The Best Baked Salmon Is Broiled Salmon

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Baked salmon recipes are all the rage. At least, that's what the internet tells me. According to Google Trends, searches for "baked salmon" drastically outrank ones for "broiled" recipes, and always have. This is what keeps food writers like me employed—someone has to get the word out that broiling your salmon is usually a much better approach.

The reason is simple: the intensity of the broiler's heat. With salmon, we generally want to sear the exterior while leaving the interior tender and juicy. That means cooking the outside of the fish quickly before the heat can fully penetrate the interior and dry it out. A frying pan on the stovetop works well for this, because the fish can make direct contact with the hot pan and oil, searing the exterior rapidly.

You can read about the best method for cooking salmon in a pan here, but of course not everyone wants to do that. It requires more attention, technique, and finesse than just popping the fish in an oven.

I have nothing against choosing an easier path, but we might as well choose the best easy path if we're going that way. Baking isn't it. No matter how hot you set your oven, the heat is unlikely to be sufficient for any kind of browning on the fish's surface before it overcooks in the center. You'll either end up with a piece of nicely cooked salmon that looks like it was steamed, or a browned one that's been roasted to death.

The broiler, however, is powerful enough to sear a piece of fish that's right under it while leaving the center perfect. It's why Kenji likes his toaster-oven method for cooking salmon so much. (And, frankly, if you're only cooking a small serving of fish, the toaster oven is the way to go, since it's a much more energy efficient option.) For bigger pieces of fish, or multiple servings, though, a toaster just won't work. In those cases, you need to size up to an oven.

All you have to do is slide the fish on the top oven rack directly under the broiler and cook it until the surface is browned and the center reaches a perfect 115 to 125°F, around medium to medium-rare. If the fish browns too quickly and isn't quite done enough in the center, just switch the broiler off and finish the fish in the hot oven, which shouldn't take more than a minute or two longer.

One thing to keep in mind is that a lot of ovens cycle the broiler on and off to manage the heat, but you'll want it constantly on while the fish is under it—again, for the biggest, quickest blast of intense heat you can get. With a lot of ovens, you can ensure the broiler stays on by keeping the oven door cracked while the salmon is in there.

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The basic technique works the same no matter the recipe. You could season a piece of salmon with salt and pepper, rub it lightly with oil and stick it under the broiler just like that. You could try something like Kenji's miso glaze from his toaster-oven recipe, adapting it to the broiler for a larger number of servings. Or you can coat the fish in a thin layer of a flavored mayo like I do here—in my case, the mayo is mixed with harissa chili paste, lime zest, and fresh lime juice. The mayo comes with the additional benefit of acting as an insulator, keeping the fish underneath even more tender. Plus, it's incredibly easy to whip up with plenty of flavor.

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As for the fish, you can do it skin-on or off, already portioned into individual servings or cooked as one big slab. The latter can be fun to put out on a large platter, which is great for parties, but keep in mind that it won't cut cleanly once it's cooked.

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Here's one final tip for even cooking that I learned back in my restaurant days: It's pretty common for pieces of fish to vary in thickness, as the center of the fillet tapers towards the thinner belly flaps and tail. This can make it challenging to cook the fish evenly, since the thinner parts will cook through faster than the thick ones. If you take a sharp knife, you can score the fish about midway through the thinner part, being careful to cut mostly but not all the way through. Then fold the thinner part under itself to create a thickness that matches the thickest part. The result is an evenly thick piece that will cook through more uniformly. (Note, though, that this isn't a great idea with skin-on fish, since you'd be folding the skin onto itself and sandwiching it between the layers of flesh...not that appealing.)

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So remember, there's nothing wrong with using an oven to cook salmon...as long as you're broiling and not baking.