How "done" should restaurant salmon be?
September 26, 2011 3:33 PM   Subscribe

How "done" should restaurant salmon be? How should my friend ask for it to be less done?

A friend and I both like salmon and often order it when we eat out. She always complains that hers is overdone. I have only felt mine was overdone once (and underdone once) that I can remember in the 30+ times I have ordered it. Is one of us "correct" or is it just a matter of preference, like with steak? When I felt it was overdone, it was chewy and when I felt it was underdone, it was translucent in the middle. I like it flaky but opaque. Whenever I have seen her overdone salmon, it has been opaque but did not look chewy.

Secondly, I'd like to point it out to her that she is rarely satisfied with salmon that she orders and am wondering if she can ask for it to be underdone. I can imagine some places will just say no to undercooking meat, but are there magic words or phrases that will describe the level of doneness she is hoping for?
posted by soelo to Food & Drink (22 answers total)
Just like with a steak, she can order her fish "rare". Depending on the restaurant, she may be flat-at ignored, but she can try.
posted by brainmouse at 3:37 PM on September 26, 2011

I'm not an expert, but a lot seems to do with how fresh the fish is. And in most restaurants, the answer will likely be "not very."

Really fresh salmon is great at that just-a-hair-past-translucent stage. Cooking it too much past this point dries it out.

I guess the rest is just personal preference.
posted by Rykey at 3:42 PM on September 26, 2011

...aaaaand I should probably answer your question when posting.

You might want to ask to have the salmon done "medium." In my experience working in restaurants anyhow, that would communicate that you want the fish done "less than flaky and dry," but still fully cooked.
posted by Rykey at 3:47 PM on September 26, 2011

I could swear we had done this question already, with some lady in a restaurant sending it back and the general conclusion being that she was crazy and should listen to the chef.
posted by biffa at 3:51 PM on September 26, 2011

It's increasingly common to cook fish to less than well-done. Salmon is lagging behind tuna on the front, but it's also going down the path. It's not so common that you'll be asked how you want it done, but if you're getting it slightly translucent in the middle, of example, that may be intentional, not accidental. If she's the more up-to-the-moment eater, and she's all on top of the idea that salmon need not be opaque all the way through, she may not enjoy the more old school preparation of it.

So, I'd say it's a mix of different tastes and the fact that salmon is in transition in terms of typical menu presentations.
posted by jacquilynne at 3:51 PM on September 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Salmon with a lower fat content will probably taste as though it were overcooked. The secret is make sure you order wild salmon, such as coho or sockeye.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:58 PM on September 26, 2011

Yes. Sockeye is awesome this way. I ask for it medium rare all the time.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 4:06 PM on September 26, 2011

I think there's a hip/trendy factor in all this: Better restaurants tend to serve salmon in a way that once would have been called underdone. But now they're influenced by two newish factors: The widespread acceptance of sushi and sashimi (ie, raw fish) and the availability--to good restaurants--of really nice fresh wild salmon. So preferences march on, and now foodies prefer less-done salmon, as they now prefer barely seared tuna. And it's pretty good that way, although I'm still a fan of what I guess we're calling "medium."
I wish I lived in the NW: the fine fresh salmon and local pinot noir!
posted by fivesavagepalms at 4:09 PM on September 26, 2011

I cook and order salmon to medium rare, like steak. I think restaurants will tend toward "over" done in most places if you don't request otherwise, because to a lot of people, less cooked fish = super gross and if the customer didn't feel strongly enough to specify 'medium' or 'medium rare' they're more likely to hold that opinion.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:12 PM on September 26, 2011

Also, it's not so much right or wrong as personal taste or preference. I think your friend's not wrong, just hasn't gotten the salmon-ordering routine down to get her food how she likes it.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:15 PM on September 26, 2011

I wouldn't order salmon medium rare from denny's. YMMV.
posted by TheBones at 4:21 PM on September 26, 2011

Overcooked salmon "squeaks" when you chew it. I'd just tell the kitchen I wanted it medium, but only in a seafood restaurant. The rest of the time I'd just order steak.
posted by dchrssyr at 4:27 PM on September 26, 2011

Skin on or off, a nice crispy skin may necessitate a more well done piece of fish.
posted by Max Power at 4:35 PM on September 26, 2011

Fish (and Pork - some pink is okay!) in general tends to be overcooked in most restaurants for two reasons.

1. Most customers were raised on over cooked fish and think thats the way it should be.
2. Many line cooks don't know how to judge doneness on fish. Unlike steaks where most line cooks can tell doneness by touch, a lot of line cooks can't do the same for a cut of fish. This is more difficult because there can be much more variation from fish to fish.

Along the lines of 2 while you can ask for Medium or Med-Rare fish, there are likely many cooks who may not know how to pull this off (particularly as dchrssyr mentions at non-fish restaurants)
posted by bitdamaged at 4:38 PM on September 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Is this happening when you and your friend BOTH order the salmon, or is it when one or the other gets salmon and the second person gets steak/pasta/whatever? I mean, it'd seem more of a comparison when you have two plates of the salmon to compare.

Like the folks above say, perhaps your friend should ask for hers slightly less well done. The other possibility is that the problem is your friend herself --- hopefully not, but does she often have a problem with her meal orders? I ask because I used to know a guy who ALWAYS sent back his dinner in restaurants because he believed "they won't respect you if you just accept what they give you the first time." (Seemed to me that that would just tick off the staff & he was the customer most likely to get spit in his food.....)
posted by easily confused at 4:41 PM on September 26, 2011

At a good restaurant with fresh fish, I don't see a problem with medium-rare to medium wild salmon. If the server conveys even a hint of apprehension, either ask her to check with the chef or order something else. I would only try this at the type of restaurant with skilled kitchen staff which, where I live, is atypical for chain restaurants. If the restaurant sends it to you improperly cooked after that, I don't see anything wrong with sending it back.

You might want to ask what your friend is looking for though. Salmon has a different texture when it's on the rare side and the flavor is different to me. I don't like dry overcooked salmon either. But your friend might also consider ordering salmon cooked by a different method than by dry heat. Fried, en croute and en papillote are all cooking methods that allow for a little bit more tolerance in cooking the fish before it starts to get dry.
posted by Hylas at 5:19 PM on September 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

Fish is done when its internal temperature reaches 145 °F. I would be wary of asking for fish to be cooked rarer than whatever the restaurant offers, because the quality might not be good enough to allow that.
posted by grouse at 5:48 PM on September 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hylas and grouse both have the best answers here.

As for your friend sending it back, I don't have a problem sending something back. In fact people I go out with get mad at me because I seem to be "looking" for a reason to send something back. If I go to a nice restaurant where a piece of fish cost me $26 and the staff talk about the food lovingly, I hope to be served something that good. If it's not, then I don't have a problem sending it back.

I like to order steak out when I go out, but always end up sending it back because it's not cooked properly. My wife tells me "don't order steak out." I'd say the same thing to your friend if I were you.

Also, I've always wrestled with asking for a steak to be cooked to a certain temperature instead of "rare," "mid-rare" etc. I come off as being a dick, but I know that if a ribeye is cooked to between 128 and 132 and pulled off and rested, it will be the perfect temperature for me. No guessing.

I consider 145 about perfect for salmon as well- that is what we cooked it to in the kitchens I used to work in. If it is cooked to that temperature and pulled off, it should be fine. I'm not sure if I'd ask for fish to be cooked to 145 though.

Also, I would suggest your friend finding a restaurant they like salmon at and sticking with going there if they are that picky.
posted by TheBones at 6:10 PM on September 26, 2011

I too prefer to eat fish a little on the raw side. It's how I was brought up - my dad loves to cook fish and he does it his way, so to me, most restaurant fish has tasted overdone, pretty much always, unless I'm eating sashimi.

In just the past five years or so, I've started to notice fine restaurants have started to ask me how done I want my fish. Last month I was in Maui and asked for my tuna rare and the waitress warned me that they defined rare as "cold in the middle" which was, indeed, accurate and awesome. To me, this is a really encouraging sign, and I hope I start seeing it more places. There's no more reason to cook a good tuna or salmon fillet all the way through than there is to cook a good steak all the way through.

Now, if you're at TGI Fridays, they're cooking all the flavor out of that fish for good reason. But in general, I've found that if you order fish rare and your server doesn't look at you as though you'd sprouted a second head, you're probably eating at a restaurant whose fish is high enough quality to serve rare.
posted by troublesome at 10:44 PM on September 26, 2011

I like my salmon medium-well but my tuna "seared," as in raw except for the outside. Obviously I wouldn't bother ordering it at a restaurant I didn't trust.
posted by callmejay at 5:43 AM on September 27, 2011

I used to order salmon at Cheddar's often, because it was actually good and NOT overcooked. Yes, good salmon is barely past translucent.

Then one day I went and salmon. I ate it, but grudgingly, because I didn't want to waste it. I attributed it to them being busy. Then the next time I went, and same thing. BOO.

Then I went again, and I said to my waitress "This may seem kind of strange, but could you, like---ask the chef to not cook mine as much as usual?" And she was like " want me to tell them to not cook your fish as much!?" and I was like "Yes. Like they used to." So then like 5 minutes later the chef comes OUT to me grinning and says THANK YOU. Apparently so many dumb people were sending back properly cooked salmon and wanting it cooked "hard" that they had to change policy to overcook it all because they were losing money.

Cheddar's isn't a fancy restaurant, but it was that easy. If it's Cheddar's/Applebee's quality or lower, this is how I'd do it. If it's Eat-n-Park/Denny's quality, I wouldn't ask. If it's a seafood place or nicer than Applebee's or Cheddar's, just straight up say "medium rare" and they'll know what you mean.

Also, farmed salmon is the devil and you should always eat wild caught, the deeper orange/red the flesh the better. That pale orange crap is garbage and you shouldn't support it being farmed and sold.

And troublesome---you haven't had tuna until you've reeled it in yourself and eaten it raw in the boat, Andrew Zimmern style, but it is awesome that you were able to order "cold in the middle" rare tuna. I like to pan sear it and leave it cold/pink in the middle. SO GOOD.
posted by TomMelee at 6:36 AM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is very interesting, as I hadn't even thought about the lower quality stuff not tasting as good when cooked rare, Thanks Everyone! The places we go range from Applebee's through fancy steakhouse up to a foodie-level seafood place that would probably either ask or cook it rare by default. I think she is most often disappointed at the chain places, so I will mention to her that their rare stuff may not be to her liking.

biffa, I would love to read that question. I did a quick scan through the salmon tagged questions and didn't see any about restaurants. Was it maybe on the blue?

It's been a long time since we both ordered it together, so this is not usually a one-to-one comparison. No skin, most of the time. I was just at a wedding with opaque wild-caught, cold salmon (awesome) but I don't think I would have liked it cold and translucent at all.

I am going to bring it up to her sometime when neither of us is having salmon, both about ordering it rare if they can make it that way and picking something else if they can't. She sends things back more often than I do, but isn't rude about it. She was a cocktail waitress in a former life =).
posted by soelo at 10:35 AM on September 27, 2011

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