Moist, meaty salmon makes a versatile, heart-healthy food for any meal. Whether you serve it dilled with scrambled eggs for breakfast, crumble it on a salad for lunch, bite into a salmon steak for dinner or smear it in a spread for a snack, make sure your cooked salmon color indicates it's done.
When salmon is cooked, the flesh will turn opaque, and it will flake easily when speared with a fork.
Know the Science
Salmon — like other fish — has white striations in the meat reminiscent of rings in a tree. These white lines are collagen, which holds the muscle together. The collagen dissolves as the fish cooks, relaxing its grip on the muscle fiber and making the salmon flake easily apart.
This happens because the cooking heat makes the connective tissue soften, according to Purdue University. At the same time, the muscle fibers coagulate, causing them to turn from translucent to opaque. The cooked salmon color also turns, from dark pink to a lighter pink, the more well done it gets.
Because of its short muscle fibers, the process of cooking is much faster in salmon and other fish than it is in beef; it's easy to overcook fish, especially at low temperatures. Pale-pink or whitish cooked salmon color with solid flesh lets you know that you've overcooked your salmon, and a dry dinner awaits.
It might seem counter-intuitive, but the easiest way to overcook fish is at low temperatures. Instead, the best way to preserve the flesh is to set the salmon cook temp at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for approximately 10 minutes, per inch of thickness.
Remove salmon from the heat while the flesh between the muscles is still semi-opaque and moist-looking. The fish will continue cooking internally for a few minutes.
Bake Tender, Opaque Salmon
Use these tips from Chef Gordon Ramsay, shared with the educational site MasterClass, to make tender salmon in the oven:
- Broil it: Lay your salmon on an aromatic applewood or cedar plank and pop it under the broiler for about five minutes. The top of the fish will be browned and the center slightly undercooked. If you want it a little more well-done, turn off the appliance and leave it in the oven for another minute or two, keeping a close eye on it to make sure it doesn't overcook.
- Roast it: Line a roasting pan with parchment paper or foil and place salmon fillets skin side down. Place in a 450 F oven for approximately eight minutes.
- Crisp it and then bake it: Heat a cast-iron skillet with a little oil and place the salmon skin-side down and sear it briefly. Pop the pan into the oven with a salmon cook temp of 400 F for approximately 10 minutes.
- Wrap it: Keep salmon moist by wrapping it in aluminum foil, or parchment paper, before putting it in the oven. You won't get crispy skin, but you can create a dramatic presentation at the table, or use the moist flesh in other recipes.
- Break it down properly: When slicing a whole fish into fillets, start by brushing your knife along the salmon's skin, to ensure there are no remaining scales, and provide clean knife strokes. Wipe the blade after each cut; a clean knife makes a clean cut, according to Ramsay, in additional tips shared with MasterClass. Finally, make fillets slightly thinner, the closer you get to the belly, to ensure uniform cooking and portion sizes.
Salmon cooked with oil delivers 2.57 grams of fat per ounce, with less than a half a gram as saturated fatty acids according to the USDA. Besides healthy omega-3 fats, salmon delivers significant amounts of vitamins A, D, E and K as well as magnesium, phosphorus and other minerals.
Throw It on the Grill
John Wilkin, director of the graduate program of oceanography at the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, recommends grilling an entire salmon on a gas grill, with a hood to prevent overcooking. Tips for achieving perfectly cooked salmon include:
- Make several deep diagonal slices, nearly down to the spine, along the top of the fish, to help ensure fast and even cooking. These will lift away easily, as individual servings, when the fish is cooked, so plan accordingly.
- Sprinkle sea salt on the skin, and rub on a thin coating of olive oil to help retain internal moisture, and produce crisp skin.
- Rub the inside of the cavity with dill and a little salt. Slice a lemon, and lay the slices inside the salmon body cavity, to keep things moist.
- Place citrus slices on the preheated grill rack and place your salmon on top of these. The citrus will mostly burn away, preventing your fish from getting charred and overcooked on the bottom.
- Turn the heat down if the fish starts to char. When the fish is a pale pink in the middle, but not cooked to the spine, turn off the heat and remove the fish using spatulas (scoop beneath the citrus slices).
- When the fish is cooked correctly, you can easily lift away the upper portions, between your knife slices, to serve. Then, gently lift away the head and spine, to serve the bottom part without having to turn the fish.
- Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences: "How to Grill a Whole Salmon"
- Purdue University: "Cooking Fish and Shellfish"
- Masterclass: "Easy Baked Salmon Recipe: How to Make Perfect Salmon at Home"
- MasterClass: "Tips for Breaking Down a Whole Salmon"
- Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences: Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences: "John Wilkin"
- ACS Omega: "Characterization of Glycosaminoglycans in Gaping and Intact Connective Tissues of Farmed Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar) Fillets by Mass Spectrometry"
- USDA FoodData Central: "Salmon, Baked or Broiled, Made With Oil"