Versatile salmon lends itself to a wide variety of preparations, from cold poached salads to silky smoked lox to baked, broiled and grilled entrees. Legions of commercial spice mixes and prepackaged rubs formulated for salmon fill supermarket shelves, but the best seasonings for this heart-healthy fish comes the traditional cuisines of the regions where salmon is a native species. North American, western European and Scandinavian cooks have developed seasoning pairings using spices, fresh herbs and sauces, while foodies in the Pacific Northwest have elevated natural wood smoking to an art form.
Fresh herbs figure prominently in salmon preparations. Gravlax, a traditional cured Swedish dish, employs fresh dill, sugar and salt. The briny, pickle-like pungency of dill also counteracts salmon's rich, buttery texture in poached salmon salads. Flavorful summer herbs such as basil, oregano, thyme and parsley, paired with freshly squeezed lemon juice, brighten broiled or baked salmon fillets. Dried herbs are a convenient substitute when fresh herbs aren't available, but their flavor won't be as pronounced.
A sprinkling of salt and pepper is all that's needed to enhance salmon's intrinsic character -- but spice rubs add a blast of intense flavor to baked or broiled fillets. A typical blend includes sugar, salt, dehydrated garlic or onion powder, cumin and chili powder or cayenne pepper for spicy heat. Sweet rubs may contain cinnamon, cloves or allspice with the savory elements. Maple flavoring with sugar or molasses, echoing salmon's Canadian origin, is another popular addition.
Smoking with naturally flavorful wood planks infuses fresh salmon with a delectably sweet, smoky tang. This age-old technique involves placing a fresh salmon fillet on a soaked wood plank, laying the plank over a medium-hot charcoal grill and covering the grill to allow the smoke to permeate the fillet. Some cooks further season the fish by laying onion rings, rosemary sprigs or other herbs directly on the fillet. Red cedar, apple wood and maple give the fish herbal, sweet and spicy essences.
Haute French cuisine features creamy sauces for baked fish. Hollandaise sauce, traditionally composed of egg yolks, butter and lemon juice, exponentially increases salmon's already rich texture. A variation of Hollandaise, Bearnaise sauce, includes fresh chopped herbs like tarragon or parsley. Mornay sauce, a white sauce with the addition of Gruyere and Parmesan cheeses, is another classic accompaniment. Augment an all-purpose white sauce with fresh dill, watercress or parsley to coat cold poached salmon, or whisk in whole-grain French mustard for a piquant pairing.