A few weeks ago my co-worker Rhoda wrote about the "best salmon you've ever had." That salmon—slow-cooked, but still ready in 22 minutes—really is a brilliant way to cook the fish. But there's a downside: No crispy skin.
Luckily, there's more than one way to cook a salmon. So I developed a method for those nights when you want a little crunch.
Now, I know from experience that cooking fish can feel hard. It can even feel scary. It took making many sub-par salmon dinners with limp or torn skins over the years (and reading some helpful advice from our friends at Serious Eats) before I mastered perfectly-cooked fillets. But now I know that crunchy skin and tender, luscious fish is all about following a method.
Here's how to cook crispy-skin salmon in five simple steps:
1. Pick Out the Salmon Fillets
You want about 6 ounces of skin-on salmon per person. You can buy pre-portioned slices or a larger piece, but if you do the latter you'll want to slice the fish into individual portions before you begin. You'll probably buy boneless fillets, but even these often have a few stragglers, so check each piece: Take a fillet and drape it, skin-side down, over one hand.
Use the other hand to run a finger along the faults in the flesh, feeling for pin bones. (You'll notice them right away—it'll feel like a pin sticking out of the flesh.) If you find any, use fish tweezers, needle-nosed pliers, or even just regular old tweezers to gently but firmly pull each pin bone out, being sure to pull along the same plane that the bone is on so you don't tear the delicate flesh.
2. Dry The Fish
Pat paper towels over all sides of each piece of fish. You want your salmon as dry as possible—the dryer your fish, the better and easier it'll cook.
3. Press the Salmon Down Into The Pan
Grab a skillet (any kind of skillet is fine, as long as it comfortably holds two fillets), swirl in some neutral oil such as grapeseed or canola, and set the pan over medium-high heat. While the skillet heats, generously season each piece of salmon with salt and pepper, and make sure you have a flexible metal fish spatula handy. When the oil is shimmering, lay one fillet of salmon skin-side down into the pan and immediately do two things: Press the fillet against the skillet with your fish spatula, and turn the heat down to medium-low.
Pressing on the fish helps keep the skin in contact with the pan to ensure an evenly-crisped surface. (Salmon skin shrinks as it cooks, and if you don't press it into the skillet, it can curl out of shape.) Don't move your fillet around in the pan, but do move the spatula around the fish to ensure it gets pressed against the skillet evenly. You need to push the fillet against the skillet for the first couple minutes of cooking, but after the initial push, you can add your next fillet (if you're cooking more than one) and start pushing them alternately.
4. Render Patiently
It takes longer than you might think to render the fat out of salmon skin until it's nice and crispy. Resist the temptation to turn up the heat and speed up the process: you need to keep your skillet over medium-low heat to avoid over-cooking. After about six minutes, during which time you should keep pushing the salmon down into the skillet periodically, use the spatula to peek at the skin.
You're looking for nicely browned, nicely crisped skin, and flesh that has become mostly opaque everywhere except for on the very top of the fillet. Depending on the thickness of your fillet, this should take 7 to 9 minutes.
5. Flip Just For a Moment, Then Serve
Once the skin is crispy, use your fish spatula to flip the salmon and "kiss" the top of the fillet with the skillet—just long enough to finish cooking it, which should only be about a minute. If you're nervous about the fish being fully cooked, insert an instant-read thermometer into the middle of the fillet: you want it to reach 120°F for medium-rare, which is how I like it. (If you like it more well-done, cook until it reaches 130°F.)
Serve immediately, perhaps with a salad, maybe with some lemon, maybe even with a simple pan sauce—but always, always skin-side up. Now that you know how to cook crispy-skin salmon, impress your guests with a restaurant-quality meal at home!