Salmon is one of the most versatile proteins to work with in the kitchen. It's delicious and universally loved, quite good for you, and very easy to prepare. Salmon still retains its fancy and festive reputation, even though it is more readily available these days and can be purchased at a decent price point from most grocery stores. My favorite way to cook salmon is in the oven, very low and slow, with a pan of water for moist heat. Read on for this utterly simple, foolproof way to produce moist, flavorful, and luscious salmon fillets.
There are three important aspects in this method: low oven, moist heat, and fresh herbs. The low oven prevents the salmon proteins from seizing up, keeping it tender and silky. It also helps in reducing an overly fishy taste which can be off-putting to some. The moist heat is easily achieved by placing a pan of water in the oven. This helps to keep the salmon juicy and tender; it will still flake, but in lovely, silky folds.
The fresh herb layer adds flavor, complementing the taste of the salmon without overpowering it, as well as protecting the fish from harsh heat. It also means you don't have to make a sauce, since the herb layer provides plenty of flavor and texture. The herbs are up to you, but I like to use parsley, basil, and dill — tarragon is also nice. Using lemon zest is a great way to add lemon flavor to the salmon without using lemon juice, which will also "cook" the fish (think ceviche), with the majority of it just running off anyway. The lemon zest stays put and adds a necessary brightness to the rich salmon.
Finally, I need to pay homage to chef Suzanne Goin, whose recipe for Wild Salmon Salad in her book Sunday Suppers at Lucques introduced me to the low-and-slow, herb-crusted method for baking salmon. Goin uses slightly different herbs, and ends up creating an amazing salmon salad with beets, potatoes, eggs, dandelion greens, and a mustard sauce. This is all fine and dandy, but I have found that just serving the salmon with its herb crust is plenty good enough for those evenings when you don't have the time to fuss.
Baked Salmon with Herbs & Lemon
salmon fillet, skin on (or 6 ounces per person)
small shallot, finely chopped (about 1 heaped tablespoon)
chopped basil (or other herb of your choice)
dried dill (or 1 tablespoon fresh)
Finely grated zest of a lemon (1 loosely packed tablespoon)
tablespoon of olive oil or enough to moisten the herbs
A generous pinch of flaky sea salt
A shallow baking tray
A rack (doesn't need to fit into the tray)
A chef's knife and cutting board
A half-hour before you start: Remove the salmon from the refrigerator, unwrap it, and let it sit on the counter to come to room temperature. Place a pan 1/2 full of water (I use a 8" round cake tin) in the oven on the lower rack and preheat to 250°F.
Prep the herb paste: Finely chop the shallot, parsley, basil, and other herbs. Zest the lemon (I find a Microplane is the best way to go.) Mix the shallot, herbs, and lemon zest in a bowl, and moisten with the olive oil to form a rough paste.
Prepare the baking tray: Lightly oil the rack and place it over the tray. Place the salmon fillet skin-side down on the rack.
Coat the salmon with the herbs: Pat the herbs on top of the salmon, forming a thick layer. I haven't had much luck coating the sides (the herbs usually fall off), but you can certainly give it a try.
Bake the salmon 25 to 30 minutes: Place the salmon in the oven on the middle rack and close the door immediately. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes. A thicker fillet will usually need a little longer time. Check for doneness at 20 minutes: Remove the tray of salmon from the oven and close the oven door. (Since the oven is at such a low heat, you want to keep the door closed as much as possible.) Place a knife tip in the thickest part of the salmon and gently pry it open. If the salmon separates into flakes, it's done. If not, return it to the oven for another five minutes.
Garnish and serve: When the salmon is done, transfer it to a cutting board and cut into two pieces. To remove the skin (optional) work the edge of the spatula between the skin and the flesh. By gently wiggling, you should be able to lift the fillet clear of the skin. Sprinkle each fillet with the salt and serve.
A word on salt: This is one of those times where you want to use some of that fancy finishing salt. I especially recommend a large-flaked salt, such as Maldon. The reason for this is that the salt, which is sprinkled on the herb mixture just after baking, will retain it's shape and texture. So when you bite into the salmon, you'll get a hint of crunchiness and a burst of saltiness. It's a simple step with a big payoff in texture and flavor.
The herb layer isn't prescriptive. Use whatever you have on hand, although parsley is always a good base herb. I didn't have fresh dill on hand, so I used about 1/3 of the amount dried. The herbs don't need to be finely minced. A rough chop is fine.
The salmon is delicious served just out of the oven, or at room temperature. Leftovers make a delicious salmon salad when mixed with a small amount of mayo or thick yogurt. No additional seasoning is necessary, as the fish is already deeply flavored.