyed gasp*), and, fearing food-borne illnesses, WAY overcooked them. Tough, dry, rubbery. Gross. While sushi continued to be my favourite food on the planet, I straight up stopped eating cooked fish, and it wasn’t something that I tended to order at restaurants.
A few years later, I thought I’d give fish another go. Over many, MANY iterations, I have perfected my foolproof way of pan-frying a fillet of salmon in my cast iron skillet. Flaky, juicy, unctuous. How salmon should be treated! Now I eat salmon or some type of fish at least five times per month. It is an excellent source of protein and fats (the “good” kind), and an essential part of the Mediterranean diet, oft-cited as the key to wellbeing and longevity. In other words, eat fish = live long (hopefully; not medical advice).
I’ll be honest: this is not something you should expect to get perfect on your first try. My recipe should serve as anticipatory guidance rather than a calculated algorithm. That’s because there are multiple factors in cooking your salmon just right, including fillet thickness and your pan’s heat capacity. You need to get to know your “main bitch” skillet really really well—how quickly she heats up, cools down, where the oil tends to pool, and where the hot and cool spots are.
If you have not already, hopefully I can convince you to acquire a cast iron skillet. I use my baby for essentially anything that needs a good sizzle/sear/fat rendering. It is also oven-safe for recipes requiring stovetop-to-oven transfers. Food ALWAYS tastes better cooked on iron and you will be less likely to suffer from iron-deficiency anemia (hellooooo ladies of childbearing age). Lastly, it is virtually indestructible. My hardy little cast iron that I rescued from an antique store in Ganonoque is in it for the long haul with me, through thick and thin.
Choosing Your Fish
I always go for fresh salmon instead of frozen. If you go for frozen, be sure to thaw in the refrigerator overnight. Choose your fillets based on the latest “best before” date written.
The pre-cut fillets packaged at Loblaws usually come large enough for 2-3 servings, so I slice them with a sharp knife, going through the skin side first. Important that your knife is sharp!
Be sure to dab the fish of any excess moisture before generously seasoning with salt and pepper on all sides. And I mean generous.
This is where you are required to develop a bit of intuition, and that comes with practice. All of the senses need to be tuned in to know in your heart that everything is going right. The pan needs to reach its intended temperature (i.e., not still heating up) before you add the oil. The oil then needs to reach its intended temperature. The fillet goes into the oil skin side down, and immediately you should hear a gentle sizzle. If you don’t, it’s too early. At no point should you smell burning. If you do, turn down the heat.
Then, when it’s time, you will flip the fillets skin side up, and turn down the heat. You’ve got the crispy skin you wanted, now it’s time to cook the fish, low and slow.
Here’s my loose formula for a 3-4 cm thick fillet (at the thickest point):
- Skin side down on medium x 5 minutes.
- Skin side up on medium-low x 3 minutes.
- Then 1 minute on each remaining side. (Total time on heat = 10 minutes)
Again, the exact heat level and duration may differ depending on the fillet and your pan. I’d rather eat slightly underdone fish than slightly overdone, and it’s a pretty fine balance. For the record, I have yet to give myself food poisoning from my own food.
Here’s an example of why cooking the sides is important, particularly in fillets that are as thick as they are wide:
To Marinate or Not?
I often eat pan-fried salmon as is, just seasoned with salt and pepper. But sometimes, I do like to add a glaze (as in this recipe). Most online saucy fish recipes will tell you to marinate your fish for hours in that sauce. Personally, I am not a fan of marinating fish and I’ll tell you why: marinating kills crispy skins. That crispy skin is so insanely scrumptious that I would much rather forego the negligible degree of flavour penetration into the meat for dat skin. Marination absolutely has its place in cooking, but it is not here. I like nothing to stand in the way between the fish and the hot, oiled pan to maximize that Maillard reaction to take place. Plus, marinating takes a lot more advance planning than I usually care for on weekdays.
So instead, I fry the fish, remove them from the pan, then add the glaze to reduce, and finally dunk the fish back in to the glaze for a quick coating or simply spoon over the fish dish.
Full Recipe: Perfectly Pan-Fried Salmon with Honey Mustard Glaze
fresh salmon fillet (approx. 200-250 grams, 4 centimetres at its thickest point)
fine sea salt
freshly cracked pepper
high smoke point oil (I use avocado)
1/4 cup whole grain mustard
1/8 cup honey
3 cloves garlic, crushed or minced
1 tablespoon water
- Dab the salmon fillet well with paper towels to remove excess moisture, then place skin side up on a cutting board. Using a very sharp knife, slice the fillet in half. Then, generally season with salt and pepper on all of the sides.
- Heat a cast iron skillet on medium.
- While it is heating up, prepare the glaze. Combine the whole grain mustard, honey, and garlic in a small bowl and mix. Add a little bit of water to thin. Set aside.
- When the skillet is heated, add a good glug of oil. Let the oil heat. Then, place the fillets skin side down, with ample space between them. You should hear a gentle sizzle. If you don’t, your skillet/oil is not hot enough—remove the fillets and wait a little longer. Once the skin hits the skillet, set the timer to 5 minutes and do not disturb.
- At the 5-minute mark, gently lift one of the fillets with a pair of tongs to check how the skin looks. It should look crispy and you should see golden brown spots (on the white scales, harder to see on the darker scales). If not quite there, cook for an additional 1-2 minutes.
- When you like how that skin looks, turn the heat down between low and medium-low. Flip the fillets over, skin side up now. Set the timer to 3 minutes.
- When the timer’s up, gently turn the fillets on one side and cook for 1 minute. Then, flip to the other side and cook for 1 minute. Be quite gentle as the fillets will be very flaky at this point (a.k.a. hea-ven-ly) and will start to crumble. You will know it’s done cooking when it flakes with the slightest pressure. Remove the fillets from pan and set aside.
- Drain any excess oil. Add the glaze to the pan. Using a wooden spoon, stir and scrape off any browned fishy bits (a.k.a. flavour bombs) from the bottom. Once bubbling starts (should be almost immediately), turn heat to low low. Reduce to your desired thickness.
- Return the fillets back into the pan, gently roll in the glaze or spoon the glaze over the fish. Serve with roasted vegetables and whole grains (asparagus and quinoa are solid options).