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Matching Flavors and Methods with Salmon

Fine Cooking Issue 57
Photo: Scott Phillips
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With its bold, rich flavor and buttery texture, salmon can take on many personalities, depending on the seasoning and the cooking method. Yet despite its versatility, salmon doesn’t work with just anything. This fish is best paired with ingredients that can both highlight and temper its somewhat pronounced flavor. Today’s farm-raised salmon (the kind most widely available in grocery stores, but not your only option; see the panel below) has a particularly fatty, almost marbled texture, so it takes well to assertive cooking methods, too.  

Choose your cooking method first; then decide how you’ll season your salmon. If you’re going to broil, roast, or grill the fish, you’ll want hearty seasonings, herbs, and vegetables, since the fatty flavors in salmon intensify with these methods and need to be balanced by other strong flavors. Rosemary and thyme, as well as many root vegetables, go well with broiled or roasted salmon. Bold Asian flavors, like sesame and ginger, pair well with grilled salmon, whether in a sauce or a marinade.  

When it’s poached or braised, either on the stovetop or in the oven, salmon takes on a lighter, more delicate flavor, so use more delicately flavored herbs, as well as citrus fruits. And while cheese doesn’t fare well with salmon because it’s so rich and creamy, some dairy products, like sour cream and crème fraîche, actually tame and complement salmon’s fishy flavor. I especially like those flavors with poached or braised salmon.  

You also might want to consider how many people you’re serving when deciding how to cook salmon. If you’re cooking for a crowd, roasting or broiling several fillets together is easy; if it’s just you and a guest or two, pan searing, à la minute, is a fine option. So while the Oven-Braised Salmon in Lemon-Tarragon Crème Fraîche on or the Broiled Salmon with Lentil Ragoût are ideal entertaining dishes, I’d stick to one or two close friends when cooking the Salmon in Crispy Rice Paper.

Shopping for salmon

In years past, salmon was a specialty we enjoyed in summer and early fall. But farm-raising has changed that, making salmon available year-round, as well as less expensive. Salmon’s health benefits (a high percentage of Omega-3 oils and vitamins A and B) have also helped make it popular. With so much salmon on the market, it helps to know what you’re buying.

Farmed vs. wild salmon. You’re most likely to find farmed salmon in your grocery store, but if you keep your eyes open (or ask for it), you might find wild salmon. Farmed salmon has a rich, fatty texture, while wild salmon has a leaner texture and a more complex flavor, so it mustn’t be overcooked. Look for wild Alaskan salmon, which is available nationwide throughout the year.

Check freshness. Regardless of the type of salmon you buy, be sure it’s fresh. Variations in color are natural, but no matter the hue, the skin is the best indicator of freshness: It should be shiny and silver. Also, the flesh shouldn’t be “gapping” (flaking apart with apparent holes)—a sign of aging. If possible, buy your salmon from a reputable fish market. Look for fish with the skin on (it’s freshest) and ask the fishmonger to remove it for you.

Buy a side and cut your own fillets. The recipes here call for fillets, which are cut from a side of salmon (steaks are cut from a whole fish). I like to buy part of a side and cut the fillets myself. For 6- to 7-ounce portions, cut strips 1-1/2 to 2 inches wide; cut wider pieces from the flatter part of the salmon side. If the side of salmon is very wide, cut it in half down the middle first and then cut square portions.


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