I might get my amateur chef badge revoked for admitting this, but here goes: I’m afraid of frying fish. It’s the smell that intimidates me the most. Not so much the smell of the cooking fish, but the next-day house smell that lingers when you don’t want it to. What if a guest pops over unexpectedly? “I fried fish last night” I will mumble, my head bowed in smelly-house shame.
But this is ludicrous, I’ve recently realized. In large part because modern technology has gifted us this amazing invention called the kitchen fan. And also because frying fish (let’s call it “sauteeing” because that sounds better) is faster and better than throwing it in the oven. To think what I’ve been missing all these years!
Take salmon, a weekly staple around here and probably in many households across this land. Baking, roasting or broiling a few salmon filets is fine, and I’ve endorsed it myself on at least on occasion. But it seems no matter what recipe I use and how long I cook it for, it comes out drier and chewier than it ought to. I’ve doused it in sauces and oils to try and moisten it up a bit, which improves the situation but never quite solves it. And then there’s that oozy white goop that emerges from salmon during baking. Harmless, maybe, but kind of unappetizing, and I can’t help but think that maybe that’s the good stuff seeping out.
Good restaurants invariably sear their salmon in a hot pan, creating a crispy exterior and moist just-cooked interior. And yes, they may also douse it with a lush buttery sauce, but even without that sauce I reckon it’s a whole lot better than my usual baked version.
So—unexpected guests be warned—I’ve started cooking my salmon on the stovetop. With salt and pepper in a thin skin of oil, and then finished with sesame oil and seeds. It couldn’t be simpler or quicker, really, but the end result is about as good as fish dinners get.
A few tips for the uninitiated:
- To get the crispy and browned exterior, be sure that your salmon fillets are very dry (pat them well with a paper towel) and that the pan and oil are very hot.
- Unless you are using a pan with non-stick coating, you might find your salmon stubbornly sticks to the pan, no matter how much oil you use. To remedy this, use a metal spatula to flip the salmon, getting right under the filet and almost scraping the bottom of the pan as you flip to make sure nothing is left behind.
- You can serve this salmon piping hot, room temperature or even cold. It’s delicious at any temperature. I like it atop a salad, but the kids prefer a deconstructed version: a few pieces of fish, some chunked-up veggies, and a handful of crackers or a slice of bread.
- Make sure you don’t overcook the fish. The beauty of cooking it on top of the stove is that you can use the profile of each filet as a doneness gauge. Watch as the side of each salmon piece gradually goes from red to pink, and remove it from the heat when a sliver of red remains in the center.
- 4 wild salmon filets (about 1 pound)
- 2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 1½ tablespoons cooking oil (I use avocado oil)
- 1½ tablespoons sesame seeds
- Use a paper towel to pat dry the salmon filets, then brush them with 1 tablespoon of the sesame oil and sprinkle with ½ teaspoon of sea salt.
- Heat the cooking oil in a large skillet (cast iron works great) set over medium-high heat. When the oil starts to shimmer, gently add the salmon filets flesh side down. Cook for approximately 3 minutes, then flip (use a metal spatula to get right under the salmon and make sure you don't leave any crusty bits) onto the skin side. Cook for an additional 3-4 minutes or until the salmon is barely cooked through. Be careful not to overcook it. (See note 4. above regarding how to use the profile of the salmon filet as a doneness gauge.)
- Remove the salmon from the heat, brush with the 1 tablespoon reserved sesame oil and sprinkle with the sesame seeds and remaining ½ teaspoon of sea salt.
- Serve warm or at room temperature.