It's easy to say why people don't cook fish more often. It can make the whole house smell. It takes more precision than say, a steak or chicken—overcook it even a bit, and salmon goes from moist and tender to chalky, oozy white albumen coagulating on its surface. It can taste, well, fishy.
What if I told you that there's a technique that not only virtually guarantees perfectly cooked salmon, but can also be done in just a few minutes, with no stinking up of the apartment, in the toaster oven?
And on top of that, what if I told you that the same technique produces salmon that is, by my tastes, not just as good, but better than any other recipe or technique I know?
There are a handful of recipes that you should have in your bag of tricks. Good roast chicken. Great scrambled eggs. A perfect vinaigrette. Things that you know so well and are so simple yet impressive that you automatically reach for them when you have unexpected company headed over or need to impress that first date. First date days are long past me, but I still find myself coming back to this one time and again. Miso-glazed salmon is one of them.
Here's how it works.
The key is to start with thick salmon filets, as you want them to be able to cook quickly on the exterior while leaving the center relatively cool. This won't work with very thin filets. Aim for King salmon filets at least an inch thick, and up to two.
Step 1: Marinate
The marinade is really more of a surface treatment, combined with a brine. It's a simple mix of miso, sake, sugar, soy sauce, and a bit of oil. It's what it accomplishes that are of utmost importance.
First, the miso and soy are both quite salty, and its this salty liquid that acts as a brine, weakening proteins in the salmon flesh, and allowing it to retain more moisture as it cooks. Both are also high in glutamates, the chemical class responsible for our sensation of umami, or meatiness. If your salmon filet could dream, it'd be dreaming of grazing through green pastures, flicking away the sea gnats with its salmon tail, wishing you'd call it Bessie.
Miso also plays another important role: insulator. As a thick paste, it coats your filet, letting it heat through much more gently and evenly as it cooks.
The sugar and oil are the real keys to making this technique work, however. See, our final goal is to have a piece of fish that is charred and browned on the exteriors while still a nice rare to medium-rare in the center. Sugars speed this process up by caramelizing as the salmon flesh browns. Oil acts as a medium of heat transfer, causing the surface to char and sizzle evenly.
Step 2: Broil
Once your salmon is rubbed in the marinade, you have two options. You can go ahead and cook it immediately, which will net you fantastic results—charred exterior, rare center—or you can refrigerate your salmon filets for up to a day. Marinating gives the advantage of slightly better flavor penetration and moisture retention in the finished product, but it's by no means a necessary step.
I like to marinate my salmon a day or two in advance if I know that I'm going to be serving it at a dinner party.
To broil, just wipe of all but a thin layer of marinade, place your salmon on a sheet of foil on top of a broiler pan, then throw it under a pre-heated broiler. Your standard oven broiler will work fine, but if you're like me and are generally only cooking for two people and don't want to blast the oven for a simple meal, the toaster oven works just as well.
The trick—especially in the toaster oven—is to pay attention to how the broiler element cycles on and off. You want to make sure to place your salmon under there when the element is at an on-cycle or it ends up baking instead of broiling.
Not all ovens are created the same, but with my oven and toaster oven, it's a useful trick to shove a metal object into the door to keep it from closing all the way (I use a pair of tongs). By leaving the door slightly cracked, it tricks the thermostat of the oven or toaster, resulting in a constantly-on broiler element.
Why foil? Well not only does it make for ridiculously simple clean up, it also acts as a built-in protector. If you notice your fish browning in one section faster than the other, just fold up the foil and use it as a shield while the rest cooks.
There... is no step 3. By the time your salmon is lightly charred on the surface, the center should be at just about 115 to 125°F (A.K.A. a perfect rare to medium-rare), and ready to eat.
Now wasn't that simple?
- The ingredients are cheap. That is, presuming you've already committed yourself to eating fish for dinner (or have been committed to it by a skinnier friend), salmon is about as cheap as it gets in terms of fresh saltwater fish.*
- It's ridiculously simple. Marinate, broil, done.
- There's virtually no clean-up. Throw out the foil, wash out the tray you marinated in, done.
- It's fast. Once you've got the salmon marinated (which you can do a day or two ahead), it takes all of five minutes under the broiler.
- It's freaking delicious. Charred, sweet, and savory, with a tender, moist interior, this is about as good as salmon gets.
*The only real cheaper options are things like frozen farm-raised tilapia and catfish, which, unless you're getting them from American farms, for both culinary and environmental reasons, should not even enter the debate (I can personally only find farmed tilapia and catfish from Asia in my markets).
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.