Saturday, February 7, 2009

Recipe: Pan-Seared Salmon in Cast Iron

Pan-seared salmon with a wedge of lemon

This recipe is really simple. And really tasty. All you need is a cast iron skillet and some salmon, salt, and pepper.  I like skin-on filets, but you can use skinless salmon filets, or salmon steaks.

Pan searing salmon with the skin on helps hold in the flavor. Also, right next to the salmon skin is gray flesh, which is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and tends to keep the salmon filet more tender.

The key to just about any salmon recipe is to not overcook your salmon. Salmon filets that are an inch and a half thick (3.8 cm) can go from "almost perfect" to "dry and tough" in about two minutes at stove-top skillet temperatures. Also, unless your guests are seated and all side dishes served, your salmon filets may sit around for 5-10 minutes prior to being consumed (this is where a lot of otherwise perfectly-cooked filets cook through to over-doneness).

For these reasons, while I provide rough times as guidelines, you must check your salmon filets for doneness about every 30 seconds right at the end. And if you can't drop your filets right onto plates in front of seated guests, you need to compensate by under-cooking the salmon just a little bit.

No one wants their pan-seared salmon quivering and cold, but you can always put an under-cooked salmon filet back on the heat. Once it's over-cooked, you're hosed. Remember: salmon (or sake) is one of the most popular sushi choices in the United States.

Any recipe that promises time-based doneness guidance is full of you-know-what. There are just too many factors that affect the speed with which salmons filet cook through. While some factors are obvious... like cooking temperature and filet thickness, things like burner heat distribution, initial filet temperature, and timing-to-flip play a huge role.

BOTTOM LINE: If you want perfectly-cooked salmon, you have to peer inside your filets as they cook in order judge doneness.

You'll do your doneness-checking with a sharp knife. Ideally you'll slice right between two "flakes" of flesh, and hardly make a noticeable mark. And in any case, your guests will always prefer a slightly-marred-but-perfectly-cooked salmon filet to one that's immaculate looking but overcooked. I promise.

Of course, you can always cover your slightly-marred-but-perfectly-cooked salmon filets with a sauce. Or just strategically add butter, lemon juice, or herbs on top after cooking.

Note: Not sure what type of salmon to buy? Check out my discussion (rant) on salmon varieties.


Generously salt and pepper your filets
Ingredients
  • Salmon filets (1 per person)
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Olive Oil
Procedure
Heat a cast iron skillet on medium heat.

While the skillet is heating up, salt and pepper the flesh (non-skin) side of the salmon filets generously. You want a good teaspoon of kosker salt (half that with table salt) on each salmon filet. About a half teaspoon of cracked black pepper (or 1/8 teaspoon of ground) should do it.

If you're using skinless filets or steaks, season both sides generously.

When your cast iron skillet is just starting to smoke (after perhaps 5-7 minutes), add a tablespoon or two of oil, and spread it around to cover the entire cooking surface. Immediately add the salmon filets skin side up.

Sear the salmon for 2-3 minutes until each filet is browned a bit on the underside. Flip the filets so they are skin side down.

Cover the skillet and continue cooking. Check the interior salmon flesh for doneness every 30 seconds or so once you've made the flip and 3 minutes have elapsed.

If you're using skinless filets or steaks, the cooking at this stage happens even more quickly.


As soon as the darker, not fully-cooked (middle-portion) of the filet is less than a quarter of the total filet thickness, pull the salmon and serve immediately.

The fish will keep cooking once removed from heat, and ideally the filet is just starting to cook through in the middle as it is being eaten.

Remember, you can always put it back in the skillet for a minute if it isn't quite done enough. Once it is over-cooked, you're hosed.

Enjoy!

34 comments:

  1. I like my salmon pretty well cooked through. Do you have a sauce recommendation to keep it moist?

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    1. Try an Italian salsa verde . Fresh Italian parsley, lemon juice, salt pepper. Blend in food processor.

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    2. Sounds delicious! Thanks for the recommendation.

      -Derek

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    3. Chimichuri works nicely too.

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    4. I wholeheartedly agree...

      Thanks!

      -Derek

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  2. I'm a big fan of melted butter, a little fresh dill, and some lemon juice.

    Shooting form the hip, I'd say melt 1 T of butter per filet in the microwave (it melts quickly!), and then add say 1 t of lemon juice per filet, plus 1 t of chopped fresh dill (or less of dried dill).

    Teriyaki sauce is also a good accompaniment to salmon.

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  3. Derek is pretty good from the hip! I would concur with that. Try a drop or two of honey as well and perhaps a dash of garlic powder. Perhaps a drop or two of dijon mustard as well. Another possibility to mix things up might be a touch of apple juice or orange juice concentrate (with the honey and lemon juice and butter).

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  4. Agreed on Josh's additions! (only a year or so late...) ; - )

    -Derek

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  5. Just returned to FL from Seward with 60 lbs of silver and 90 lbs of halibut. I am new to cooking fish other than wrapped in foil on the grill. I am roasting some veggies and preparing to pan sear my salmon as I type this.
    Thanks for the info! Becky

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  6. Hi Becky,

    Silver out of Resurrection Bay is delicious. How did it turn out? The biggest challenge is to pull the fish off heat before it is cooked... knowing it will cook by the time it is served. Would love to hear how it went.

    -Derek

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  7. I love cast iron pans, love your site.
    This was my first time cooking salmon and your recipe and advice came through perfectly.

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  8. Hey Matt,

    Thanks for stopping by. Glad it worked out!

    -D

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  9. Thanks Derek, great recipe. I've been experimenting with the cast iron pan cooking up some salmon I caught on a fishing trip. Your suggestions (leave skin on, cover it once you flip to the skin-side) turned out perfectly!

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  10. Hey Dave,

    Glad to hear it worked out. Thanks for stopping by!

    -Derek

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  11. I'm glad that I stumbled onto your blog. I'm new to cast iron cooking and frankly I'm borderline obsessed now.
    As for the cast iron Salmon, nothing comes close to its greatness. Yes, not even steak.

    Thanks for the great work.

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  12. Thanks for stopping by 1Bigg_ER... and welcome to the obsession!

    -Derek

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  13. Great site! My husband and I went 5 days without power in an ice storm this winter and used our cast iron for the first time as it was the only thing I felt okay cooking with on top of the wood stove. It's been over a month since and now I won't cook with any other pot or pan in my kitchen! So happy to have found your site to continue to expand my love of this cookware. I made your salmon recipe tonight and am off to try some popcorn! :) thanks a ton!

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  14. Hey kniles23,

    Glad to hear that you've grown fond of your cast iron. Once you figure it out, you wonder why you cooked on anything else! Thanks for your comment, and let me know if you have any questions. Thanks!

    -Derek

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  15. Genius! Apparently I have had nothing but overcooked salmon my whole life! I cooked my salmon last night in my cast iron skillet and let me tell you, it was so moist and flavorful! Paired it with a side of veggies and I was in business. Thank you for your wonderful tutorial on how to PROPERLY cook salmon :) Making this again for my parents when they come visit next week!

    -Ellen

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  16. Hi Ellen,

    I'm so pleased that you've finally been rescued from over-cooked salmon! I have no doubt that your parents will love your cast iron salmon. In addition to the veggies, I think salmon goes great with rice. Thanks for stopping by!

    -Derek

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  17. Hi Derek,

    Went to google, searched how to make salmon on a skillet, and bam!

    Just made my first salmon ever and it was delicious!

    I'm a 22 year old bachelor experimenting with cooking.

    Just wanted to say thanks!

    -jimmy

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  18. Hi Jimmy,

    Glad to hear it worked out! I was a 22 year-old bachelor once... and ended up in Alaska with a job as a cook.

    ; - )

    Thanks for stopping by!

    -Derek

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  19. I'm very grateful for this advice. I just finished eating the best salmon I've ever cooked! Appreciated the general advice and timing, and what to look for...instead of the prescribed time that gives no room for flexibility. I'll be using this technique again soon...

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  20. Glad to hear it! Cooking by the clock never made sense to me...

    Thanks for stopping by.

    -Derek

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  21. Perfect... Thanks

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  22. Thank you for these instructions! I recently started using cast iron cookware after purging all things non-stick and unnatural. Bacon and eggs have been a staple, and now that the bacon has served its pan-seasoning purpose, I am ready to expand my horizons and try new things with the cast iron. I seared a nice local (I live in Alaska) Sockeye salmon fillet last night using Celtic sea salt and a freshly ground organic citrus pepper blend with both unfiltered olive oil and Irish butter - all I can say is it was divine! Thank you for helping me along and I look forward to trying more of your recipes!

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    1. Hi Margaret,

      You're welcome! Whereabouts in Alaska are you? (I used to live in Ketchikan and Cooper Landing). I do miss the fresh seafood. I'm glad your cast iron sockeye turned out well!

      Thanks for stopping by.

      -Derek

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    2. I live in the hills just outside of Fairbanks up in the Interior of the state. I've been here a little over sixteen years; I'm originally from the Chicago area. I was in Ketchikan once years ago - a nice little town. I bet you enjoyed wonderful super-fresh seafood there! Thanks again for this very helpful site - the Sockeye was superb!

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    3. Nice! Love it up there. Thanks for stopping by!

      -Derek

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  23. How do I get the salmon smell out of my Lodge cast iron skillet? I've tried lemon, just boiling water, detergent. But it lingers. I feel like I can't use it for anything else now.

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    1. Hi Anne,

      The smell lingers for the next time or two that you use the skillet, but I've never had it actually flavor the food (heating up the pan just releases a little bit of fish smell). If you've given your skillet a good scrubbing with a plastic brush/scrubber and hot water, you should be fine. Please let me know if your mileage varies substantially!

      Thanks.

      -Derek

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  24. Perfect recipe. I picked up a lodge set 6 months ago and it changed how I operate in the kitchen. Thanks for this website Derek.

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    Replies
    1. Glad to hear it! Thanks for stopping by.

      -Derek

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