How to Season and Cook Salmon for Crispy Skin
Dry-brining fillets works wonders, making cooking a breeze and yielding unforgettably succulent results.
By J. Kenji López-Alt
The process of resting salted poultry, steaks or chops in the fridge overnight, known as "dry-brining" or "short-curing," is a popular way to improve juiciness, tenderness, browning and searing. But why don't we dry-brine fish — particularly salmon — more often?
In Japan, salted and dried salmon, known as shake (pronounced shah-keh), a portmanteau of "shio" (salt) and "sake" (salmon), is served broiled or grilled over rice as a breakfast or bento lunch staple. Traditional versions, made with preservation in mind in the days before refrigeration, are extraordinarily salty, but modern takes are often milder.
The technique is wonderful, even in Western preparations, and solves many problems home cooks have with salmon, namely the spatter when searing, the potential for sticking to the pan, and the struggle to keep the fish moist and juicy inside while developing plenty of browned flavor or crisp skin.
To get an idea, I bought several whole salmon from Pike Place Market in Seattle (including coho, sockeye and wild and farm-raised king). I salted 5-ounce fillets evenly with about 1 teaspoon of kosher salt per fillet, then left them on a paper towel-lined tray in the fridge overnight, uncovered. Then, I compared them to fresh fillets cut from the same fish and seasoned with the same amount of salt just before cooking. Each was cooked skin-side down with a little oil in identical skillets heated to maintain a 390-degree surface temperature. I cooked all the salmon as I normally would: skin-side down to an internal temperature of 100 degrees (or about medium-rare with a translucent center for salmon fillets), with a short stay on the second side for color.
Right from the start of cooking, there was a noticeable difference between the fresh fillets, whose excess moisture caused a large amount of spatter, and the dry-brined fillets, which seared with very little spatter. As the fresh fish cooked, globs of white protein started collecting at its edges, while the dry-brined salmon remained bright orange the entire time. Flipping the dry-brined fillets was also significantly easier than flipping the fresh, and the dry-brined fillets reached their target internal temperature about 20 percent faster, with better exterior browning and crisper skin.
By weighing the salmon fillets before and after their overnight rest, as well as before and after cooking, I could determine how much moisture was lost, and at what stage. As it turns out, every salmon fillet lost 8 to 11 percent of its weight in moisture. So what's the difference?
With the dry-brined fillets, most of this moisture evaporates during storage; only a small amount comes out during cooking. With fresh, on the other hand, all that moisture is pushed into the pan during cooking, where it must then evaporate. This robs heat from the pan, explaining why fresh fillets take longer to cook and don't brown or crisp as well. As that water is expressed from inside the fillets, proteins come along for the ride, coagulating in unsightly white blobs on the salmon's surface. Excess protein-rich moisture in the pan is also the culprit behind sticking and excess splatter.
Despite losing the same amount of overall moisture, dry-brined fillets also taste juicier and firmer. That has to do with how liquid is bound inside the salmon, according to my colleague Harold McGee, the author of the food-science manual "On Food and Cooking." Salt increases the solubility of the myosin, or the main muscle fiber protein, causing it to associate more strongly with water, and binding it more strongly into the salmon flesh. (Salt also causes some proteins to precipitate before they leave muscle cells, which keeps the surface of dry-brined salmon bright and orange even during cooking.) The water remaining in the fresh salmon flows out aggressively at the start of a bite, leaving it drier as you continue to chew. Dry-brined salmon, with its bound moisture, is more of a slow release, staying juicy until you swallow.
Some days, I don't buy my salmon until the day I need to serve it. When that happens, I pat the salmon dry as firmly as I can before cooking it and resign myself to a messy stovetop. But if I have at least a day, I can't think of a technique with a better reward-for-effort ratio for improving the cooking and eating qualities of salmon than dry-brining.
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