If your pan-seared salmon didn’t quite turn out right, you may be tempted to blame it on the type of salmon you bought–maybe it was farm-raised instead of wild–but none of that should matter if you understand the chemistry of how this colorful fish cooks. For another episode of Edible Science, Dan Souza, ultra chef-nerd and co-author of the new Cook’s Science by America’s Test Kitchen, shows us how brining and low temperatures can help enhance the flavor and retain the moisture of salmon, no matter what kind you buy.
You might think brine is reserved for poultry or pickling, but its basic mechanisms work just as well for fish. A simple brine of salt and water should be enough to permeate the cell walls of a salmon filet, kickstarting the process of osmosis. The meat’s cells have a lower concentration of salt than the brine, so water rushes out of the cells as salt flows in. The additional salt eventually tips the scales so that water comes gushing back in to dilute it, and all that sloshing increases the amount of liquid and flavor inside the meat. The salmon becomes somewhat waterlogged–but that’s the way you want it. It’ll soon lose that water to the heat of the pan, leaving the meat just moist enough. Added perk: Both wild and farmed salmon aren’t very dense and can absorb brine faster than other meats. As Souza demos above, 15 minutes is all you need for perfectly brined filets.
The main difference in farmed vs. wild salmon is fat, which means you can get delicious cuts out of either variety if you cook them each a little differently. Farmed varieties have nearly three times as much fat as wild, according to Souza. Wild filets also have significantly more collagen–the protein that gives meat its structure and holds its fibers together. Cook a wild filet next to a farmed filet and you might notice that the wild filet has a much firmer surface, which is the collagen in action. Brining can help prevent that wild filet from getting too tough, but so can cooking it at a slightly lower temperature. Souza recommends using a meat thermometer to get the center of the cut to just 120 degrees Fahrenheit, as he does with this crunchy, silky, standout rendition of the ubiquitous sesame-crusted salmon. Hungry for the full recipe? Follow along with the video or get the book.