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Salmon burgers are one of those foods that always seem like they should taste better than they do. In my mind, I picture a delicate yet fatty fish patty, seasoned well, with a lightly seared crust and a tender and juicy medium-rare center. What I tend to get at restaurants is an overly firm and rubbery puck that's both dry and bland. This leads to a feeling of disappointment not unlike watching the first few episodes of Iron Fist. Why is this so bad? There's no reason this should be so bad!
Except, unlike Iron Fist, there actually are some good reasons why salmon cakes tend to disappoint, and they all have to do with the fish itself. Unlike beef, which is tougher and has a higher level of saturated fat that remains solid at room temperature, fish protein is delicate, with weak connective tissue and fat that liquifies much more readily. This makes forming patties that will hold together significantly more difficult.
Most recipes attempt to mitigate this in a couple ways. First, they tell you to mix in some kind of starchy filler, usually dried bread crumbs, which can add heft and density to the salmon patties while absorbing moisture (such as liquified fish fat); this helps them hold together. Second, most recipes rely on the power of a food processor to blend the fish rapidly; with enough high-speed mixing and chopping, the fish proteins begin to bond into a stickier mixture that holds together more easily on its own.
I tested both methods, and came away convinced that each is a mistake despite their contributions to ease-of-handling. The bread crumbs, while acting as a binder, make heavier, drier patties, and dilute the pure fish flavor and delicate texture that I've always been after—much better is a salmon patty made with no starchy filler.
Using a food processor, meanwhile, is certainly a convenience, and whips up a mixture that holds together more easily, but at a cost. Instead of a tender, juicy, and slightly crumbly burger-like texture, what you end up with is a springy, rubbery puck of fish purée. Sure, you can attempt to lessen this effect by pulsing the food processor just a few times in an attempt to not fully purée the fish, but it'll do it to a noticeable degree no matter what.
I got by far the best texture by hand-chopping the salmon very finely. The result is a mixture that's more difficult to work with, but it produces a far better patty in the end—one that's airer, has distinct bits of salmon in each bite, and falls apart as you chew. It's much more like a fish burger than a spongy fish ball.
The similarity to beef burgers only goes so far, though. Because of beef's propensity to bond with itself with even minimal mixing, you want to avoid working flavorings into a beef burger, lest you end up with something much more like a patty-shaped meatloaf, with a meatloaf's characteristic tight, springy texture. Fish, on the other hand, takes quite a bit more effort to reach that sticky and tight meatloaf-like stage (in fact, it takes a food processor, as I just explained), so you can indeed mix flavorings into it before forming the patties with no ill results.
In my recipe, I keep the flavorings simple, adding enough salt to season the patties throughout, plus a mixture of fresh herbs like parsley, tarragon, and chives, some grated ginger for a fresher, zestier flavor, and a small amount of ground coriander seed, which is a natural spice to pair with fish.
The next step is to form the patties—and I warn you, they will squirm around in your hands, as if the ghost of the salmon is still trying to avoid its fate. Hold firm and you'll prevail (sorry salmon, dems da breaks).
Then I have one final trick for my salmon patties that really takes them to the next level: I coat them in panko bread crumbs. This does two things. First, it creates a much crispier, crunchier crust on the salmon patty than the chopped fish itself would ever be capable of achieving. The result is real textural contrast with each bite, much like the crust on a really nicely seared burger. Fish is just too delicate to ever get that kind of crust on its own.
Second, the panko acts as an insulator, buffering the heat from the pan so that the salmon itself cooks more gently. The result is a more tender patty of fish that hasn't seized up in the sizzling oil.
To cook the patties, I carefully lower them into a skillet with plenty of hot oil, turning until golden and crispy on both sides. Here's a fact: You can't grill these. They are far too delicate to hold together on a grill grate. I think this is a good thing, since it's a sign that you've done everything right to make the best salmon patties possible. Anything you'd have to do to make your patties grill-ready (like mixing in a ton of bread crumbs) would ruin them anyway, so why bother?
I like to serve these on very tender toasted brioche buns, slathered in remoulade and topped with a flavorful vegetable slaw. Each bite should offer up a mix of softness and tenderness, plenty of juiciness, and then some shatteringly crispy, crunchy bits for contrast. It's like a well-written script. I've done it for salmon burgers...maybe Netflix should've hired me to do it for Iron Fist.
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