5 Mistakes to Avoid When Cooking Salmon

updated Sep 5, 2022
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Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

When it comes to cooking salmon, versatility reigns. This is a fish that works with a huge variety of flavor combinations, and you can take your pick of cooking method. Dress it up for a dinner party with a slow roast, or keep it casual for a mid-week meal with a quick sear for a grain bowl. Either way, you can get salmon on the table pretty quickly. But before you turn on the heat, don’t let these blunders get in the way of your perfect salmon dinner.

1. Not removing the pin bones.

This is an easy step to forget about, especially since pin bones go unseen — until you get one unpleasantly stuck in your throat. It’s all too easy to see a good salmon dinner go awry because pin bones are lodged throughout the fillet.

Follow this tip: Pin bones are sneaky and often hard to spot, but it’s worth it to take a few extra minutes to run your hand over the fillet to locate and very gently remove them before cooking. Tweezers are a handy tool to get this job done. Or better yet, if you plan to buy fresh salmon, ask your fishmonger to remove the pin bones for you.

2. Seasoning the fish too soon before cooking.

Seasoning the fish with salt and pepper before cooking is a must for great flavor, but just as important is when you season. When seasoned too soon before cooking, the salt will start to break down the proteins in the salmon and draw moisture out of the fish.

Follow this tip: No matter the method of cooking, season the fish just before it hits the pan, goes in the oven, or onto the grill.

3. Removing the salmon skin before cooking (with one exception).

If you’re poaching salmon, then yes, it’s okay to go ahead and remove the skin — this is your one exception. Otherwise, if you’re baking, roasting, broiling, pan-searing, or grilling, that tough, fatty skin is one of the best tools against overcooking.

Follow this tip: Unless you’re poaching the salmon, leave the skin on. It works as a protective barrier between the delicate flesh and a hot pan, baking sheet, or grill. Plus, crispy salmon skin just might become a favorite treat once you’ve had it done right.

4. Cooking the fish skin-side up.

It doesn’t matter how you place the fish in the pan, right? Wrong! This matters big time, and can be the difference between a well-cooked and overcooked piece of fish.

Follow this tip: Whether you’re pan-searing, roasting, or grilling, always start by cooking the salmon skin-side down. The skin works to protect the more delicate flesh from overcooking. And depending on the cooking method, most, if not all, of the cooking will happen this way.

5. Leaving the fish on the heat for too long.

Make this error and the telltale signs will be in your face — the super-fishy aroma, dry, flaky texture, and white albumen oozing out the sides. Overcooked simply isn’t enjoyable, but the good news is that you can easily avoid it.

Follow this tip: While the cook time for salmon will vary depending on the size of the fish and the cooking method, the ideal level of doneness for salmon is medium-rare to medium, where the flesh is tender and still retains some of the darker orange color at the center. The USDA recommends a minimum internal temperature of 145°F, measured at the thickest part of the fish. Your best bet is to remove it from the stovetop, oven, or grill when it reaches about 140°F since there will be some carryover cooking and it will rise to temperature as it rests.