Poached Salmon With Dill-Yogurt Sauce Recipe

The secret to the tenderest, juiciest salmon: a gentle, cold-start poaching method.

Poached salmon topped with dill-yogurt sauce on a dark plate with a red rim. There is a fork sitting on a napkin in the bottom right corner, and a small bowl of additional sauce in the top left corner.

Serious Eats / Mariel De La Cruz

Why It Works

  • Starting the fish in cold water and then slowly heating it prevents the exterior from seizing up and becoming tough, as it does when it's added to simmering water.
  • Maintaining a water temperature of about 170°F (77°C) avoids the higher temperatures that can dry out and overcook the fish.

What is Cold-Start Poaching?

I started my work on this article by asking a simple question: Is it better to poach or steam salmon when you want to gently cook it? I had my test set up: two pots, one full of a court bouillon—an acidic and aromatic poaching liquid traditionally used for seafood—and the other with water and a steamer insert. I was just about to bring both pots to a simmer before adding the fish, when I realized I'd asked the wrong question. Instead of comparing traditional poaching to steaming, I should have been comparing cold-start poaching to steaming.

See, we've been having a lot of success here at Serious Eats with the cold-start poaching method, in which the food is added to the pot while the water is cold, then gently brought up to temperature and cooked just to the desired doneness. It works wonders for shrimp, whether in salads or in a classic shrimp cocktail, and it makes a much tenderer and juicier poached chicken breast.

An overhead shot of a saucepan containing two pieces of raw salmon fillet, sliced fennel, celery, leeks, a bay leaf, and several sprigs of dill.

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

The Science of Cold-Start Poaching

Cold-start poaching is a method that makes a lot of sense. To understand why, it helps to think about the main reasons for using high heat. Usually, we use high heat with dry cooking methods, like roasting and grilling, when we want to brown and crisp the surfaces of our meats. High heat helps a ton in those situations, because it quickly drives off moisture, paving the way for the dehydration and browning reactions that produce the flavorful crust we're after—plus, it does it fast enough that the food remains perfectly cooked and juicy within.

Overhead shot two pieces of salmon fillet nestled in a steamer insert on top of a bed of leek greens.

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

But when we poach, we don't want our meat and fish to brown, so high heat, even as high as boiling water, is unnecessary. And not only is it unnecessary, it's counterproductive, causing the meat's proteins, especially those near the surface, to tighten and become tough. If my chicken is perfectly done at an internal temperature of 150°F (66°C), and my salmon is ready at 115°F (46°C), exposing them to simmering- or boiling-water temperatures is well beyond what's required. This is, in essence, the primary idea behind sous vide cooking, in which food is cooked to precise temperatures in a carefully controlled water bath.

Why Cold-Start Poaching Works Better Than Steaming

With that in mind, I changed tack, lowering my salmon fillets into the cold court bouillon and then heating it up from there; I tried to keep the poaching liquid temperature below about 170°F (77°C) for the whole time, just by regulating the heat. Meanwhile, in the other pot, I steamed the salmon as planned. I removed all the fish when it registered 115°F at the center and let it rest for five minutes.

The results speak for themselves. In the photo below, the two samples of salmon on the left are from the cold-start method, while the two on the right are steamed. Even though they were all cooked to the same temperature at the center, the steamed salmon ended up overcooked, presumably due to more drastic carryover cooking—since the steamed fish was cooked with higher heat, the extra heat retained in the outer layers then penetrated into the center, even after the fish had come out of the pot.

Four pieces of salmon fillet. The two on the left are noticeably pinker and moister looking than the two on the right.

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Interestingly, there wasn't a huge time difference between the steaming and the cold-start poaching methods. By the time I'd taken the steamed fish out of the pot, the cold-start poached fish was also ready.

The answer to my question, therefore, isn't to steam or poach in the traditional sense, but instead to drop the fish in cold poaching liquid and gently cook it from there. In fact, I found that you don't even need to pre-make the court bouillon—simply adding lemon juice and a few aromatics to the cold water is enough to gently flavor the salmon. (I usually discard the poaching liquid, which I suppose could be considered a downside, but thus far I haven't found a great way to reuse court bouillon.)

A bite of salmon skewered on the tines of a fork. The fork is resting on a dark blue plate. More salmon and dressed greens are in the blurred background.

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

After that, you can eat the salmon right away while it's still warm, let it return to room temperature, or even serve it chilled from the fridge. Paired with a simple yogurt-dill sauce, this salmon makes for a very quick, easy, and delicious meal.

So don't wait: Get poaching! Just, you know, chill.

May 2016

Recipe Facts

4.8

(6)

Active: 35 mins
Total: 35 mins
Serves: 4 servings

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Ingredients

  • Cold water

  • Juice of 1 lemon (about 2 tablespoons; 30ml)

  • 1 medium leek or onion (about 6 ounces; 170g), halved

  • 1 large stalk celery (about 2 ounces; 55g), cut into large pieces

  • 1/2 fennel bulb, sliced (about 4 ounces; 115g) (optional)

  • A few fresh sprigs thyme and/or dill

  • 1 bay leaf

  • Kosher salt

  • 4 (8-ounce; 225g) pieces center-cut boneless, skinless salmon fillet

For the Yogurt Sauce:

  • 1 cup (235ml) full-fat yogurt

  • 1 tablespoon minced shallot from 1 small (1-ounce; 30g) shallot

  • 1 tablespoon (about 10g) minced fresh dill

  • 2 tablespoons (30ml) fresh juice from 1 lemon

  • 2 tablespoons (30ml) extra-virgin olive oil

  • Large pinch ground coriander seeds

  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions

  1. In a 3-quart saucier or 4-quart sauté pan, combine 1 quart (1L) cold water with lemon juice, leek or onion, celery, fennel (if using), thyme and/or dill, bay leaf, and a large pinch of salt.

    1 quart of cold water, lemon juice, leek or onion, celery, fennel, thyme and dill, bay leaf, and a large pinch of salt combined inside a large saucepan.

    Serious Eats / Mariel De La Cruz

  2. Add salmon to poaching liquid. Water should cover, but if not, add enough to just cover salmon. Set over medium heat and bring poaching liquid to 170°F (77°C). Adjusting heat to maintain water temperature, cook salmon until it registers 115°F (46°C) when an instant-read thermometer is inserted into the thickest part of the fish, about 20 minutes. (Cooking time may vary widely, so be sure to check temperatures to determine doneness.) Carefully transfer salmon to a plate to rest for 5 minutes.

    A two-image collage. The top image shows salmon filets added to the liquid inside of the saucepan. The bottom image shows four poached salmon filets placed on an oval white plate.

    Serious Eats / Mariel De La Cruz

  3. Meanwhile, for the Yogurt Sauce: In a medium bowl, stir together yogurt, shallot, dill, lemon juice, olive oil, and ground coriander seeds. Season with salt and pepper.

     Yogurt, shallot, dill, lemon juice, olive oil, and ground coriander seeds stirred together in a glass bowl and seasoned with salt and pepper.

    Serious Eats / Mariel De La Cruz

  4. Serve salmon while warm, spooning yogurt sauce on top, or let it cool to room temperature before serving. You can also chill the salmon and yogurt sauce before serving.

    A hand spooning yogurt sauce on top of a poached salmon filet.

    Serious Eats / Mariel De La Cruz

Special Equipment

Large saucepan, instant-read thermometer

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Nutrition Facts (per serving)
572 Calories
37g Fat
5g Carbs
52g Protein
Show Full Nutrition Label Hide Full Nutrition Label
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 4
Amount per serving
Calories 572
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 37g 47%
Saturated Fat 8g 38%
Cholesterol 151mg 50%
Sodium 356mg 15%
Total Carbohydrate 5g 2%
Dietary Fiber 0g 1%
Total Sugars 4g
Protein 52g
Vitamin C 17mg 87%
Calcium 126mg 10%
Iron 1mg 6%
Potassium 1019mg 22%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)