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How do I pan-cook salmon without it flaking off into bits

I'm new to cooking (recently moved out to college etc) and I tried salmon today. I added it with seasonings to a pan with oil, and trying flipping it etc. But the outer parts cooked really quickly and the inside wouldn't cook at first for a long time, and then the salmon flaked off into bits when I tried to see if the inside was cooked with a fork (gently, I must add).
Are there any tricks to cooking salmon right that I'm missing? I tried google, I swear but it didn't help.

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  1. Salmon is my nemesis. . . but some things I have learned.

    Slow slow slow low low low. You don't get the crispy skin if its a skin on filet, but things cook much more evenly. I tend to put a lid on the pan to help steam the top part.

    My best results have been under the broiler. Which is kinda opposite of what I said above.

    5 Replies
    1. re: autumm

      I tried this today (low and slow, I don't have a broiler) And I'm not a big fan of the skin, so I didn't have to worry. It went a bit better than last time so I'll eventually get there with the perfectly cooked fish.

      PS: Does slow-and-low work for other fishes (sole/trout) as well or are there different tricks to those? Online recipes never seem to mention these things...

      1. re: delancy

        I've never gone wrong with low and slow, except steak, but that's a different column. As long as crispy skin isn't very important to you, life will be good.

        Actually, if we have skin on fillets (IQF from costco) the low and slow lets us remove the not correctly cooked skin with no harm don to the overall meal

        1. re: delancy

          Salmon skin is incredible, if it's cooked right.

          1. re: rasputina

            I sometimes make cracklings with the skin and put them on my salad.

        2. re: autumm

          Hi, Autumn:

          I've only been cooking salmon for 40 years, but IMO very slow, low, and only heating from the bottom is a good way to go. A little woodsmoke and forming a pellicle before cooking helps a lot, too.


        3. I like to put the salmon skin side down in a hot pan and cook it until the skin is super crispy and the meat looks cooked about a third to halfway up the side of the filet. The center will still be pretty rare. Then I flip it over and put the whole pan in an over that has preheated to about 425. Let it stay in the oven for 5-10 minutes depending on thickness and how well or rare you want your fish. Remember, salmon does not need to be cooked to well done.

          1 Reply
          1. re: jpc8015

            I do this also, start out with a nonstick skillet preheated at medium, add EVOO, sear until the underside is browned, then in the oven at 400 for about 6 minutes, then take the pan out and cover off the heat for another 5-6 minutes, comes out perfect every time. I also season the meat instead of the oil. A fish spatula will help with the flipping.

          2. Hope you get more replies, since I cook mine skinless, and like the inside still a bit translucent.

            I start with fish at room temp for a brief bit, then pretty side down in a very hot pan. Usually with olive oil. I think it let's go when it's ready. Maybe 3 or 4 minutes for a one inch filet. Then flip, and I often finish in the boiler,maybe in a broiler pan. A nonstick pan helps, but maybe shouldn't be related this way. And the right spatula.

            I have circa college chefs in my family too, and son is working on his salmon technique!

            1. Your answer really depends on how you like your fish cooked to temperature....or thoroughly cooked through.

              For rare....high heat searing both sides.

              For medium-rare to medium, medium flame flipping when the sides of the filet turn opaque half way up the fillet. Note the minutes and do slightly less for the second side.

              For medium-well to cooked through, medium flame flipping when the sides are completely opaque...for cooked through fish fillet, you could even wait until the top side of the fillet starts to turn opaque.. Again, note the minutes and do slightly less for the second side.

              the same guidelines can be used for one inch fish steaks as well.

              1. I think one of the best investments a new cook can make is to buy a reliable instant read thermometer. I have a Thermapen, which is pricey but you can get a decent one for $15-20. I believe the CDN ProAccurate is good (make sure you calibrate it- directions should be on the pkg.).

                I cook salmon to a temp of 125 in the thickest part and let it rest for about 5 min. before eating. Usually, I'll sear the flesh side just to get some color, flip it to the skin side for the rest of the cooking time. If the skin becomes very crispy, you'll be able to slide the meat off of the skin (you could also do this in reverse order and avoid using oil beyond that produced by the salmon). While the meat's resting, you could turn the skin over to render the rest of the fat and you'll end up with a fish flavored chip.

                2 Replies
                1. re: OldSchool

                  Yes, a probe thermometer takes a lot of the voodoo out of cooking fillets, chops and steaks. I got mine cheap at a restaurant supply store and it's given very good service.

                  A pair of tongs is also indispensable. It makes flipping whole cuts of meat and seafood so much easier.

                  I like to start skin side down on medium heat to render some of the fat, with the pan covered so the steam helps it cook evenly. This way, when you flip it the flesh side is frying in the fish's own oil. After flipping, leave the lid off the pan so the skin doesn't get soggy from steam. Just remember not to flip the fillet until it releases with a gentle shake of the pan. If it's sticking, it's not done browning on that side, so don't try to pry it off with a spatula.

                  1. re: OldSchool

                    Yes I am thinking of getting one soon. Getting a bit tired of not being able to bake chicken/turkey breast either

                  2. here's my fail safe method for cooking skin-on salmon fillets:

                    heat a cast iron skillet on high heat until ripping hot. rub both sides with olive oil. sprinkle with salt and pepper. place skin side down in the skillet. when the edges turn opaque, flip the fillet, cover the pan and turn off the heat and let sit to absorb the residual heat from the pan.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: wonderwoman

                      This is my method as well. I love crispy salmon skin so I sear skin side down and then flip or pop in the broiler for just a minute or two as I like my salmon rare to medium rare.

                    2. Consider cooking it in your sink and crisping it up over hot hot heat in a pan once it's done. Odd to get your head around the concept, but it's easy as anything with magnificent results.


                      (PS: brining is completely optional and can be safely ignored)

                      1. As a new cook, you may not yet have learned that if you know what to look for, and smell for, and listen to, many foods will tell you when they are ready for the next step. For example, when melting butter for frying, you wait till the bubbles subside, which means the water has evaporated from the butter. When baking brownies, they are usually ready to pull from the oven when the chocolate aroma pervades the kitchen. In pan-cooking, it's important not to rush your protein, and to realize that when it's ready to flip, it will release from the pan easily. As long as the pan or food has been oiled, all you need to do is gently try to lift an edge. If it resists, back off and wait. When it's ready, you'll see as you lift that the underside has browned, and will move easily. You can also try shaking the pan instead of lifting an edge of the food.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: greygarious

                          Hopefully one day I'll get to that point, but right now I'm the clueless kid who has to chop chicken breasts up before cooking so I can tell that they are cooked through.

                          1. re: delancy

                            About being the clueless kid: don't beat up on yourself. Everyone was a clueless kid at some point (sometimes in adulthood!).

                            One of the things I remember well from when I was beginning to cook in my late teens--at college, because I wanted to be able to eat both well and cheaply--was that virtually every time I cooked anything, I discovered something that I did wrong. But once you forge ahead and add those learning experiences together, that happens less and less often. (Also, it never stops entirely: I still make mistakes.)

                            I hate to offer a cliché, but: "practice makes perfect."

                        2. Butter in a cold pan, when it starts to bubble add fish, skin side up. Once it has browned, flip over and finish cooking. You can tell when it is done by pressing on it. It will go from soft to not so soft to where you can see the fish start to separate when you press on it. Take it out then and immediately put on plate and serve.

                          1. The basic rule of thumb for cooking any fish is 10 minutes per inch of thickness of the fish. There aren't too many fish with a thickness of more than 1 inch, so beware overcooking.

                            Are you cooking a fillet or a steak?

                            I prefer salmon in fillet to steak. I like the skin on. I always start with medium heat - the meat side down and cook it that way until it releases itself from the pan. Then I flip it over and raise the heat to crisp the skin. If the fillet is particularly think, I like to put a lid on the pan part way to ensure cooking the fish through.

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: ChefJune

                              Would cooking over an electric stove (versus a gas one) make any difference to this?
                              (I had fillets, about 1 " in thickness)

                              1. re: delancy

                                the difference is that gas heat is more easily controlled. when you reduce or raise the flame, the effect is immediate, whereas it takes longer for an electric burner to respond. if learning to cook on electric, i'd err on the side of using lower heat for now. :)

                            2. Practice will help. I recommend a mixed pan/oven approach, but I do the reverse of jpc8015, cooking meat-side down first rather than skin-side.

                              If I have a slab of skin-on filet, I apply any desired salt and spices to the meaty side (I often use heavy seasoning with southwestern or other spice schemes, enjoying the flavors but also still getting straight salmon flavor from the interior). I let it sit on the counter for 30-60 minutes, too, if I can, because bringing up the temperature of the filet allows for quicker cooking to doneness.

                              Pre-heat an oven-safe, preferably non-stick or cast iron, skillet on the stove top with some olive oil. Put your oven anywhere from 375-425 degrees. The filet can sear meat side down for 6 minutes (you should hear a sizzle when you put it in), then flip it over, and, depending on thickness, either let it cook for another minute on stovetop (if thick) or just toss it immediately into the preheated oven.

                              Your challenge is doneness. Normally, it takes about 5-7 minutes more in the oven. I do own all the kinds of thermometers people mention here. But as with steak, I think that salmon doneness can be effectively judged with a quick touch. It just takes experience. Here it is:

                              Try clenching your fist and pressing and the area between your thumb and index finger. With a barely clenched fist--like when your hand is shaped as a fist but not tensing--that area is very soft and spongy. If you tightly clench your fist, that area is firm. But if you go in the middle and feel that slightly spongy texture, that's what medium rare in steak and salmon feel like, and it's what I shoot for. (Very Goldilocks--just right...) That's when things are done.

                              Also keep in mind the effect of carryover cooking--cooking that happens after you remove the item from heat. Removing or keeping the fish in the pan is one of your choices to make as you let it settle down for a few minutes. The thicker the fish, the longer it will keep cooking itself from residual heat.

                              1. Try cooking it slower as suggested. If you like eating the skin (I do) make sure to dry off the filet and then let it air dry - similar to hashbrowns. You'll get crispier results with less moisture.

                                You can choose if you like to cook it skin- or meat-side down first. You can also cook skin-side down only if you cook it even slower or use a lid to steam cook. The lid is also a handy tool if you find the filet cooking too fast on the exterior. Put the lid on and you'll get an oven effect that cooks the inside faster

                                1. Lots of suggestions so far. I will provide a technique for determining when any fish is done. Picked it up from reading Eric Ripert and David Chang, both of whom can cook a pretty nifty fish dish. Get a small metal skewer or a thin blade paring knife. When you think the fish is about done, insert the skewer/knife tip into the thickest part of the fish about half way through. Pull it out and touch the metal to the space between your lower lip and chin. If its warm, not hot, just warm, the fish is done.

                                  1. first off, pat the fish dry with paper towels. steaming off the moisture on the skin delays the cooking process itself (must go before heat begins to work on the fish) and might be part of your problem.

                                    i rub mine with oil, salt, pepper all over; get a skillet hot, with some oil to keep fish from sticking. make sure it's hot, like water droplets skitter on it hot. put the fish in skin-side down, 2-3 minutes. flip it once; another 2-3 minutes. remove. this will give you a crispy exterior, and a rare interior. leave on heat for 1-2 minutes longer per side for mid-rare, and 2-3 minutes longer for medium. any more done than medium, i wouldn't recommend it for best taste/texture of your salmon. :-) good luck!

                                    1. If I'm doing it on the stove, I sear it and cook it quickly with the middle just barely done. I only turn it once, and I start skin side down.

                                      1. Salt, pepper, chili powder, paprika, and mayonnaise spread thinly on top of fish. Place that side down in a hot pan and sear until blackened (3 minutes), flip and sear skin side (3-4 min), and then cover pan and turn down heat to medium/medium-low for an additional 3-4 minutes. Comes out so tender and cooked perfectly.

                                        1. Whether broiling, grilling, or pan-cooking salmon fillets, my first step (after washing & patting dry) is to place the fillets in a shallow baking dish with about 1/4 inch of olive oil, salt & pepper. After turning the fillets to coat completely in olive oil, I then leave them in the olive oil skin side up, for about 20 minutes. That way the top surface of the fish is coated with oil, which makes it much easier to flip when cooking.

                                          For a fillet that is about 3/4 inch thick, I cook for about 8 minutes. This is true whether broiling, grilling, or pan-frying

                                          If pan frying, I place the fillet, skin side up in the pan at medium-high heat (typically anodized aluminum), without any oil added to the pan. After about 4 minutes, when you can see from the side of the salmon that it is starting to cook through, I flip the fillet, so that the second half of the cooking is with the skin side down.

                                          One other secret to flipping the salmon so that it remains intact is to use 2 spatulas. One goes underneath the fish and then, as you are lifting up the fish, position the second spatula to receive the fish as it is turned, and lower the second spatula to place the fish onto the pan surface. This technique works well for any food that is difficult to turn.

                                          1. There have been so many great replies that I think you should be fine technique-wise. I did want to mention my favorite flavoring for salmon which is super easy and tasty. In a shallow bowl or baking pan, combine 4 parts miso, 2 parts mirin, and 2 parts olive oil (the quantities can vary depending on how much salmon you have), mix into a smooth paste and coat the salmon with mixture. Let sit for 20 minutes before cooking. Ideally this should be cooked on the grill, but it's good in a pan as well. For 1/2 lb. of salmon a good quantity would be 1/4 cup of miso, and 2 tablespoons each of mirin and olive oil.

                                            Miso and mirin are not always available at major grocers but are usually available at health food stores and always at any store that specializes in Asian foods.

                                            1. As a number of people have posted Very low and slow. Leave the skin on to help the fish stay together. Saute skin side down in clarified butter only. No herbs etc to take away the natural flavor of the fish. You can add them later if you like. DO NOT ever turn the fish.....any fish. Cover with glass lid so you can watch as the fish is cooking. When the center of the fish has barely changed color from obviously raw to the same color as around the edges the fish is done. It only takes a tiny bit too much heat and or a tiny bit too long and the fish is going to be over cooked and dry. It can take a few attempts to get the timing right depending on the fish and the thickness. The key is to watch the center of the fillet like a hawk.

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: Puffin3

                                                @puffin: why do you steam your fish?

                                                one thing i haven't seen mentioned yet is the shape and variable thickness of the cut fish. sometimes the edges can be very thin when compared to the center. unless i want to use the fish all cooked through, i don't buy pieces that look like that and do my best to get pieces of a uniform size.

                                                even with a non-stick pan, you need a film of oil. keep the fish in the fridge until a minute before you will pop into the pan. dry it off very well with paper towels. season or not, your choice, but salt at the very least. when the oil is shimmering in your pan place the fish skin side down. you can see the color of flesh change gradually, moving upwards from the heat source. shake the pan a bit to see if the fish is easily dislodged. if it is, turn over with a broad spatula. if it's a big piece, you may need 2 spatulas at first.

                                                both the pan and fish will be hotter so cooking after the flip will take less time than the first turn.

                                                the skewer stick to check internal temp is good, or you can use a very thin knife.

                                                let the fish sit a few minutes after you take it from the pan. it will continue to "cook" still, from the residual heat.

                                                imo, 10 minutes per inch of fish is too much, unless your heat is extra-low..

                                              2. By whatever method you choose to cook your piece of salmon, you can tell when it is done (not overdone and dry and flaky) by the white spots that start forming on the surface of the piece. I call it coagulation of the proteins, but I don't know what the technical term is. When the top surface gets milky spots, the salmon is done.

                                                1 Reply
                                                1. re: jmnewel

                                                  It's albumin, which is indeed a protein.

                                                2. Not to the OP, specifically, but since it's come up a few times, here is how to get crispy skin every time:

                                                  - Dry the skin off before you start cooking it.
                                                  - Cut a few crosswise or diagonal slits into the skin with a very sharp knife. This keeps the skin from shrinking and pulling away from the pan surface while cooking. It also looks nice.
                                                  - Let the pan preheat a bit. Don't start cold.
                                                  - Use some oil, even if you're cooking on non-stick.
                                                  - Go for medium low heat. Significantly lower than you would for searing a steak, but still hot enough that a drop of water spits and crackles in the oil and you hear a little sizzle when the fish is added.
                                                  - Sear skin side down first. Cook a bit more than halfway through on this side. This will take several minutes, but depends in part on the thickness of the fillet.
                                                  - Turn the fillet and cook until done on the other side.
                                                  - Do NOT use the lid at any point. Don't add liquids to the pan. Do not crowd the pan.

                                                  1 Reply
                                                  1. re: cowboyardee

                                                    Pretty much how I do most fish. Start with it very dry, cook 2/3 the way on one side then finish quickly on the other.

                                                    If fish is flaking badly when trying to remove it from the pan it's over cooked.

                                                  2. What I do is a cross between pan frying and poaching. Heat up a frying pan just big enough to contain your fish. Add butter or oil. lay in the fish, then pour in white wine or water -- just enough to slosh around a bit. Add dill or whatever seasonings, and turn the heat down so it is very softly simmering. Put a glass lid on.

                                                    Cook until the fish is just about done and turn off the heat. Let it set briefly, then serve. Turn up the heat and make a pan sauce out of the liquid.

                                                    If it's a steak instead of a boneless filet, you should turn it over halfway through.

                                                    1. I always sear off fish skin side down first. I use a hotter pan than the other posters because I want crispy skin before the fish has cooked too much.

                                                      The flaking problem sounds like you are overcooking your fish.

                                                      1. There now; Wasn't that helpful?