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Jan 9, 2008 06:29 AM

How would I like my salmon? PERFECT

One of my most hated questions: “how would you like your salmon?” My answer is always the same… I want it slightly crispy on the outside, cooked through the middle, and not dry. Tuna, yes, can be rare. But salmon is different and restaurants seem to confuse the two. If you happen to like your salmon rare this can be specified, but my feeling is that the assumed preparation should be no different than that of red snapper, halibut, or chicken. It should be the chef’s take (which may vary) on “perfect.”

Last night I ordered salmon at the Clinton Street Bakery and the waitress posed this question. I took a deep breath and tried to explain my feelings above, and she recommended medium. I stressed I wanted it cooked through and went with her recommendation, but it came back raw. This is becoming a regular occurrence and I don’t know how best to convey myself. It’s not a steak and I hate having to guess what level of instruction is going to yield the results I desire.

I’m curious what other chowhounds have to say on this topic. Does anyone else share my frustration?

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  1. I have the same thing with diver scallops. I like them cooked through, but someone decided awhile back that scallops and salmon should be rare? Don't get it, dont think it gives the fish justice.

    2 Replies
    1. re: gyppielou

      I always specify "cooked through" when ordering Salmon. Call it Medium, Medium Well or whatever you like. Cook it through or I am sending it back. It is very tough to dry out salmon due to its oily nature and thickness.

      1. re: princeofpork

        I agree, and just like my Beef Tenderloin, I try to describe just what I want - warm red center for the Beef, and "flaky" for the Salmon. As you say, "call it, what you will," but I want it, as I ordered it - let the wait staff and the kitchen sort out what to call it.

        Same for Duck Breast. I describe it, and that is what I want.


    2. The trend of cooking Salmon rare, or pan seared only may have started with cuisine from Gilbert Le Coze, of Le Bernardin. After all the acclaim he received following the restaurants opening......many other followed his examples.

      It was widely known he served his Salmon only this way......when a customer would send it back to be cooked up as ordered........he refused and told the patron to order something else.

      1. Jfood thinks that salmon is different than your cited examples (halibut, snapper, chicken)because M&M jfood disagree on the level of doneness in salmon (not the other three) and they are just two data points.

        Interesting that in the first paragraph you want the "chef's take" while in the second paragraph you you state "the results I desire." Did you leave the word "not" in the chef's take sentence? Which are you looking for? If it is yours, why the angst about describing to the server, once again they are not, nor is the kitchen, mindreaders.

        Jfood likes his rare in the middle and mrs jfood, like you, wants it cooked through. And mrs jfood has sent several back to the kitchen for further heating. She has found that ordering it "medium" seems to give the correct indication to most kitchens, but again there will be exceptions.

        So to your "PERFECT" comment in the header, you and mrs jfood have a different perfect than jfood.

        17 Replies
        1. re: jfood

          Jfood does have a point. I guess I should clarify that my frustration is more surrounding the question itself. I feel the chef should have a preferred method of cooking, and that being asked indicates that he/she does not (fourunder pointed out that Gilbert Le Coze was very adamant about his salmon preparation, and I respect that). It’s true that my idea of perfect salmon may differ from what the chef and others like Jfood envision, but when I am given a choice AND it comes out wrong, it conveys to me that the chef has both a lack of vision and skill. This will likely continue to be a negotiation, but I’d prefer my salmon be served to me with conviction. And, ideally, it should reflect some version of perfection ;-)

          1. re: Stacy

            I'm probably with jfood on this. I think there is generally a preferred (if not correct) degree of 'doneness' for many foods (I don't like my poulty medium rare, nor do I like it overcooked and dry). But Salmon, like most cuts of beef has a lot of lattitude. I also like my Salmon no more than med rare in the center and my wife likes it pretty much medium throughout. While I would absolutely rely on the chef as to the method of cooking the salmon, how to season/sauce it, etc., I would never order it without making it clear how much doness I prefer (and then the chef is perfectly within his right to tell me I'm an idiot and please order something else....)

            1. re: bnemes3343

              I think salmon should always be poached, and I like it cooked through too. I don't like all this raw fish and don't thnk it's good for you, it's probably full of parasites.

              1. re: bronwen

                Well, if raw or less than fully cooked fish is full of parasites, they must be having a party in me (and LOTS of others). I could (probably) eat a piece of salmon that was 'cooked through', as you say, but would you do the same with a wonderful piece of Tuna? And I'm guessing that sashimi of any kind isn't one of your go-to foods. Is there anything better than a piece of raw beef, pounded very thin with some salt, drizzled oil and a few shaves of parmesan? Hey, parasites have rights too!

                1. re: bnemes3343

                  Frankly I could use a parasite right now. The diet is not going so well.

                  Personally, I think it is a shame to cook a good piece of fish. There are a few chefs out there who do it well, but most do not, and so I find I very rarely order cooked fish in a restaurant, unless I know they are good, or if they specialize in fish.

                  I understand Stacey's frustration. It is always difficult to send back your meal to have them redo it. It throws off the rhythm of the meal. Negotiation will always have to happen. And it is hard because "perfection" is such a subjective thing...

                  1. re: moh

                    "Frankly I could use a parasite right now. The diet is not going so well."

                    lol :) sadly, there are frustrated dieters who do resort to such extreme measures.

                    regarding the salmon issue, i think it's similar to ordering a steak. you should have it cooked the way you want it. period.

                    personally i can't stand my salmon if it's cooked at all past medium, and i like my steak rare to medium rare...and when i order it that way, that's how i expect it to be cooked when my plate arrives.

                    so if stacy wants "slightly crispy on the outside, cooked through the middle, and not dry," and that's what she's paying the restaurant for, then that's how they should serve it to her.

                    1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                      ah yes, a friend and I have been known to travel back from India with a small brass flask of Ganges water.....meaningful, certainly, but useful also we thought if we wanted to lose 15 lbs in one fell swoop!

                  2. re: bnemes3343

                    It is probably more likely that you can get a parasitic infection from raw beef than you can from raw fish. Fish do have many parasites but most parasites that live in cold-blooded hosts have a very hard time transferring to a warm-blooded host (you). For example, nematodes can cause a severe gastric upset called anisakiasis but the nematodes usually cannot live longer than 7-10 days in the human digestive tract. As for raw fish (sashimi), Japan's National Health Institute recommends freezing fish to -4°F for several hours when preparing raw fish. This kills the parasites. I have no idea if Japanese restaurants here in the U.S. follow this guideline but I'd like to think that our FDA is on top of this.

                    1. re: ThaiNut

                      all raw fish served in the US is SUPPOSED to be frozen first.

                      1. re: ThaiNut

                        I'm pretty sure that in Canada, the fish must be frozen at -18C for seven days to kill the parasites before it can be served for sushi or tartare.

                        1. re: ThaiNut

                          The incidence of parasitic infection caused by raw beef (and pork for that matter) is extrememly rare. Go to the CDC's website and review the Monthly Morbidity and Weekly Report. The statistics show that you have more chance of getting an infection from undercooked bear or cougar meat than from commercially raised beef\pork.

                          Fish parasites in man are usually (I said usually) caused by fresh water fish fish which is why they don't serve raw trout/eel/etc. in Japan. Anago (salt water eel) you'll find as sashimi but Unagi (fresh water eel) is allways cooked.

                        2. re: bnemes3343

                          Me too! Like probiotics we probably all need a few of them in our gut. I started off, as a young woman, eating salmon, and most other things, cooked through; until the moment I tried a piece of translucent (wild, of course) salmon still dark pink and shiny in the middle. How fresh! How velvety! How succulent! One could really feel as well as taste the fish oil on the tongue and lips; almost as good as lox. There was no going back to the bland, cloudy taste of salmon cooked through. Not sure (I'm neither scientist not gourmet) but I think it is the oil component which is missing in salmon cooked through?, which gets changed by cooking through; changed, degraded somehow? so it no longer feels silky smooth. And for me, that silky smooth feel/taste has become the arbiter of a "proper" or "perfect" salmon cook.

                          1. re: bnemes3343

                            All tuna used for sashimi has been previously frozen. Freezing kills any parasites. Fish going through the freezing process enhances the flavor.
                            99% of salmon served in restaurants has been previously frozen unless the restaurant can get VERY fresh salmon which is a lot more expensive due to air cargo charges. West Coast restaurants can get fresh salmon but in the rest of the country salmon is transported frozen by truck/rail.
                            As for cooking I rarely cook salmon. I don't like it. Any of it.
                            If someone gives me a fresh salmon I invite them for dinner and they can eat it. I always poach any fish very low and slow in a tasteless oil until just cooked through so it's just barely flaky. A little carry-over heat finishes the cooking.

                      2. re: Stacy

                        Thanks Stacy. Here is a typical conversation at Table Jfood.

                        Mrs jfood orders a fish. server asks how would she like it. mrs jfood responds. "cooked through, probably medium."
                        Jfood orders a fish. server asks how would he like it. jfood answers, "the way the chef wants to prepare it."

                        They come out together and are hopefully cooked to each of their requests. That's a good resto. If it comes out other than requested jfood agrees there is less than adequate skill.

                        1. re: Stacy

                          Wait a minute: now I'm confused: whose conviction should it be served with, and whose vision of perfection? you want it to be PERFECT, but you also want it to be the chef's idea of PERFECT...? In other words, you have a very specific idea of how you want it, but you also think the chef has his own idea, and if they vary, well, ....It sounds as though what you would really like is for the chef to NOT give you a choice, but to have the same exact vision as you anyway and to follow his/her vision, which happens to coincide with yours...(though as others have pointed out, a lot of folks don't share that vision: I also prefer that salmon be rare).

                          Is it possible that this ambivalence is somehow coming out even though you don't intend it to, which could in turn be confusing for the server?

                          1. re: Stacy

                            I just want you to know I get where you're coming from, and agree.
                            If the chef feels they've reached perfection with a sear and more than slight level of "done" in "my" opinion, I'm going to defer to the chef, leaving my prefs at home

                            If I'm AT home? I like salmon that is warm and just-opaque through. Any albumin is unacceptable, tho. I was taught that meant it was cooked too hot, too fast.

                          2. re: jfood

                            I agree with jfood. Salmon is different from the other cited examples.

                            In our family I happen to like my salmon from almost rare to a silky medium (in the center) -and the Hubby wants it medium to fully cooked (not dry). He takes his tuna black and blue. (We both love sushi, but that is different.)

                            I do appreciate it when the waiter asks how I want something cooked. In a restaurant that I trust, I usually answer the question: "The way the Chef thinks is the best".

                            But just last week I was served cod that was mostly totally rare. I sent it to be reheated, since I really do not think cod is OK to eat rare...? The restaurant was apologetic, so I guess they agreed. (No one had asked me how I want it cooked, so that was an indication too, since they usually ask).

                          3. I am not a fan of Salmon it usually has a slightly funky aroma & flavor that doesn't jive with me. However... raw Salmon, rare & smoked I really dig.

                            Cooked through... no way in hell, when I am cooking it and it starts to seep those white "boogers" as it goes through the Medium cooking phase it usually ruins my appetite... but a beutifully rare center is quite attractive, no "boogers", and a crispy exterior... now we are talking!

                            10 Replies
                            1. re: Eat_Nopal


                              When those white things (just can't get to your word, if you do not mind) that usually indicates that the correct temp has been reached for jfood's family and is overcooked for jfood.

                              1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                That "slightly funky aroma & flavor" tells that the (piece of) salmon is not really fresh. For me, this is one of the big downsides of living in New York...

                                1. re: FoodWine

                                  Not necessarily... I've had fresh, line caught Salmon here in Northern California... there is still this funkyness that reminds me of Sardines... very oceany fish.

                                  1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                    OK, I hear you.
                                    The reason I chimed in, is that growing up, I spent my summers on an island (in Scandinavia) and got used to "minutes ago" caught fish, including salmon. A fisherman used to stop by and give us some just caught fish, on his way back home. I also caught fish myself (nets & line).
                                    So I know what fresh fish looks and smells like.
                                    That is why I am so frustrated here in New York: so many times the people at my various local fish stores try to tell me -with a straight face - that their fish is super fresh -and I do not even have to smell it to know that it so is not fresh.
                                    Maybe I should move to Northern California... sounds like heaven to me...

                                    What makes our differing experiences of the salmon aroma even more interesting, is that you mention sardines. I dislike the sardine smell, and rarely eat them. (The hubby does, though, so I get to "enjoy" those aromas every now and then.)

                                    Maybe the California salmon has a slightly different aroma than the salmon from the Gulf of Finland & Gulf of Botnia...?


                                    It just occurred to me that maybe we are not talking about the same thing:
                                    I am talking about the scent of a fresh, raw piece of salmon... If you are talking about the smell it emits while being cooked, yes, I agree... there is a funky aroma (and because I have a really bad venting system in my kitchen, I therefore mostly cook salmon in the oven, or under the broiler in the oven, not on the stovetop.)

                                    But, like I mentioned, too often a raw piece of salmon smells funky already in the fish store, here in New York. I thought you were talking about that.

                                    1. re: FoodWine

                                      Raw Salmon is wonderful... its the cooking that brings out that Sardine like flavor. My wife explained to me that its the high content of Omega fatty acids (which tend to be quite volatile particularly as they are heated)... that is why if you cook the Salmon under medium... it will not develop that fishyness that I am not so fond of.

                                      On the other hand... I have had very palatable pieces of fresh salmon that have been cooked almost done.... they just happen to be sauced liberally & grilled by someone other than me!

                                      1. re: FoodWine

                                        Also if you want to experience this heaven in Northern California... I am specifically referring to the Russian River area (same as the Russian River apellation of Sonoma County wines you might be familiar with)... where it meets the Pacific ocean... there are a number of Fishing Tour companies that will take you out to catch Salmon in the estaury... then come back & have it cooked or cook it yourself etc.,

                                        1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                          Thank you for the great tip, Eat Nopal! We will absolutely come visit! (We are already in love with the Napa Valley area [and the parts of Sonoma we have seen), and are ready to expand our horizons].

                                        2. re: FoodWine

                                          Two things:

                                          First, the salmon you grew up eating is not the same stuff as used to be (see below) caught off the California coast. The fish off of Finland are Salmo salar, or Atlantic salmon. Virtually all of the catch off of California is Oncorhynchus tshawytscha, or King (Chinook) salmon, with a few Oncorhynchus kisutch (coho or silver salmon) mixed in.

                                          Salmo is finer in texture and flavor than Oncorhynchus. The silkiness of top-quality lox simply isn't attainable with Pacific salmon. Not to say that Oncorhynchus isn't good eating; I'm an avid fisherman, and in the past tried to bring home a few hundred pounds of the stuff each year.

                                          But as indicated above, salmon fishing in California (and Oregon, too) may be a thing of the past. All commercial and recreational salmon fishing in California's oceans and rivers has been banned until further notice because the number of fish returning to spawn has crashed. Hopefully the fish population will rebound and fishing be re-opened, but until then Alaska is going to be the primary source for Pacific salmon.

                                          1. re: alanbarnes

                                            Good information. Thanks. The salmon that Walmart sells,
                                            at least here in N. Carolina, comes from farms in Chile. Do you have any idea what the species is and the plusses and minuses of those fish?

                                            1. re: ThaiNut

                                              The vast majority of farmed salmon is Atlantic salmon (salmo salar), and the vast majority of commercially-available Atlantic salmon is farmed. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch, farmed salmon should be avoided:

                                              Salmon farmers seem to be getting their act together a little bit from the heyday of the '80s and '90s, cutting back on wholesale additions of antibiotics to the feed and other practices that were seen as dangerous and abusive. But the fish are still kept in tight quarters where they and the surrouding waters are exposed to high levels of biological waste. And FWIW, the color of wild salmon comes from eating krill, while the color of farmed salmon comes from dye added to the salmon chow.

                                              The big plus is that farmed salmon is (relatively) cheap. The big minus is that current methods aren't sustainable, and it's unclear whether they can be made so. Some folks claim that salmon aquaculture may be behind the decline of wild stocks to crash, but the science isn't there yet. Meanwhile, until I can catch my own again, I prefer wild-caught Alaskan salmon.

                                  2. The original comment has been removed