A foolproof way to cook America’s favorite fresh fish
Summer is here in North America — and that means we have wild-caught fresh Alaska salmon in our markets. It’s the best-tasting salmon we’ll be able to buy all year.
This seasonal delight turns any meal into a feast. And it never fails to impress, because most people think cooking fish is difficult.
Almost everyone has a fish-cooking horror story. Fish fillets and steaks tend to be thin, so they cook fairly fast. That means there’s a fine line between almost raw, overcooked, and falling-apart flaky. And even if we cook the fish perfectly, the surface can sometimes get a bit too dry, particularly if we crank up the outdoor grill.
Enter poaching. When you cook fish in liquid, it remains moist and luscious. And because poaching provides gentle heat, you have a bit more leeway than with other cooking methods. So if the fish is finished a few minutes before the rest of dinner, no problem. A fatty fish like salmon can stay on hold (off heat) in its cooking liquid for a good 10 minutes.
And poaching is easy. If you can boil water, you can poach salmon. Really.
Recipe: Poached Salmon
Salmon has lots of flavor, so you can poach it in a very simple liquid. Water flavored with just salt and a bit of acid (wine or wine vinegar) works perfectly. You may have heard of elaborate fish dishes that require a court bouillon (that is, broth — often lightly flavored by vegetables). Those are great preparations, and always tasty — but you can take a simpler approach with salmon.
With its rich flavor, salmon doesn’t require anything more than salt and pepper (added at table) to season it. If you want to be fancy, you can add a tablespoon or so of Hollandaise Sauce to each serving — which is what I did today.
Most Alaska salmon is caught in warm weather, from mid-May into September (though troll-caught king – Chinook – salmon is harvested year-around). Early in the season — right now! — king and sockeye salmon are the kinds you’ll see most often. My market was featuring Copper River sockeye, so that’s what I cooked for this post. This fish has deep red flesh and superlative flavor. It’s one of the best-tasting Alaska salmons, IMO.
For poaching, I like salmon fillets that weigh 5 to 6 ounces and measure about an inch thick (maybe a bit less — sockeye salmon is smaller than other species, so steaks of ¾-inch thickness are pretty common). But you can ask your fish monger to cut fillets in any size you prefer. IMO, the most flavorful salmon has nice, pronounced fat lines.
Each salmon fillet is one serving, so it’s easy to buy exactly what you need. And you can substitute steaks for fillets if you want; I just prefer fillets in this recipe.
Most general cookbooks offer a recipe for poaching fish, and the recipes tend to be pretty similar. For this post, I used a recipe from Julia Child and More Company.
Cooking time for this recipe is 7 to 8 minutes, maybe a little longer; plus you need to add time for the poaching liquid to come to a simmer. So figure 15 minutes, total.
This recipe makes two servings, but you can adjust it to any quantity.
- 2 salmon fillets, 5 to 6 ounces each (or larger), preferably with the skin on (ask your fish monger to remove the pin bones)
- a quart of water for poaching liquid
- ~2 teaspoons of salt
- ~2 tablespoons of wine vinegar (may substitute white wine; in that case, use ¼ cup or so)
- chopped dill or parsley to garnish (optional)
- Hollandaise sauce (optional)
- Add the water to a wide, shallow sauté pan or saucepan that’s just large enough to hold the salmon fillets (I use an 8-inch sauté pan with sides that are 3 inches high). Bring the water to a simmer on the stovetop.
- Meanwhile, if your fish monger hasn’t removed the pin bones from the salmon, run your hands over all fleshy surfaces of the fillets, searching for bones. Remove them with your hands, or use tweezers or needle-nosed pliers (I use the ones from my toolbox). Return the fillets to the refrigerator until you’re ready to cook them.
- When the water comes to a simmer, add the salt and vinegar. Gently add the salmon, skin side down. Set timer for 7 minutes if the fish is about ¾ of an inch thick, or 8 minutes if it’s an inch thick. Keep the water at the barest simmer as the fish poaches. (Note: If you’re using salmon steaks, the skin will be wrapped around the fish, so either side will be “skin side down.”)
- While the fish poaches, you can chop dill or parsley for garnish, or make Hollandaise sauce (you can also make Hollandaise ahead of time, and keep it warm while the fish poaches).
- When the timer goes off, turn off the heat (and if you’re cooking on an electric element, remove the cooking pan from the heat). Allow the fish to rest for a minute or two (two minutes if you like your fish cooked medium-well).
- If you’re not ready to serve, you can hold the fish in the water for 10 minutes or so. But note that the fish will continue to cook somewhat (from the residual heat of the water), so it may become a bit more done than you prefer (it will not be overdone, however).
- To serve the salmon, remove the fillets from the water with a wide spatula. I place them flesh side down on a towel to drain briefly (a few seconds). If you want to serve them with the skin on — I usually do — simply plate the fish, skin side down, and sprinkle on some optional chopped dill or parsley, or add a dollop or two of Hollandaise sauce. If you prefer to serve with the skin off, simply peel it away (if the skin is too hot for your fingers — very likely — use a soup spoon and a fork). Then plate the fish (with the side that had the skin facing down) and garnish.
- A lot of people who say they don’t like fish will make an exception for salmon (as well as tuna and swordfish). That’s because these varieties have a “meaty” texture, and usually don’t taste “fishy.”
- The amount of salt and vinegar specified in this recipe is appropriate for one quart of water. If you use more water (for example, if you’re poaching more fish fillets), increase these ingredients proportionally.
- Properly cooked salmon (i.e., medium) will be just slightly translucent at its thickest part when you cut into it. If you want well-done salmon, cook it a minute longer than this recipe specifies.
- BTW, even if the salmon gets a bit too done, it will still be moist and flavorful when you poach it.
- According to The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) FishWatch Program, shrimp is the most popular seafood in the US. Tuna is next, but much of that is canned, not fresh. Third is salmon, almost all of which is consumed fresh (making it the most popular fresh fish in the US).
- In the US, if you want wild (rather than farmed) salmon, you’ll most likely be buying fish caught on the West Coast. (Only a miniscule percentage of Atlantic salmon sold in the US is wild; almost all of it is farmed). About 96% of West Coast salmon comes from Alaskan waters; the rest is from Washington, Oregon, and California.
- King salmon is available fresh throughout the year in the US. Other species of Alaska salmon are available fresh only in the summer, but you can find frozen and canned salmon throughout the year. Frozen salmon tends to be high quality, and I buy it when I can’t get fresh. But the texture of fresh salmon tends to be a bit more consistent than that of frozen.
- There are five species of Alaska salmon, BTW: King, sockeye, coho, keta, and pink. My favorites are king and sockeye; they (along with coho) are great for poaching. Keta and pink salmon have less fat content (and thus a milder flavor). They poach well, but I tend to prefer them grilled.
- If you want to learn more about Alaskan seafood, check out this website: Wild Alaska Flavor.
Gearing Up for Father’s Day
Father’s Day rolls around next week, so it’s time to start planning your menu. Poached Salmon would be a perfect entrée. Its rich, seasonal flavor appeals to almost everyone.
Salmon would pair well with sautéed cucumbers — a recipe I’ll be sharing next Sunday — and with simple boiled or roasted potatoes. Or you could serve potato salad. French Potato Salad would go well with poached salmon, as would American (Mayonnaise) Potato Salad. So would Horseradish Potato Salad — a recipe I’ll be sharing later this month.
For a starter, you might want to try Roast Strawberry Salad — it’s a great way to use fresh local strawberries. And for dessert, maybe Walnut Roll Cake. This sensational cake is special — appropriate for a special guy.
If your Dad insists on meat, maybe Oven Slow-Cooked Spare Ribs would tickle his fancy. Or you could try Barbecued Pork Steaks. And there’s always that great American classic, Grilled Hamburgers.
Any of these would go well with one of the potato salads mentioned above, and with slaw of some kind. You might try Jalapeño Coleslaw with Pimentón or Garlic Coleslaw. Or you could stick with the classic Creamy Cole Slaw. Another fun side dish would be Southern Green Beans with Bacon.
And to drink, how about a Pimm's Cup? It’s the perfect warm-weather drink, and very refreshing. Or maybe a Mojito Cocktail or a Gin and Tonic. If Dad is a beer-loving guy, maybe serve up a Dark N’ Stormy — a great combo of ginger beer and dark rum.
Need a recipe for that last one? Check back on Wednesday — it’s the next drink in our Supper Sippin’ Series!
You may also enjoy reading about:
Scallops on Artichoke Scoops
French Potato Salad
American (Mayonnaise) Potato Salad
Roast Strawberry Salad
Walnut Roll Cake
Oven Slow-Cooked Spare Ribs
Barbecued Pork Steaks
Jalapeño Coleslaw with Pimentón
Creamy Cole Slaw
Southern Green Beans with Bacon
Gin and Tonic