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You think chicken breasts are delicate? Salmon has it beat by a mile. With practice, you can get to the point of nailing a perfect medium-rare center on a piece of poached or pan-seared salmon. But practicing on salmon can get pricey, and sous vide will guarantee perfectly moist, tender results each time. Sous vide also allows you to achieve textures you never knew were possible, from buttery-soft to meltingly tender and flaky-yet-moist.
The downside of cooking salmon (and other flaky fish) sous vide is that the fish becomes very delicate after cooking, which means that you'll need to take a little bit of care in handling it to prevent it from flaking before it hits the plate. But that's a small price to pay for the moistest fish you'll ever taste.
The Food Lab's Complete Guide to Sous Vide Salmon
What Temperature and Timing Should I Use?
As with eggs, the softly setting proteins in salmon are extremely susceptible to even minor variations in temperature. The difference between salmon cooked to 120°F (49°C) and 130°F (54°C) is vast. Here are a few recommended temperatures for cooking salmon. My personal favorite is 115°F (46°C)—the fish will come out firm enough that it tastes "cooked," but still extremely moist and buttery-smooth, with just a hint of flakiness.
Sous Vide Salmon Temperatures
|Like firm sashimi||105°F (41°C)|
|Soft and buttery||110°F (43°C)|
|Translucent and starting to flake||115°F (46°C)|
|Very moist, tender, and flaky||120°F (49°C)|
|Firm, moist, and flaky||130°F (54°C)|
As for timing, I find that fish can turn watery and mushy if left in the water bath for too long at low temperatures, and dry and chalky when left too long at above 125°F (52°C) or so. For thinner fillets, half an hour to 45 minutes is plenty; for extra-thick fillets, 45 minutes to an hour is all you need.
Note that salmon doesn't cook at temperatures above the pasteurization point (130°F), so, for safety purposes, I strongly recommend against letting more than three hours pass between the time you start cooking and the time you serve (unless you chill immediately after cooking).
What Kind of Salmon Should I Buy?
Whatever is freshest and fits your budget! Whether you use wild king, sockeye, coho, or any variety in between, the best salmon is always the freshest salmon. Look for salmon with firm flesh that is glistening and doesn't show any indentations from fingerprints or marks of mishandling. Fresh fish should hold its shape after being touched.
When buying salmon, I prefer to buy larger cuts and divide them into individual portions myself so that I get exactly what I want, rather than letting the fishmonger do it for me.
How Do I Portion My Salmon?
When you're portioning a large piece of salmon, the first step is removing the pin bones. Gently run your fingers across the surface of the fish, and, unless the fishmonger or you have already removed them, you'll find a ridge of thin, flexible bones protruding from the flesh.
Use a good pair of needle-nose pliers, or, if you have them, some sturdy fish tweezers to pull the bones out. Grasp the tips of the bones, then pull them out by pulling along their length to minimize damage to the surrounding flesh. Make sure you also get any bones that are protruding from the cut faces along the sides of the slice.
Salmon is often portioned by cutting crosswise across the entire fish, from back to belly. I find that with a larger king salmon, this creates awkwardly large or skinny portions. I much prefer to first split the fillet down the center along the natural division between the upper half and the belly. Using a sharp knife and steady, long strokes, I slice through the salmon, making sure to cut through the skin as well.
Next, I divide each of those halves into even five- to six-ounce portions (you can, of course, make the portions bigger if you prefer). The resulting pieces are closer to square in shape than the long, skinny rectangles you'd get by portioning without splitting.
Should I Brine?
Many recipes for sous vide salmon recommend soaking the fish in a saltwater brine before cooking in order to season it more deeply and to give it a denser, firmer texture. I tried cooking a few pieces of salmon side by side: one plain, one soaked in a liquid salt-and-sugar brine, one soaked in a plain salt brine, one rubbed (dry-brined) with salt and sugar, and one rubbed with salt alone. For the brined and dry-brined salmon, I tested various brining times, ranging from 15 minutes up to overnight. I cooked each sample of salmon sous vide at two different temperatures—115°F and 130°F—for 30 minutes, then tasted them.
The difference is quite striking, with both the salmon that was water-brined and the dry-brined salmon coming out with a firmer, more pleasant flesh. Without any brine, salmon cooked at lower temperatures can taste mushy and watery; at higher temperatures, it will taste dry and chalky. With brine, salmon at low temperatures has a smooth, buttery texture, and at higher temperatures, it retains more moisture.
I found sugar in the brine to be distracting, though, if you like the added sweetness, there's no harm in it. I prefer dry-brining to water-brining for the sake of convenience: All you have to do is salt your salmon, seal it in a bag, then let it rest before cooking. Half an hour seems to be the magic number—you get a strong brining effect, but still keep things moving along in time for dinner.
Should I Add Fat?
When cooking things like steak or chicken, I typically don't add extra fat to the bag—all it does is dilute flavor by removing fat-soluble flavor compounds. With salmon, on the other hand, some sort of fat is essential if you're cooking more than one piece in a single bag. Salmon proteins will bind together when heated while in contact, which means that two adjacent pieces of fish within the same bag can end up fusing into one, tearing and flaking when you subsequently try to separate them before serving. Fat will coat the fish and help prevent this problem.
With delicate fish, I also generally like adding a few aromatics to help nudge the flavor along. Most often, I reach for a few fresh thyme sprigs. Adding fat to the bag can help the flavor from these aromatics spread around the salmon more easily.
Skin On or Skin Off?
Sous vide salmon skin can be quite delicious if you sear it until crisp after cooking—think of it as salmon cracklings. But if you prefer your salmon skinless for any reason (say, if you're going to serve it simply poached, without searing), there's a much easier way to get rid of that skin than trying to cut it off before cooking: Just wait until after you've cooked it sous vide. The cooking process weakens the bond between skin and meat, making it very easy to peel it off gently with your fingers.
Once the skin is removed, you can also very carefully flake off the dark brown flesh underneath if you'd like. There's no harm in eating it, but some people don't like the way it looks.
Do I Need a Vacuum Sealer?
You don't need a vacuum sealer for sous vide salmon! Because of the short cooking time and low temperature, a regular old zipper-lock bag will work fine. To remove air from a zipper-lock bag without a vacuum sealer, use the water displacement method. It's fast, efficient, and tailor-made for situations like this.
To do it, simply place your food in a plastic bag, and seal the bag almost all the way, leaving about an inch open. Slowly lower the bag into a tub of water, holding the opened end above the water level. As the bag is lowered, the water pressure should force air out of the bag. Just before it fully submerges, seal the bag completely, and you're ready to cook.
How Should I Serve It?
Depends on how you like it!
Option 1: Sear It
If you're serving it straight away for dinner, and you enjoy crispy skin, I would suggest searing the salmon skin side down in hot fat (vegetable oil or clarified butter works well) in a skillet. For fully rendered and crisp skin, you do need to leave it in there for a few moments—long enough that you'll start to see some white coagulated proteins around the seared edges of the salmon. This, unfortunately, cannot be helped unless you decide to remove the skin completely and cook it separately for serving. (To do this, peel off the skin, then sear it in a pan while holding it flat with a spatula, or a second pan.)
Be very delicate when searing sous vide salmon, as it can fall apart easily. A thin, flexible fish spatula will help with this job.
Option 2: Chill It
Sous vide salmon is great served cold. When it's cooked to 105°F and then chilled, you can slice it and serve it like sashimi, though it will have a unique texture all its own. After cooking it at higher temperatures, you can flake the chilled salmon and serve it in salads, in sandwiches, stirred into pasta, or on top of rice bowls. It's a great way to use up leftovers.
Option 3: Just Serve It
The last option is to skip any post–sous vide treatment and just serve it as is, perhaps coating it with a bit of extra-virgin olive oil or with a flavorful vinaigrette or sauce. Sous vide salmon has an incredibly moist, tender texture that I find lovely even without crisp skin or browning to contrast it.
Sous Vide Salmon, Step by Step
Step 1: Season
Season the salmon generously on all sides with salt. You can also season with white or black pepper at this point.
Step 2: Bag and Flavor
Place the salmon portions in a single layer inside one or more zipper-lock bags. Add a couple of teaspoons of olive oil per fillet to each bag, turning the salmon and using your hands to make sure that it's coated on all sides in order to prevent sticking. Add some gentle aromatics, like fresh herbs such as thyme, parsley, or dill; thinly sliced shallots; or grated citrus zest. Do not add large chunks of food, which can damage the shape of the fish, or acidic ingredients, which damage the texture.
Once the salmon is bagged, close the bag(s) and let the salmon rest in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes and up to overnight, to allow the salt to firm up the flesh.
Step 3: Preheat the Water Bath
Set the temperature on your sous vide cooker according to the chart above, and allow it to preheat while the salmon rests.
Step 4: Seal and Cook
Remove all the air from the bag or bags using a vacuum sealer or the water displacement method. Then add the salmon to the preheated water bath, and cook for 30 to 45 minutes for one-inch fillets, or 45 minutes to an hour for fillets up to two inches thick.
Step 5: Remove and Dry
Carefully remove the salmon from the bag using your hands or a fish spatula, keeping it supported at all times to prevent it from breaking. Place it on a double layer of paper towels, then use another paper towel to gently blot the surface dry. Discard the aromatics at this point.
Step 6: Remove Skin (Optional)
If you like, you can remove the skin at this point as well. It should peel right off.
Step 7: Sear (Optional) and Serve
You can serve the salmon immediately as is, chill it and serve it cold, or, for a more classic presentation, sear it briefly before serving. To sear, heat up a thin layer of oil in a cast iron, carbon steel, or nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering, then add the salmon skin side down, gently pressing on it with a fish spatula so that it makes good contact with the pan. Let it sear until the skin is browned and crisp, about a minute and a half. Flip the salmon, briefly kiss the second side with the pan to give it a touch of color, then remove the salmon and serve.
Perfectly moist and tender dinner is ready.