Restaurant-Style Pan Seared Salmon

By Ann Fulton

Picture the perfectly seasoned fillet of salmon with a lightly golden crust that you order from a favorite restaurant. You can make it at home for a fraction of the price—in about 10 minutes.
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Picture the perfectly seasoned fillet of salmon with a lightly golden crust that you order from a favorite restaurant. You can make it at home for a fraction of the price—in about 10 minutes.

 

I get excited to share a recipe that is so quick and easy it belies its fabulous flavor and versatility. This is one of those recipes. 

There are oodles of delicious ways to cook and enjoy a fresh fillet of salmon, but there’s merit to going back to the basics.

Restaurants sell countless meals using the simplest of preparations, and the result is perfectly seasoned fish with a golden crust and tender interior. So, why not do it at home?

Once you try this lightning quick method that requires nothing more than a hot pan, salt, pepper, and olive oil–and a piece of salmon of course–it’s destined to make the regular meal rotation.

Conveniently, you can prepare a single piece of fish or many. And while I typically serve it hot out of the pan, the salmon may be served at room temperature or even cold.

I love the simply seared salmon as a salad topper—the protein addition truly makes an easy, filling meal out of any salad—and the versatile preparation pairs equally well with almost any vegetable or starchy side dish.

 

 

Picture the perfectly seasoned fillet of salmon with a lightly golden crust that you order from a favorite restaurant. You can make it at home for a fraction of the price—in about 10 minutes.

Serving suggestions:

As mentioned, simply seared salmon will make a meal out of any salad, from a Classic Caesar to a springy Strawberry Salad. This Chopped Kale Salad is a copycat recipe of a favorite local restaurant offering, which I love to order with salmon on top. And although The Best Vegan Caesar Salad would no longer be vegan with the addition of salmon, the recipe is not to be overlooked. 

When the seared salmon is served atop a ladleful of cooked lentils (pictured above; recipe coming very soon), it makes an impressive and truly restaurant-worthy meal. Yet it’s still so easy.

Alternatively, you could make a fancy “swoosh” out of your favorite vegetable puree, like these Mashed Green Peas, Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes, or Maple Mashed Sweet Potatoes. A swoosh of Spinach Pesto would be equally lovely, as would Classic Guacamole or Super Creamy Avocado Lime Sauce.

Or put something on top, like this easy Avocado Tomato Salsa or Black Bean Salsa

But keep in mind, a restrained approach won’t steer you wrong here. Accordingly, don’t hesitate to serve the salmon with your favorite vegetables and grains and allow it to shine in its simplicity. 

Some things are truly perfect in their simplicity. Such is the case for a vibrantly pink, fresh fillet of salmon.

Is it better to use wild or farmed salmon?

Because it takes about four minutes to develop a good sear and the resulting golden-brown crust, this technique works best with fattier wild and farmed salmon varieties. Leaner wild fillets like sockeye may be used, although they will be nearly done by the time the top side is cooked to perfection.

Because lean, wild salmon will become dry and somewhat tough when overcooked, when using, I cook the first side and merely “kiss” the second side after flipping. This ensures the second side isn’t raw while preventing the fish from overcooking.

Keep in mind, there will be some residual cooking (often referred to as carryover cooking), even after the fish is removed from the heat. To prevent overcooking, I remove the fish from the hot skillet to a plate as soon as my desired level of doneness is achieved.

How can you tell when salmon is cooked?

I recommend internal temperatures of 120°F for leaner wild salmon and 125-130°F for farmed salmon. Coincidently, I recently read a Cooks Illustrated study where the majority of tasters preferred wild salmon samples cooked to 120°F and farmed Atlantic salmon to 125°F.

Why? The article went on to explain that wild salmon has more collagen (and thus connective tissue) as well as “a significantly greater number of chemical cross-links between collagen molecules.” When the wild varieties are cooked to just 120°F, the muscle fibers contract less and retain more moisture. The leanest wild salmon also contains about half as much fat as farmed salmon, and less fat reduces the perception of juiciness when cooked.

Don’t have a quick-read thermometer? No problem. While you can gauge by looking at the side of the fish as it cooks (it will become opaque from the bottom up), you may cut into the center of the fish without worry of losing natural juices, as is often cautioned with meats like chicken and steak.

Is it better to keep the skin on the salmon or take it off? 

This comes down to personal preference. With this restaurant method, the skin won’t become crispy. Here’s why: To accomplish a golden-brown sear on top, most of the cooking is done with the skin side up. The fish would become dry if cooked long enough after flipping to really crisp the skin.

I tend to use skinless salmon when cooking farmed salmon and eat the skin when using wild fish, although this comes down to personal preference. A fishmonger will typically remove the skin for you (sometimes it’s even sold that way). The skin will also peel off easily once the salmon is cooked.

An upside to cooking the fish with the skin on, even if not eating it, is that the skin will help the salmon retain moisture.

For those who’d like crispy skin with the restaurant-style method, simply remove the skin from the fillets and fry the skin in the remaining oil, adding an extra drizzle as needed, about 2 to 3 minutes or until crisp. Serve the crispy skin with the salmon.

Here is a recipe for Crispy Skin Salmon for those who may enjoy.

How do you cook restaurant quality salmon at home? The requirements are few:

  • Dry fillets: Less moisture allows for maximum crisping and a reduction in splatter. Pat dry on all sides just before cooking.
  • Salt and pepper: Simple seasoning is all you need to let the natural flavor of the salmon shine. It’s best to season just before placing the fillets in the pan as salt will draw out moisture (which ties into the previous tip).
  • A hot skillet: Technically, we’re using medium-high heat, but you want to make sure the pan is up to temperature before adding the fish. A nonstick skillet or well-seasoned cast iron pan will work well
  • Oil or avocado oil: Combined with the heated pan, a film of oil is all you need to create the golden crust. Combined with the salt and pepper, the result is simple but impressive flavor and texture.
  • Don’t move the salmon until ready to flip: Allowing the fish to cook in one spot will allow a better crust to develop. It’s fine to check a few minutes in – gently lift the side of one fillet and peek. The salmon will also release more easily from the pan when the crust has developed.
Picture the perfectly seasoned fillet of salmon with a lightly golden crust that you order from a favorite restaurant. You can make it at home for a fraction of the price—in about 10 minutes.

Pat the salmon dry on all sides just before cooking. Less moisture allows for maximum crisping and a reduction in splatter. 

Some things are truly perfect in their simplicity. Such is the case for a vibrantly pink, fresh fillet of salmon.

Season the fish right before putting it in the hot pan. Salt draws out moisture, and as mentioned, drier fish yields a crispier crust and less splatter.

Picture the perfectly seasoned fillet of salmon with a lightly golden crust that you order from a favorite restaurant. You can make it at home for a fraction of the price—in about 10 minutes.

You can see from the side of the salmon how cooked through it is. The whiter, more opaque part is fully cooked while the pinker, more translucent top half is still raw. For best texture and flavor, I like the finished fish to maintain a hint of translucence in the center. 

Picture the perfectly seasoned fillet of salmon with a lightly golden crust that you order from a favorite restaurant. You can make it at home for a fraction of the price—in about 10 minutes.

When cooked to your liking, remove the seared salmon from the pan immediately to reduce carryover cooking.

A few more tips:

  • If you have a splatter guard, it can be helpful. Dry fillets will reduce splatter, but oil does naturally do this.
  • When placing the fish in the skillet, lay them away from you so that any oil spritz follows in that direction—not towards you.
Picture the perfectly seasoned fillet of salmon with a lightly golden crust that you order from a favorite restaurant. You can make it at home for a fraction of the price—in about 10 minutes.

Pan seared salmon is an old favorite – quick, easy, versatile, and restaurant worthy!

Restaurant-Style Pan Seared Salmon
Prep Time: 2 minutes
Cook Time: 8 minutes
Total Time: 10 minutes
Yield: 4 (may adjust to a single serving or many; simply use a second pan when scaling up)
Golden and crispy on top and tender in the center, quick and easy pan seared salmon is perfect for busy weeknights and special enough for company. Personal preference dictates the precise number of minutes on the second side, and you can see how cooked through the fish is by looking at the side of the fillet or taking the temperature with a quick read thermometer. When using wild salmon, aim for 120 °F. With farmed salmon, a slightly higher temperature of 125-130 °F is most often preferred. When in doubt, you may cut into the center of a fillet and take a peek. Unlike chicken or beef, the juices won’t run out.  
Ingredients
  • 1½ tablespoons (22ml) extra-virgin olive oil
  •  Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper*
  • 4 (5- to 6-ounce) salmon fillets, 1¼-inch thick**
Instructions

Pat the fillets dry with a paper towel. Dry salmon will encourage a better sear and reduce splatter (although there will be some—you may use a splatter guard if you have one). Season all over with salt and pepper.

Heat the oil in a 12-inch nonstick or well-seasoned cast iron skillet over medium-high heat until very hot but not smoking.

Gently lay the salmon in the pan with the skin side facing up and cook, without moving, until the flesh side is golden brown, about 4 minutes. Carefully flip and continue cooking until the skin side is slightly browned, about 3-4 minutes more. (Tip: If using a thinner fillet or a lean wild variety like sockeye, the fish will be nearly cooked through after browning the first side. In this case, flip and cook just long enough to achieve your desired doneness. This may be a quick “kiss” before removing from the hot pan.)

Promptly remove the salmon from the skillet to reduce carryover cooking and serve.

Notes

*For perfectly seasoned fillets, use ¾ teaspoon of kosher or sea salt per pound of fish and sprinkle on all sides. If you prefer heavier seasoning, use 1 teaspoon per pound. If using table salt, reduce these amounts by ¼ teaspoon, and remember you can always add a pinch more at the end to fine tune to taste…but it’s harder to scrape off! I use several grinds of the pepper mill per fillet, or about ¼ teaspoon per pound.

**Skin or no skin? This comes down to personal preference. With this restaurant method, the skin won’t become crispy. Here’s why (and keep reading for crispy skin options). To accomplish a golden-brown sear on top, most of the cooking is done with the skin side up. The fish would become dry if cooked long enough after flipping to crisp the skin. I tend to use skinless salmon when cooking farmed salmon and eat the skin when using wild fish. A fishmonger will typically remove the skin for you, and it will peel off easily once cooked. Here is a Crispy Skin Salmon for those who may enjoy.

For those who’d like crispy skin with this method, simply remove the skin from the fillets and fry the skin in the remaining oil, adding an extra drizzle as needed, until crispy, 2 to 3 minutes. Serve the crispy skin with the salmon.

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Comments

  1. Mary Lou Keller

    Hello Ann! This looks wonderful! Salmon is a favorite of mine and this cooking method looks perfect as well. The lentils and veggie recipe caught my eye and drew me to this.
    I’m definitely going to make this soon.
    Hope you and your family are doing well!

    Reply
    1. Ann Post author

      Hi Mary Lou! Wonderful to see your name pop up and I’m delighted the salmon and lentil recipes caught your eye. All is well here (a very cold start to spring!) and hoping the same holds true for you.

      Reply