The key to perfect pan-seared salmon
Pan-searing salmon sounds straightforward: Just add a little oil to a nonstick pan, get it good and hot, season a couple of fillets, and cook them until they’re cooked through and nicely browned on the exterior but still pink on the inside, right?
There are two issues with this technique: The fish cooks unevenly, and the exteriors of the fillets end up more tough than crisp.
We knew we could do better, so we set out to create a simple recipe that took advantage of the intense heat of the skillet to produce a golden-brown, ultra-crisp crust on salmon fillets while keeping their interiors moist.
The solution to the dryness problem was relatively easy: salt. We salt and brine meat all the time, and both techniques apply just as well to fish. Beyond seasoning the flesh, the salt also helps keep it moist.
A 15-minute brine did both, and as long as we patted the fillets dry with paper towels before cooking, we found that the treatment didn’t significantly inhibit browning.
To make sure the fish browned nicely and cooked evenly, we started skin-on fillets in a cold pan and then turned on the heat. This allowed the fish to cook through gently as the pan slowly came up to temperature.
We then flipped the fillets over after the skillet was good and hot so they could form a crust and finish cooking through. And the skin shed enough fat as it cooked that we didn’t need to add a single drop of oil to the pan.
This salmon was excellent with just a squirt of lemon, but we also whipped up a mango-mint salsa to go along with it. The salsa’s bright flavors balanced the salmon’s richness, and it added mere minutes to this quick, weeknight meal.
Pan-Seared Salmon with Mango-Mint Salsa
For the salmon:
- Kosher salt
- 4 (6- to 8-ounce) skin-on salmon fillets
For the salsa:
- 1 mango, peeled, pitted, and cut into ¼-inch pieces
- 1 shallot, minced
- 3 tablespoons juice from 2 limes
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
- 1 jalapeño chile, stemmed, seeds reserved, and minced
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- ½ teaspoon salt
Dissolve ½ cup salt in 2 quarts water in a large container. Submerge salmon in brine and let stand at room temperature for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, combine all sauce ingredients in a bowl and set aside.
Remove salmon from brine and pat dry with paper towels. Sprinkle the bottom of a 12-inch nonstick skillet evenly with ½ teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon pepper. Place fillets, skin side down, in the skillet and sprinkle tops of fillets with ¼ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper.
Heat skillet over medium-high heat and cook fillets without moving them until fat begins to render, skin begins to brown, and the bottom ¼ inch of fillets turns opaque, 6 to 8 minutes.
Using tongs, flip fillets and continue to cook without moving them until the centers are still translucent when checked with tip of a paring knife and register 125° F on a meat thermometer, 6 to 8 minutes longer. Transfer fillets skin side down to a serving platter and let rest for 5 minutes before serving with salsa.
Recipe notes: To ensure uniform cooking, buy a 1½ to 2-pound center-cut salmon fillet and cut it into four pieces. Using skin-on salmon is important here, as we rely on the fat underneath the skin as the cooking medium (as opposed to adding extra oil).
If using wild salmon, cook it until it registers 120° F. If you don’t want to serve the fish with the skin, peel it off after it is cooked.
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