The Complete Guide to Salmon: How to Prepare and Cook Salmon
Part 3 of our comprehensive guide to salmon includes everything you need to know about preparing and cooking delicious, versatile salmon, and 20 salmon recipes
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This is Part 3 in a series. Here is Part 1: The Complete Guide to Salmon: Salmon 101, and here is Part 2: The Complete Guide to Salmon: Buying & Storing Salmon.
Photograph by Sher Castellano
Salmon comes close to being an ideal food. Not only is it a nutritional power player and one of the best sources of heart-healthy omega-3s, but it’s also a breeze to cook, and its flavor is rich and easy to love. Because of its relatively high fat content, salmon is more forgiving than other, leaner varieties of fish, and it can stand up to a wide range of seasonings, both bold and subtle. Salmon takes well to all kinds of cooking techniques — from grilling and poaching to pan-searing and baking.
We’ll walk you through all the techniques, including how to remove pin bones, how to tell when the fish has reached the ideal point of doneness, and everything in between. Read on for these details, plus plenty of delicious, easy recipes perfect for barbecues, brunches, and family-friendly weeknight meals.
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What are the basic cuts of salmon?
There are three basic cuts of salmon: fillets, steaks, and sides.
Salmon fillets are the most popular cut. They lend themselves to most cooking methods. Skin-on fillets are the easiest to cook because the skin helps keep the meat intact. That skin is also loaded with heart-healthy omega-3s and is absolutely delicious when properly crisped. Look for center-cut fillets, which tend to be an even thickness all the way across and are the easiest to cook.
Salmon steaks are crosscut sections of salmon with a bone running through the center and the skin surrounding the meat. Because of that bone and the wrapping of skin, salmon steaks are succulent and less prone to drying out than fillets. Like fillets, they can be cooked on the grill, under the broiler, or on the stovetop. They also do well when poached or baked in a sauce. When buying salmon steaks, look for ones of uniform thickness so they cook at the same rate.
Whole sides of salmon are essentially giant fillets cut from half the fish. They average 4 to 5 pounds each and typically yield about 8 servings. Salmon sides are ideal for grilling, poaching, broiling, or baking, but can be unwieldy to cook on a stovetop because of their size. Cook them over gentle heat and give them a little more time than you would a typical fillet so they cook thoroughly without drying out.
How to fillet a whole salmon
Unless you are a salmon fisherman or friends with one, it’s unlikely you’ll ever need to fillet a whole salmon. Most salmon is sold already portioned, and even if you do choose a whole fish, most markets will fillet it for you on request. Still, if you want DIY salmon fillets, here’s how it’s done.
How to fillet a salmon:
Cut behind the head and gill plate from the belly toward the spine, angling the knife slightly toward the head, then snap the head back to detach.
Position the salmon on your work surface so the spine side of the fish is facing you with the tail end to the left. Lift the belly flap and position the knife at the head end of the fish perpendicular to the spine. Move the knife along the spine with a gentle sawing motion, making sure you keep the knife tilted slightly down toward the spine and lifting up the fillet as it’s released from the spine. When you've finished the cut, remove the fillet.
Flip the salmon over, with the belly side facing you, and repeat on the other side. Slice the fillets into smaller pieces or cook an entire side of salmon.
How to debone salmon fillets
Salmon fillets and sides often come with thin and flexible pin bones you need to remove. The fishmonger typically does it, but because they're hard to see, you might still find a few in your fish once you get home.
To check for pin bones, simply run your fingers across the surface of the fish. If you feel a bone, grab hold of it with a pair of needle-nose pliers or fish tweezers and pull the bone out with a clean, strong tug. Repeat until you've taken out all the pin bones.
How to debone salmon steaks
Insert a boning knife between one of the belly flaps and its inner membrane in the center of the steak at the spine bone. Carefully slice alongside the membrane, cutting it away from the flesh as you work toward the tip of the belly flap. Next, cut along the other belly flap, starting in the center and moving toward the tip of the belly. Cut the meat from the spine, working as close to the bone as possible. Pull out any pin bones.
How to remove the skin from salmon fillets
Before you remove the skin from your salmon fillets, you should know that skinless salmon is more difficult to cook and prone to falling apart on the pan or on the grill. Also, the skin itself is delicious, especially when it’s cooked crisp in a hot pan or on a grill. It’s a great source of heart-healthy omega-3s, too. But if you want to take the skin off before you cook, it’s not hard to do.
Put the fish skin-side down on a work surface. Firmly holding the tail end of the salmon, work the edge of a narrow slicing or boning knife between the flesh and skin. Now grasp the end of the skin, using a paper towel to help you get a better grip. Pull on the skin as you run the knife down the length of the fillet in the opposite direction to where you’re pulling. Keep the knife angled slightly down toward the skin and apply a slight sawing motion if necessary. The skin should come off in one piece. If it doesn’t, turn the fillet over and trim any remaining pieces of skin.
How to prepare salmon for cooking
Salmon is an incredibly versatile fish and takes easily to a wide range of preparations and cooking techniques. Learning how to cook salmon starts with a little prep. Pat the fish dry with paper towels (the USDA doesn't recommend rinsing salmon before cooking). Season with salt just before cooking. Then choose a cooking technique from one of the methods below.
How to tell when salmon is done
As salmon cooks, its flesh changes from translucent to opaque. When it’s ready, the fish will be an opaque pinkish white color on the outside and, depending on the doneness you prefer, translucent pink (for rare) to more opaque (for medium) in the middle. To check if it’s done, press on the top of the fillet with a fork or a finger. If the flesh separates easily into flakes along the white lines running across the fillet, it’s ready. Keep in mind that wild salmon has less fat than farmed salmon and will dry out more quickly if overcooked. For the most accurate test of doneness, insert an instant-read thermometer into the thickest part of the fillet or check the temperature using the Yummly Smart Thermometer (read on for more information).
What is the internal temperature for cooked salmon?
The USDA recommends cooking salmon to an internal temperature of 145°F. At that temperature, though, the fish will be dry and the flesh will be tough. To test for doneness, insert an instant-read thermometer into the thickest part of a fillet or cook the salmon using the Yummly Smart Thermometer.
For rare (semi-cooked) salmon, cook to an internal temperature of 115°F (43°C).
For medium-rare (pearly) salmon, cook to an internal temperature of 120°F (49°C).
For medium, cook to an internal temperature of 130°F (54°C).
Winning ways to season salmon
Salmon’s high fat content and robust flavor make it easy to pair with a wide range of seasonings. Here are some of our favorites:
Citrus: Acids like fresh lemon juice help balance the rich flavor of salmon. Try covering the surface of the fish with fresh lemon slices before roasting — or bake salmon fillets on a bed of blood orange slices.
Mustard: The tangy flavor of mustard also balances the richness of salmon. Stir a little whole-grain or Dijon mustard into some mayonnaise and brush it over the fish before grilling or broiling to keep the salmon moist and add a flavor-rich glaze.
Pesto: The sweet taste of fresh basil is great for salmon. Smear a little pesto over your salmon before baking or just before serving.
Ready to explore some salmon cooking techniques and recipes?
How to pan-sear salmon
Ideal for fillets and steaks, pan-searing is an easy and reliable way to cook salmon to perfection and make the skin extra crispy. For best results, use a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet or nonstick pan.
There are two basic approaches to pan-searing salmon. The first (hot-start method) requires preheating the pan before adding the fish. The second (cold-start method) is ideal for cooking skin-on fillets. This lets the fish heat slowly, rendering the fat for extra-crispy skin.
Season the salmon fillets with salt and black pepper.
Set a cast-iron skillet or nonstick pan over medium-high heat and add 1 tablespoon of butter or olive oil.
Once the butter has melted or the oil begins to shimmer, add the fish, skin-side down.
Cook until the skin is browned and crisp, 4 to 5 minutes. Turn, reduce the heat to medium, and cook until the flesh is opaque and flaky, 2 to 4 minutes for medium-rare (120°F). Adjust the time if necessary for the doneness you prefer.
Pat the fish dry with a paper towel, put the fish skin-side up on a plate, and refrigerate for about an hour. This will help dry the skin, which is key to getting it crisp.
Season the fish on both sides with kosher salt. Drizzle about 2 tablespoons of neutral oil in a cast-iron skillet or nonstick pan and put the fish skin-side down in the cold pan on the stove.
Cook on medium heat, pressing a fish spatula down on top of the salmon to ensure even contact with the pan and to keep the fish from curling, until its edges begin to turn translucent — 3 to 5 minutes.
Carefully flip the salmon, turn off the stove, and let the fish finish cooking in the hot pan until it reaches an internal temperature of 120°F for medium-rare — about 3 more minutes.
How to prepare baked salmon
Ideal for fillets, steaks, and sides, baking is an easy, hands-off way to cook several pieces of fish at once. As with pan-searing, there are two ways to approach it — baking at a high temperature or slow-baking at a low temperature.
Heat the oven to 400°F. Put the salmon in a baking dish or on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or lightly oiled foil.
Season with salt and black pepper.
Roast until the fish is cooked through — about 4 minutes per ½ inch of thickness for medium-rare (120°F) and adjust the time if necessary.
This technique of cooking salmon at a low temperature in a humid oven is very forgiving and results in succulent fish with a lush, almost velvety texture. It’s ideal for cooking fat-streaked belly cuts and large sides of salmon.
Position an oven rack in the lower third of the oven and a second rack in the upper third. Put a pan of water on the lower rack and heat the oven to 250°F.
Put the salmon in a baking dish or on a baking sheet covered with lightly oiled foil or parchment paper. Season salmon with salt and black pepper, drizzle with olive oil, and place fresh lemon slices on top.
Bake for 25 to 40 minutes, depending on the thickness of the salmon. The fish is cooked when it's firm to the touch and juices begin to collect on the surface — and it has reached the doneness you prefer (120°F for medium-rare).
How to poach salmon
Gently cooking salmon in just-simmering water or broth results in flavorful, tender, and juicy fish. Poaching is good for salmon steaks and fillets, but because the method cooks fish so evenly, it can also take a big side of salmon to a whole new level. Poached salmon is delicious served at room temperature.
The most difficult part of poaching a side of salmon is finding the right pan. A fish poacher is perfect for this, but these long, oval pans are pricey and not particularly versatile. A large, deep baking or roasting pan big enough to fit the salmon comfortably does the job quite well.
How to poach salmon:
Fill a pan with enough cold water to cover the fish. Season the water with salt, a few black peppercorns, and a bay leaf. You can play with the seasonings and add white wine, lemon slices, fresh herbs — like dill, tarragon, or thyme — and aromatic veggies such as a chopped leek or half an onion, a chopped rib of celery, or some fresh fennel.
Put the fish in the pan and add more cold water if necessary so the fish is just covered. (Starting the fish in cold water and slowly heating it prevents the proteins from seizing and keeps the flesh tender.)
Set the pan over medium-high heat and bring the poaching liquid to 170°F.
Cook until the fish registers 120°F on an instant-read thermometer for medium-rare. Transfer the salmon to a plate to rest for at least 5 minutes.
How to grill salmon
Compared to many other kinds of fish, salmon is among the easiest to grill. Its relatively high fat content acts as an insulator that protects the fish from drying out in the intense heat of the grill. Skin-on fillets and steaks are excellent options for grilling. Because of its size, a side of salmon takes a little more finessing to get on and off the grill, but the results can be delicious.
When buying salmon to grill, remember that farmed salmon has a higher fat content than wild salmon and that fat works in your favor. If you're grilling wild salmon, choose thicker pieces, which are less likely to overcook. A 1 ½-inch-thick center-cut fillet is ideal.
Whether you’re using a gas or charcoal grill, you’ll need two heat zones so you can cook over both direct and indirect heat. The heat depends on the recipe, but 400°F (medium-high) is a good place to start.
Preheat the grill and clean the hot grate with a grill brush.
While the grill heats, pat the fish dry with paper towels and lightly rub the salmon with oil to reduce the chances of it sticking to the grill. Season with salt just before placing the fish on the grill. (Because salt draws water to the surface, the fish will get wet if it sits too long after salting and will be more likely to stick to the grates.)
Lightly oil the grate using an oil-soaked paper towel, which you'll need to hold with grill tongs. Put the fish skin-side down on the hottest part of the grill. Cooking time varies, depending on the thickness of the fish, but after 4 minutes, check to see if the fish releases easily from the grates.
If it does, gently flip the fish using a thin-blade spatula, and continue cooking for about 3 minutes longer. If the salmon appears to be cooking too quickly, move it to a cooler part of the grill.
Check for doneness using an instant-read thermometer (or use the Yummly Smart Thermometer). The internal temperature should register 115°F for rare, 120°F for medium-rare, or 130°F for medium.
Let the salmon rest for about 5 minutes before serving it so the hot juices settle back into the flesh. The temperature will rise about 5°F once the fish has come off the grill.
How to broil salmon
The intense direct heat of the broiler offers one of the best ways to cook salmon. The surface cooks quickly before the heat can penetrate to the interior of the fish and dry it out.
Position the oven rack so the salmon is no farther than 4 inches from the source of heat and get the broiler very hot.
Put the fish in an ovenproof frying pan (a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet is perfect for this) or on a foil-lined baking sheet or sheet pan.
Broil the salmon until it's browned on the surface and slightly undercooked in the middle — 6 to 8 minutes for a fillet about 1 inch thick.
Remove it from the oven and let it rest on a serving platter before serving, or turn off the broiler and have the salmon sit in the hot oven until it reaches your desired degree of doneness — 3 to 5 minutes longer.
How to store cooked salmon
Wrap cooked salmon in aluminum foil or plastic wrap — or store it in a shallow airtight container and refrigerate it for up to 1 to 2 days.
How to reheat salmon
There’s a reason so many office kitchens have signs asking employees not to heat fish in the microwave. The intense heat oxidizes the salmon’s fatty acids into aldehydes — organic compounds noted for their bad odors. When you’re at home, you can do as you like, but if you want to keep those fishy smells at bay, reheating salmon gently in the oven (not in the microwave) is the best way to do it.
Preheat the oven to 275°F. Put the cooked salmon on a wire rack on a rimmed baking sheet or sheet pan and cover with aluminum foil to keep the fish from drying out. Heat it in the oven until warmed through. Timing will vary, but estimate about 15 minutes for 1-inch-thick fillets.
Add salmon recipes to your Yummly Meal Plan
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Learn more about America’s favorite fish
The details make the difference when you’re cooking salmon, and we want to help you get maximum enjoyment out of every luscious bite. Read on for more about buying and storing salmon, wild vs. farmed fish, health benefits, salmon and the environment, and the best types of salmon for different kinds of cooking.