Help Me Make Better Salmon and Trout
August 9, 2011 11:39 AM   Subscribe

Cooks of Ask Metafilter... I need some help with cooking fish. I like to make salmon (or trout) frequently, but I have a hard time doing it right.

I tend to bake in the oven. I have a nice fish rub, and I usually slice up lemons and cook the fish on a bed of lemon slices. So far, so good.

Where I have difficulty is knowing how long to cook a piece of fish, depending on the weight/size of pieces I have. I also have temperature issues, in that I'm not very positive what's an ideal temperature I should be cooking the fish at (for the respective size/weight).

I have a friend, who's a brilliant cook, but her advice on these matters extends about as far as "Well, you just know when it's done, you know?" ... I don't.

What this all results in is that I'm pretty damn inconsistent. Sometimes the fish comes out perfect, sometimes it's downright bad. Hope me!
posted by smitt to Food & Drink (24 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
FWIW every time I think I undercooked it, it's just right. Every time I think I cooked it just right, it's overcooked. I'd say pull it from the over at around 125-130F (it will still rise a few degrees after). If it's too well done or not enough, make a note of it and adjust accordingly next time.
posted by jclovebrew at 11:47 AM on August 9, 2011

posted by jclovebrew at 11:47 AM on August 9, 2011

are you baking it, poaching it, broiling it, parchment paper-ing it, ___ ? Skin on or skin off ? Filets or steaks ?

Generally, salmon fillets are easy to tell when cooked - stab the thickest part with a fork and see if it separates cleanly, and if the center is still raw or not. Other fish are similar - has it gone from translucent to opaque in color ?

I don't usually cook fish to temperature. I grill, fry or oven-poach it. In the oven, it's something like 350 for 20 min. Unless the fish is extremely thick or thin, the time/temp from a cookbook is pretty good rule of thumb.
posted by k5.user at 11:50 AM on August 9, 2011

One tip, don't bake it in the oven. Just get a pan and cook it on the stove, that way you can see/touch it without having to open the oven.
posted by theichibun at 11:50 AM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I get the big slabs of salmon from Costco, which range, down the length of the fish, from quite thick to not that thick. I cut it into portions (usually three) based on the thickness, so I'll have a piece that's quite thick, a piece that's of average thickness, and a piece that's not that thick.

Prepare a tray (I like to put down aluminum foil first, but that's because I'm lazy and don't like scrubbing fish greasies off of my tray) with a small pour of olive oil. Stick a piece of salmon on the dab of olive oil and kind of smear it around. Pour some olive oil on the top of the salmon and massage it in. Sprinkle with salt, lemon pepper, and rosemary.

Put in the oven on BROIL. For the quite thick pieces, we do about 10-12 minutes. For the average thickness pieces, 7-10 minutes. For the not that thick pieces, no more than 7 minutes.

If there's any undercooked part in the middle when it's done, I eat around it and save the undercooked part for lunch leftovers, since it'll cook more when I reheat it the next day anyway.

Do not overcook it. It's better to have the middle be a little underdone than to destroy the edges. You can always dismantle it and put the undercooked part back in the oven if it needs more time.
posted by phunniemee at 11:53 AM on August 9, 2011

It's done when it flakes easily when you gently poke at it with a fork.

Cover with yogurt (mango yogurt is great with salmon) - it'll increase the time window of "just done" and "overcooked" and doesn't leave a yogurt taste to the fish at all, just whatever fruits are in it. On a grill (bbq), use the lowest setting. In an oven, 300'F to 350'F depending on the thickness (lower for thicker).

If you're pan frying, season as normal, then dredge in corn starch. Use a little more oil than you need. It's done when it flakes easily - the corn starch leaves a (very thin) crispy crust and also increase the time window for "done" and not "overcooked."

One of my favourite flavours; fermented black bean and minced garlic. This is more suitable for white-ish fish (various black/rock cod is great).

If there are bones, the fish is done just when the flesh will flake off the bone.

Also, it'll continue cooking for a couple of minutes after you take it out of the oven, so ever-so-slightly undercooked --> perfect.

Yeah, fish can be really hard especially if you're steaming such that you can't go poking at it without screwing up the steam temperature/pressure. A trick to get just-underdone fish to perfect is to heat up some oil in a skillet (maybe toss in some shredded ginger and green onions) until boiling. Pour hot oil over fish.
posted by porpoise at 12:04 PM on August 9, 2011

For salmon and trout, I like the method described here - 250F for 25-30 minutes or so. Sure, you don't get a caramelized crust, but I don't miss it. I usually just dot some butter on the top, sprinkle with dill before baking, and add a squeeze of lemon at the end. Leftovers are excellent both cold and reheated.
posted by raxast at 12:14 PM on August 9, 2011

every time I think I undercooked it, it's just right
This is an excellent rule of thumb for just about any seafood.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:19 PM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hate to say it but: buy Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything. Very basic and easy ways to cook fish.
posted by sully75 at 12:22 PM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've had luck with this approach from Angerburger, similar to the one raxast describes. Hard to mess up, and her recipes are always super detailed which I like, especially if I'm cooking something I'm unsure about. Plus her blog is rad!
posted by stellaluna at 12:33 PM on August 9, 2011

I love the advice about undercooking = just right and done = overdone.

I do my salmon filets in a skillet with butter (or olive oil), salt and pepper. Just 4-5 minutes per side is all they need.
posted by emelenjr at 12:50 PM on August 9, 2011

I disagree that it's done when it flakes with the fork. It's done shortly before it flakes with the fork. Go for slightly underdone.

Also, adjust your cooking time according to the thickness of the filet, not its weight per se.

I always cook fish in a pan, so I don't have baking-specific advice, sorry!
posted by mskyle at 12:53 PM on August 9, 2011

The brilliant Bittman also wrote a book called "Fish," which contains 500 (!) fish recipes.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 1:04 PM on August 9, 2011

On the grill: use the poke test. You'll feel the flesh start to firm up, and then you'll know you're done. There will always be carry-over time, so bear than in mind and don't cook 'till well done (besides, well done is gross).

In an oven: a very forgiving method is to cook in a foil packet. Pre-heat your oven to about 325F and pop in a packet with a portion or two, seasoning (I generally just salt and pepper) plus whatever aromatics you care to use (have you considered a bed of fennel?). Depending on the size of your filet, you won't have to wait longer than 20-25 minutes before you're done. When the packets puff up, pull them out, then finish your sides. Again, there's carry-over time, so if you let it sit in the packet for a few minutes, it will likely be in perfect shape by the time you cut it open.
posted by Gilbert at 1:11 PM on August 9, 2011

You could always home cure the salmon or trout, avoiding the cooking altogether.
posted by rhymer at 2:20 PM on August 9, 2011

I advocate pan frying until you really get a sense for how to check doneness.

I also hate the advice about "flake it and if it's not cooked keep cooking it" because you destroy the integrity of the fillet and often lose the natural juice. With halibut (which is what I tend to cook most), there are a few ways I know. First, I gently press down on the middle of the fillet; I'm looking for a bit of firmness - if it feels like jello, it's not done.

The other way is that there's this amazing moment where the fish just relaxes. You can actually see it - it starts to separate at the flakes a bit, like someone has cut the connective tissue from one to the next. Almost like iceburgs gently drifting away.
posted by guster4lovers at 2:22 PM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

For salmon I like 425 for 15 minutes for pieces that are like a slightly thicker version of my hand. There are slight variations in the outcome, but generally they turn out on the 'medium' side of 'medium rare.'

If you're not adding a little sugar to your rub, do, it helps a darker crust. I like half as much brown sugar as salt.

Also, oil, but I'm assuming that's a given. If not, a tablespoon of some sort of fat per filet/steak.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:32 PM on August 9, 2011

This method is from Eric Ripert. What he does is to insert a metal skewer into the thickest part of the fish, then touch it to his upper lip. The skewer will be warm if the fish is done, but if it's overcooked it will burn* (and you will be punished!).

*not badly; I've done this myself.
posted by Lycaste at 2:57 PM on August 9, 2011

If you really want consistent results, you need to use a thermometer. Ideally, a nice instant read one. I've been very happy with this one. Start checking the temperature of the thickest part of the fish 5-10 minutes before you think it will be done. Remember that the temp will rise a few degrees after you take it off heat. Maybe aim for 125 deg and see if that's to your liking.

You can try all the methods of poking/cutting in to/flaking meat and fish, but in my opinion, no home cook is ever going to get better, more consistent results than with an instant read thermometer. I find cooking times mostly useless for meat and fish- the thickness of your cuts is always going to vary, not to mention your oven/grill/stove temperature. Thermometer. Thermometer. Thermometer.
posted by rebeccabeagle at 2:59 PM on August 9, 2011

every time I think I undercooked it, it's just right

This is an excellent rule of thumb for just about any seafood.

It's an excellent rule of thumb for any food, especially any meat. There's an inertia involved with the heat, and food will continue to cook after it's remove from the heat source. You have to account for that or everything will be overcooked.

Also, you should let any meat sit for a few minutes before you cut it. It let's the meat "tighten up" and redistribute the juices all the way to through the cut. Even if you overcooked it, it will be moister than if you cut it right away.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 4:01 PM on August 9, 2011

Salt and pepper. 15 mins under the broiler, middle rack. Turn oven off and leave in oven for another 15 mins. Don't open the door. I usually do this with 1 - 1.5 pound fillet.

Zero effort. Perfect every time.
posted by humboldt32 at 9:20 PM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've got a different approach here: Go low and slow, as Jacques P├ępin does in this recipe.

It's very hard to mess this up or to overcook the fish with this method.
posted by yellowcandy at 10:59 PM on August 9, 2011

I find it odd that no one has mentioned the low and slow method for fatty fish like salmon. Take a 250-300F oven, check after 12 or so minutes, then every 6 minutes thereafter. Don't flip. Cook to 120. Gets an almost custardy texture. Can also be done on a gas grill, just put the fish away from the heat source.
posted by wnissen at 7:45 AM on August 10, 2011

wnissen...look up one comment.
posted by yellowcandy at 9:49 AM on August 10, 2011

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