Why It Works
- Hand-chopping the salmon is better than a food processor, ensuring you don't over-mix the fish into a tight, spongy texture.
- Avoiding breading in the mixture itself delivers pure, unadulterated fish flavor and texture.
- A coating of bread crumbs on the outside cooks up crispy and crunchy, while protecting the delicate fish from the high heat of the oil.
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 rémoulade 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.
How to Make the Best Salmon Burgers
For the Salmon Patties:
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless salmon (680g), very finely chopped by hand
3 tablespoons minced mixed fresh parsley, tarragon, and chives (about 4 teaspoons each minced parsley and chives and 1 teaspoon minced tarragon)
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander seeds
1 (1-inch) knob fresh peeled ginger, grated
Kosher salt and freshly ground black or white pepper
For the Rémoulade:
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons mayonnaise (150ml)
1 tablespoon drained brined capers, minced
4 cornichons, minced (about 1 1/2 tablespoons)
2 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley, tarragon, and chives (about 1 teaspoon each minced parsley and chives and 1/2 teaspoon minced tarragon)
2 teaspoons fresh juice from 1 lemon (10ml)
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard (5ml)
1/2 teaspoon drained prepared horseradish
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the Slaw:
1 3/4 ounces peeled celery root (50g; from 1 small root), julienned
1 3/4 ounces shredded radicchio (50g; from 1 small head)
1 3/4 ounces fennel (50g; from 1 small head), julienned
Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
Fresh juice from 1 lemon, for drizzling
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
For Cooking and Serving:
1 cup panko bread crumbs
1/4 cup vegetable oil (60ml)
4 brioche hamburger buns, buttered and toasted
For the Salmon Patties: In a medium bowl, combine salmon, herbs, coriander seeds, and ginger. Stir well, then season with salt and pepper. (You can cook a very small amount in a nonstick skillet to check salt levels, and then adjust accordingly). Set in refrigerator.
For the Rémoulade: In a small bowl, stir together mayonnaise, capers, cornichons, herbs, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, and horseradish until thoroughly combined. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to refrigerator.
For the Slaw: In a medium bowl, combine celery root, radicchio, and fennel. Drizzle with just enough olive oil to coat and sprinkle with lemon juice to taste. Set aside.
For Cooking and Serving: Spread panko bread crumbs in a shallow bowl or pie plate, and arrange a piece of parchment paper on a baking sheet. Divide salmon mixture into 4 even portions and, working one at a time, roll each into a ball, then flatten into a 1-inch thick patty, using your hands to smooth out any cracked edges (they may squirm around on you a little, but keep at it and they'll come together).
Place each patty in the bowl of bread crumbs, use your hands to sprinkle more bread crumbs on top, then press down gently to make bread crumbs adhere to the bottom side. Flip patty and press gently once more, then transfer to the parchment-lined baking sheet. Repeat with remaining salmon.
Add oil to a large cast iron skillet and heat over medium-high heat until shimmering. Carefully lower salmon patties into the oil and cook, turning once or twice, until lightly browned on both sides and medium-rare within (about 115 to 120°F or 46 to 49°C on an instant-read thermometer), about 10 minutes; adjust heat as necessary to keep things sizzling without scorching the bread crumbs.
Transfer patties to a paper towel-lined tray and sprinkle lightly with kosher salt. Smear an even layer of rémoulade on the top and bottom halves of each bun. Set a salmon patty on top of each bottom bun. Season slaw with salt and pepper, then mound some on top of each patty. Close sandwiches and serve right away.
Large cast iron skillet, thin metal spatula or fish spatula, instant-read thermometer
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 59g||75%|
|Saturated Fat 11g||53%|
|Total Carbohydrate 51g||19%|
|Dietary Fiber 4g||13%|
|Total Sugars 9g|
|Vitamin C 27mg||137%|
|*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.|