A shorter version of this article appeared in The Press and The Dominion Post on October 1st
What is the best way to cook Salmon and how do I know when it is done, so it doesn’t dry out?
Salmon can be expensive and it is easy to overcook, so you want to get it right. A French chef once told me that New Zealand has some of the best salmon in the world, but we don’t know how to cook it. We always overdo it. According to him, it should still be quite pink in the middle.
The first thing to get right is to have fresh fish. Make sure the skin is bright and the flesh firm. It should have that fresh sea smell, rather than a strong fishy smell. You can get both Atlantic Salmon and New Zealand King salmon in supermarkets at the moment. Atlantic salmon is farmed in Norway, Chile, the UK and Tasmania and comes in frozen. Salmon produced in New Zealand is a different species (Chinook or ‘King Salmon’), but is considered by many chefs to be better eating because of its tender texture and rich flavour. It also has a higher content of Omega 3 oils, so should be better for you!
Despite its known quality, king salmon makes up less than 1% of world production of salmon. We are lucky to have it! New Zealand growers know they have a special, high-quality product and they don’t use any antibiotics or pesticides to grow the fish, a quality that was recognised recently when New Zealand was named as the world’s best performing fish farming nation (Global Aquaculture Performance Index). Of course, there are many ways to cook salmon, but if you want to try serving sashimi then use the freshest New Zealand King salmon you can find (I find the pre-frozen Atlantic Salmon insipid). I love it sliced onto a serving platter and then drizzled with a little lime juice, freshly grated ginger, some thinly sliced red chilli and some chopped coriander. Seafood New Zealand has a great selection of recipes on its web site (www.seafood.co.nz/recipes). Here are a few different styles that will help bring out the best of your salmon.
A very ‘cheffy’ way to cook a fillet is to fry or grill it with the skin on and to make the skin crispy (“salmon crackling”). Make sure that the skin has been scaled, of course.
To do this, blot the skin with a paper towel to remove excess moisture and then use a knife to scrape off the last bits of water and any remaining scales. Score the skin finely using a sharp knife. This prevents it from curling when it hits hot oil.
Preheat the oven to 180°C. Pour some olive oil into a frying pan, add a pinch of salt and heat it until the oil is almost smoking. Put the fish in skin side down. Place a clean pot gently on top of the fillet to flatten it slightly, again to prevent it from curling once it hits the hot surface. Take the pot off after about 30 seconds. Let the fish cook on the skin at high temperature until the colour of the flesh changes. Resist the temptation to poke and prod it. It’s ready when you see the flesh change colour and start to go opaque, but it is still pink in the middle.
At this point, pop the fish into a moderate oven for four to five minutes. When you take it out of the oven, flip it so the flesh side gets a minute on the direct heat of the pan to get some colour, then serve it, either skin or flesh side up, depending on your desired look.
I am a fan of the poaching method for salmon as it doesn’t leave that strong fish smell in the kitchen that you can sometimes get from frying an oily fish like salmon. The finished dish is also less heavy and rich.
A good liquid for poaching is half fish stock and half verjuice or wine. It should contain lots of herbs, although nothing too strong. Some dill, parsley stalks, tarragon, a few slices of onion or some white pepper are perfect. Bring the liquid and herbs to a boil and then let it simmer for a bit. Taste it to make sure the flavours are as you want them.
To cook the salmon, you can use either the oven or the stovetop. Preheat the oven to 180°C. Remove the skin from the fish. Place the fillets into a baking dish on top of some sliced lemon if you like. Pour over the poaching liquid (that has been simmering) so that it’s a centimetre or two above the fish. Cover this with a piece of baking paper. Cook it for four or five minutes (or to taste).
It will be pink in the middle but if you want it cooked more, just leave it in longer.
So, how much pinkness is OK? The texture of the fish changes as it cooks. If the flesh is hard to cut through, chances are it’s still too raw in the centre. But if your knife glides through but it is still very pink in the middle, it is perfect. You can serve the salmon cold on a warm summer’s day with a tomato and fennel salad with balsamic and fresh herbs, or with peppery rocket and lemony mayonnaise. Or serve it warm on a winter’s evening with some baby vegetables.
Curing salmon, in the traditional Scandinavian way, gives you a lovely flavoured salmon that is not as oily as the alternative of preserving it by cold-smoking. This recipe uses juniper in the mix and is the one we use at Ground. The coriander, dill and juniper mix is a perfect fit with salmon. If you can’t find juniper berries, leave them out and go with the more traditional dill and pepper mix.
3 tablespoons juniper berries
3 tablespoons coriander seeds
3 tablespoons dried dill
100gs brown sugar
80gs plain salt
1 side of salmon
Crush the juniper berries in a mortar and pestle just briefly until squished. Put into a bowl. Crush the coriander seeds and add to the juniper. Put in the dill, salt and sugar and mix it all together thoroughly. Cut the side of salmon in half. Place a large piece of cling-film on the bench and put about ¼ of the curing mix onto the middle of the cling-film. Put one half of the salmon onto the mix, flesh side up. Completely cover the flesh with half of the curing mix, rubbing it in to the flesh a little. Place the other half of the salmon on top of the first half, flesh side down and on top of all the curing mix. Put the last ¼ of the mix on to the skin on top of the fish. Wrap the fish sandwich tightly in the cling-film. Pierce the cling-film with a knife in a few places. This is to let the moisture escape as the salmon cures. Put the package on a tray or dish and weigh it down with something heavy (another tray with cans in it will do). Gravlax actually means ‘buried salmon’ as it used to be buried in the ground to get the weight of the earth pressing on the fish. Leave it for 3-4 days in the fridge, turning it over once a day. The gravlax is ready when the flesh is firm and shiny. Rinse the curing mixture off before slicing and serving the salmon.