When it comes to simple, quick-cooking weeknight meals, salmon fillets always have a place in my lineup. This foolproof technique delivers a perfect medium-cooked fillet that’s tender and flaky with deliciously crispy pan-seared skin.
Buying the salmon: When cooking salmon in the oven or on the grill, one large piece of fish works well. But when pan-searing on the stove, opt for individual fillets – they’re easier to handle. One 6- to 8-ounce fillet per person is a good amount.
The best pan: While it’s not the only way, we prefer a large stainless-steel or cast-iron skillet. Make sure the pan is large and wide enough to accommodate the fillets without overcrowding. Because the best results happen when the fish is cooked on a super-hot surface, skip the nonstick cookware for this job.
Super-crispy skin: The best thing about pan-seared salmon (in addition to a no-fuss process and super-quick cook time) is the skin. When cooked any other way, fish skin is kind of unappetizing. But when a fillet is perfectly pan-seared, it’s a different story. The skin is thin, brittle and savory, on par with really good potato chips or bacon. Follow these three rules and you'll get perfectly crispy skin every time:
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1. Always start with room-temperature fillets. Cold salmon fillets straight from the refrigerator are not a friend of a screaming hot pan. When cold fish is added to a hot pan, the fillets immediately seize up and are more likely to cook unevenly. Instead, remove the fish from the refrigerator about 15 to 20 minutes before you’re ready to start cooking.
2. Make sure the fillets are dry. Before adding the salmon fillets to the pan, use a paper towel or a clean dish towel to pat each one dry. When the fillets are moist or wet, they’re more likely to stick, and the skin won’t crispy as nicely.
3. Use a really hot pan. A hot pan and high heat don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Keep the flame around medium to medium-high, but before anything touches the pan, let it get hot – like, really hot. Pour in a thin layer of oil and heat until it shimmers. Then add the fish and let it do its thing.
Start skin down: While the salmon will cook on both sides, always start by adding the fish to the pan skin-side down. The skin is tough and durable, and can withstand more time on the hot surface without overcooking.
Use your eyes: When pan-searing, the bulk of the cooking takes place while the salmon is skin-side down. After it’s been cooking for a few minutes, you'll start to notice the color of the fillet slowly begin to change. Starting from the bottom, where the skin touches the pan, and working its way up along the sides, you'll see the flesh lighten from deep, dark pink to a much paler color.
This is your indicator for how the cooking is progressing. Once the color change has moved up about three-quarters of the way from the bottom, it’s time to flip. Since the bulk of cooking has already happened, the salmon will just cook for a couple minutes longer. You'll get a tender and flaky piece of salmon, cooked perfectly to medium, with super-crispy skin.
Pan-Seared Salmon Fillets
2 (6-ounce) salmon fillets
1 tablespoon canola or vegetable oil
Remove the fillets from the refrigerator about 15 minutes before you’re ready to cook. Use a paper towel or clean dish towel to pat each fillet dry, both on top and bottom, to prevent them from sticking to the pan.
Place a stainless-steel or cast-iron skillet on the stove over medium-high heat, and let the pan heat for a couple minutes. Flick a few drops of water into the pan to test if it’s hot enough; it should sizzle and evaporate almost immediately.
Once the pan is hot, add 1 tablespoon oil to the pan. Tilt the skillet so a thin layer of oil coats the bottom. Heat until you see ripples across the oil, but not long enough that it smokes.
Season the fillets with salt, then carefully place them in the skillet, skin down. Cook without disturbing (no poking, prodding or moving) until the fillets begin to change color 3/4 of the way up, about 4 minutes for each 1/2 inch of thickness, or 8 to 9 minutes for thick fillets and 6 to 7 minutes for thinner fillets.
Use a fish spatula to flip the fillets, turning the fish away from you to prevent splatter. Cook 2 minutes for thicker fillets and 1 to 2 minutes for thinner fillets. Remove the fillets from the pan and transfer to a paper towel-lined plate, placing the salmon skin-side down. Let stand about 3 minutes before serving.
Yield: 2 servings.