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At what temperature is salmon done? Why is my salmon always so dry? These are just a few of the commonly asked questions when cooking salmon. So, why does salmon tend to turn out dry?
It’s because most people over-cook it. It’s not their fault. The USDA recommends cooking salmon to 145 degrees Fahrenheit. Please don’t do that. You’ll find the best results in the 120 to 125 degrees Fahrenheit range using an accurate digital meat thermometer.
You can’t really eyeball it to see if your salmon is done. No more talk of opaque flesh and other nonsense. Your salmon will most likely turn out dry. Do yourself a favor and have science on your side. Taking internal temperature is the best way.
And to complicate things further, you will find it is best to cook wild salmon to around 120 degrees Fahrenheit versus 125 degrees Fahrenheit for farmed salmon,
According to Cooks Illustrated,
Wild salmon has more collagen (and thus connective tissue) and, more important, a significantly greater number of chemical cross-links between collagen molecules. When the wild varieties are cooked to just 120 degrees, the muscle fibers contract less and therefore retain more moisture. The leanest wild salmon also contains less fat, about half as much as farmed salmon, so there is less fat to provide lubrication and the perception of juiciness when cooked.
Types of Salmon and Their Recommended Cooking Methods
There are a few different varieties of salmon, each with varying degrees of fat content. Hence, how you cook one salmon variety might be completely different from another. The main varieties of Pacific wild salmon that are decent for cooking are King, Sockeye, and Coho. There is also farm-raised Atlantic Salmon. Let’s take a look at each variety and its characteristics.
King Salmon: The name says it all. Also known as Chinook salmon, they are the largest salmon in the ocean, with some growing to gigantic sizes. Having the highest fat content, King Salmon lends itself perfectly to roasting or pan-frying.
Sockeye Salmon: The flesh of Sockeye Salmon will be a deeper reddish color compared to King Salmon. Flavorful, sockeye has significantly less fat than King salmon and will dry out if not properly cooked. Great for smoking.
Coho Salmon: A smaller, flavorful salmon variety with little fat content. Perfect for cured preparations.
Atlantic Salmon: The majority of the salmon consumed in the United States is farm-raised Atlantic Salmon. Confined to aquaculture pens in the ocean, farmed salmon have a considerable amount of intramuscular fat.
What temperature should you cook salmon at?
The temperature at which you cook salmon depends on what cooking technique you choose. Let’s take a look at the different styles of cooking salmon and what level of heat they require.
Generally, you want a salmon cook temp that isn’t too high so that the outside of the fish cooks too much before the inside is done. A cooking temperature of 325 degrees Fahrenheit in most instances is recommended.
Cooking Salmon: Pan-Frying, Roasted, Grilled, and Sous Vide Cooking Techniques
Please note, these techniques are all based on cooking a 6 to 8-ounce skin-on salmon fillet. If you are cooking a whole salmon I would suggest cooking in the oven at 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
Why the lower temperature? Well, a salmon isn’t uniform in size from head to tail so if you cook it at 400 degrees and above the back part of your fish will turn out drier than cardboard.
The time on this will vary by the size of your salmon obviously, that’s why I stick my oven-safe thermometer probe in the middle of the salmon and set the temperature alert for 125 degrees Fahrenheit. I can then go about my business preparing side dishes and other things while the salmon cooks. This is convenient when I’m cooking something for a decent amount of time.
The carryover heat will raise the internal temperature another 5 to 10 degrees after cooking due to the size of the fish, ensuring it is done but not dry inside.
Heat a skillet on the stove on medium-high heat, add a tablespoon of vegetable oil. Place the salmon fillet skin side down and cook until the skin is crisp and releases from the pan when gently prodded with a spatula. This should take anywhere from 3 to 5 minutes. When the salmon releases from the pan easily, flip it over and cook the flesh side for about 2 to 4 more minutes. Let the salmon rest for at least 5 minutes, the residual heat should bring the salmon to 120 to 125 degrees Fahrenheit.
Place a rimmed baking sheet on the lowest rack setting in the oven. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Score the skin by making 3 or 4 slashes, trying not to cut into the flesh of the fish.
Make sure the salmon is patted dry of excess moisture, rub some oil on the fish, and season with salt and pepper. Turn the oven down to 325 degrees Fahrenheit and then place the salmon on the baking sheet, skin-side down.
Roast the salmon until it registers 120 degrees on an instant-read digital thermometer. This should take 8 to 12 minutes. Let the salmon rest for 5 minutes and serve.
You can also stick a probe thermometer in your salmon before putting it in the oven to monitor the temperature.
For grilled salmon on a charcoal or propane grill, create a two-zone fire. For the charcoal grill, light briquets in a chimney. When briquets are ready, put ¾ of them on one side of the grill. For propane grills leave one or two burners on a high setting. When the grill is nice and hot, place the salmon skin-side down on the hot part of the grill. Cover the grill and cook for 3 minutes.
After 3 minutes try testing the salmon to see if it lifts easily from the grill. When the salmon easily separates from the grill, flip and cook for a few more minutes until it reaches 120 degrees Fahrenheit on an accurate instant-read thermometer. Let it rest for 5 minutes and serve.
Sous Vide Salmon
Preheat your water bath to 125 degrees Fahrenheit. Add whatever seasonings you wish to your salmon. When your water bath is ready, place the salmon in a freezer-safe ziplock bag in the water. Cook the salmon for 20 minutes, it should be opaque, then serve.
There are many different ways to cook salmon. With careful attention to technique and timing, you should be able to create salmon that is juicy and flavorful. To ensure that you don’t overcook salmon it is best to stop cooking it around the 120 degrees Fahrenheit mark and let it rest.
For more tips and information on how to cook all foods at their proper temperatures, check out our other articles here.