Perfect Salmon, Perfectly Easy
In a world full of sous vide, spherification and snail-foam, it is easy to forget that sometimes the best techniques are the easiest ones. The classic ones. The technique that you learned from your friend, who learned it from her husband, who learned it from his father, who learned it from the mother of an old fishing buddy up in Northern Ontario. Actually, I have no idea where Popsie learned this one, but that’s besides the point. These examples of tribal knowledge are the real recipes that should be cherished; they have survived the test of time because they’re good. And because Popsie says so. Popsie knows his fish.
One of the types of posts that I have always enjoyed the most on this site are about technique. I love sharing a foolproof method for getting things just right in what can sometimes be a challenging dish, because as a home cook there is nothing better than that feeling that you’re the Kitchen Champion with a perfectly fluffed souffle, a perfectly rare lamb chop, or in this case, a perfectly succulent side of salmon. The perennial dinner party favourite, when a side of salmon is done well it is sublime. However, it is all to easy to have a salmon that is dry and dense, under or unevenly cooked. Popsie and I are going to help you fix that problem, because I swear this technique has never failed me.
To warn you, this might seem a little bit retro. It is, and that’s okay. To me, retro means classic (unless we’re talking about anything involving condensed celery soup, which is an abomination). Warning number two is that one of the secrets to this dish is – eep! – mayonnaise!!!! Yes, that’s right. One of my kitchen nemeses that I usually only stock for emergency BLT sandwiches and crab cakes; we’re about to use it on fish and yet I persist in telling you that it’s awesome. Because it is.
I generally live in fear of goopy “secret sauce” and creamy Caesar dressing, and anything beyond a quarter cup of mayonnaise in a vat of potato salad will have me running for the hills. I’ve just always been that way. (Butter? No problem. Cheese? Sign me up. I like to think of my glaring double standards as a quixotic little personality quirk). Needless to say, when I saw my girlfriend unwrap a glorious side of richly hued sockeye salmon and then proceed to smear it with Heart Attack Helper, I was aghast. “Oh,” she said, “I know what you’re thinking, but trust me — it’s really good.” I find it difficult to trust when the White Bandit is involved. As a dutifully polite guest, I kept (most of) my cynicism to myself, and thank goodness that I did because the salmon was, indeed, delicious. The fish was luscious and moist without having a greasy or fatty mouth-feel from the mayonnaise. It also lacked that characteristic tangy mayo flavour that I so ardently avoid.
I can’t say that I entirely warmed to the idea of fish smeared with Artery’s Abomination, but I was able to suspend my disbelief for long enough to try the same technique at home. And then to do it again, and again, and again.
Maybe you have had salmon coated in mayonnaise before, and you’re thinking to yourself, “Really Tina? Seriously? Because it was NOT delicious.” I understand and, frankly, if there was a thick layer of goopy Devil’s Cream on the salmon I probably wouldn’t have eaten it either. The first trick is to spread the mayonnaise thinly so that it almost melts into the fish as it broils. The second trick is to broil it low, at the bottom of the oven, instead of at the top which is what you’re probably used to. In this way, the mayonnaise will start to bubble and brown in certain areas while the ambient indirect heat in the oven slows the cooking of the fillet and ensures that the meat bakes evenly while the top gets a wee bit toasty.
Perfect Broiled Salmon Serves 4-6
- 1 whole side of salmon (~2.5 to 3 lb), skin on
- 2 tbsp mayonnaise
- 1.5 tsp smoked paprika *
- kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
* Smoked paprika lends a simple earthy, fireside flavour and attractive colour. However, if you don’t have smoked paprika, you could use regular sweet or hot paprika (NOT cayenne), a little bit of yellow or red curry powder, creole seasoning, or…well, the list goes on, but those are the ones that I have used so far. Although each had their own unique flavour, they were all a delicious (if occasionally spicy) match for the salmon.
Turn your oven on to broil and set your rack in the very lowest possible position, as far away from the broiler as possible.
Lightly spray or oil a baking sheet and lay the salmon on top, skin side down. Stroke your salmon to feel for any pins or small bones. If you feel any, remove them with tweezers.
Season the fish well with salt and freshly ground pepper.
Dollop the mayonnaise on top and spread it in a thin layer all over the flesh of the salmon. You’ve heard of Frosted Flakes? Well, this is Frosted Fish. Sprinkle the smoked paprika (or your spice of choice) evenly over the fish.
Tuck that baking sheet into the lowest part of your oven and let it “broil” for 10 minutes. If you like, serve the fish with lemon slices at the table.
If your oven runs exceptionally cold (or you have a dilapidated broiler) or you like your salmon really well done, you may want to give the fish another minute, or two at the very most, but probably not. I wasn’t kidding when I said that this was one of my favourite techniques, and 10 minutes have fared equally well in a spanky new gas powered oven, my one-day-we-will-afford-an-upgrade POS electric oven, the ancient oven up at my parent’s cottage, and even a toaster oven one time in a pinch.
The fish is done when it is opaque throughout with a deep blush in the centre, it flakes easily and the top is slightly browned and broiled.
When I want a maximum flavour and minimum fuss kind of dinner for friends, this is the technique that I turn to. When I’m having 8 people over for brunch and I need an easy and always popular protein, this is what I serve. When I’m in a rush and I have 20 minutes to get dinner on the table, this is still the technique that I prefer. I turn the oven on to broil and, as it heats up, I have time to boil baby potatoes for a lightly dressed spud salad with capers and quick pickled radish. After the fish goes in, there is exactly enough time to steam a basket of green beans and dress them simply with lemon. And there you go; an elegant and balanced meal in a flash.
I’m certainly grateful to Popsie for this technique, and I promise that if you give it a shot you will be equally surprised and delighted. (I’m telling you, Popsie knows his fish!) It really only takes about 10 minutes to make perfect salmon, which is perfectly easy.