Busy days call for quick and delicious dinner ideas like this 5-minute caramelized salmon. Perfectly seared on the outside with crispy skin and melt-in-your-mouth tender inside in a cast iron skillet. Simply seasoned with pantry ingredients and literally on the table in minutes!
Why You’ll Love this Recipe
The cooking method is a no-fuss approach and one of my favorite ways to make fish. And it uses simple ingredients that let the salmon truly shine. A blend of white and brown sugar, sea salt, black pepper and a dash of nutmeg is the coating. You can easily use different seasonings if you prefer. But with little time and effort you’ll have healthy, restaurant-quality salmon that’s a great way to make at home.
What type of salmon should I buy?
The salmon available in grocery stores may be wild-caught or farm-raised. The most common wild salmon are king, sockeye and coho from the Pacific Northwest & Alaska. Atlantic salmon coming from the North Atlantic Ocean is farm-raised due to limited commercial harvesting. Both wild-caught and farm-raised can be sold as fresh or frozen.
I’m a huge fan of wild-caught coho which was used here. It’s mild in flavor with a medium texture compared to the firmer, more intense flavor of sockeye and has less oil than king salmon. Coho tends to have a more palatable price tag than the other two as well.
Since I live in NJ, coho isn’t always available so I will buy Atlantic farm-raised from reputable sources that implement best practices in terms of sustainability and healthiness. It too is cheaper than king and sockeye salmon. Any of the above will work in this recipe so buy what’s best for your gang and budget.
What is the best cut of salmon to use when pan searing?
Look for center-cut fillets that are about 1-inch thick and around 6 ounces each. If available, it's more economical to buy a larger fillet you can cut into portions yourself. But avoid the tail end which is thinner and can overcook easily. Tail pieces are better used minced or ground for burgers.
What is the best pan for searing fish?
When searing fish or other proteins at a high temperature like these scallops and ahi tuna steaks, a large cast iron skillet reigns supreme. It gets smoking hot, heats evenly, retains heat and is naturally nonstick when properly seasoned. Stainless steel is also a good option but leave nonstick pans in the cabinet. They fall way short when it comes to searing.
Cooking Steps & Tips
Now that you have your salmon and skillet ready to go, let’s fire things up! Below are the steps and tips to ensure you’ll have unforgettable fish perfectly cooked to medium-rare or medium.
- Bring fish to room temperature – Cold fish and a hot pan do not get along. The fillets will seize up and cook unevenly. Take them out of the fridge 30 minutes before you plan to start cooking.
- Dry the fillets – Gently pat the fish dry with paper towels to remove any moisture and lay them on a wire rack to air dry. Moist or wet fish will steam rather than sear and risk sticking to the pan.
- Use a hot skillet – Let the skillet get really hot over medium to medium-high heat. Add a thin layer of oil and when it’s shimmering you can add the fish.
- Season right before cooking - Have your seasoning mixture ready in a small bowl while the skillet heats up. Sprinkle it on all sides of the fillets. The fish will absorb the seasoning if you put it on ahead of time.
- What side to sear first – Add fillets to the hot skillet flesh side down and skin side up. This way the skin doesn’t curl and the flesh sears cleanly in the oil. Be sure to add fillets to the skillet away from you so hot oil doesn’t splatter in your direction. Sear the salmon three minutes on the flesh side, gently flip and cook just a couple minutes more for the skin to get crisp.
What oil should I use?
Since we’re searing at a high temperature, choose an oil with a relatively high smoking point. I like using canola or avocado oil. Olive oil is my third choice but avoid using extra virgin or butter because they can start to burn quickly.
How do you keep fish from sticking to the skillet?
It’s essential to dry the fish as much as possible. The flesh and skin of fish are full of moisture and both sides will stick if not sufficiently dry. Also, you need a hot cast iron skillet or stainless steel pan. And let the fish cook undisturbed. If you try moving it around too soon it will stick.
How can you tell when salmon is done?
We prefer salmon medium-rare to medium doneness. It should flake easily and the surface should be caramelized with opaque edges and more translucent in the center. Cook time will vary depending on the fillets' thickness.
When using an instant read thermometer, insert it into the thickest part of the fillet. 120 degrees F is the magic number for medium-rare and 130 degrees F for medium. Once you hit 140 or more you’re looking at well done.
What to Serve
This quickly seared salmon is delicious with just a squeeze of the charred lemon juice and some fresh herbs. You can serve it over a simple green salad, make sandwiches or use it in tacos.
And here are some of our favorite sides and sauces that are easy to whip up for a quick weeknight meal. And be sure to check out this roundup of delicious recipes that go well with fish and seafood.
- Spicy Asian Red Cabbage Slaw
- Balsamic Roasted Root & Green Vegetables
- Citrus Salad w/ Avocado & Goat Cheese
- Roasted Chickpea Salad w/ Avocado & Feta
- Avocado Tzatziki Sauce
- Cashew Butter Sauce
- Horseradish Cream Sauce
- Spicy Cilantro Pistachio Pesto
- Mediterranean Salsa
How to Store & Reheat Leftovers
Should you have any leftover salmon, store in an airtight container and refrigerate up to 3 days. If you’re not going to enjoy it by then, cooked salmon can be frozen. Wrap it tightly and freeze up to 6 months.
To reheat, microwave thawed fish or place in a skillet over medium heat with a little oil until warmed through.
Caramelized Salmon FAQs
Yes! The skin is full of nutrients and delicious when crispy. I personally don’t care for the skin on roasted salmon since it doesn’t crisp up in the oven. However, if you’re not a fan of the skin either way, the cooked flesh easily glides right off.
You can remove the skin with a sharp knife, but I would recommend leaving the skin intact when pan searing or grilling. It keeps the fillets from falling apart while cooking and adds flavor. The skin can be removed when roasting in the oven and there’s no need to flip the fish.
There’s a protein in salmon called albumin that’s in liquid form when the fish is raw. But this protein becomes semi-solid when the salmon is exposed to heat during any type of cooking process. It doesn't affect the taste at all and scrapes off easily.
More Salmon Recipes!
- 1½ tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1½ tablespoons light brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
- 6 salmon fillets , 1-inch thick, deboned with skin (about 2 pounds)
- 2 tablespoon canola or avocado oil
- 1 lemon , halved
- Garnish: sliced green onion and parsley
- Mix the first 5 ingredients in a small bowl. Set aside.
- Heat oil in a large cast iron skillet over medium-high heat.
- Rub mixture on all sides of salmon fillets while skillet gets hot.
- Add salmon to skillet away from you, flesh side down. Place in lemon halves, cut side down. (Cook fillets in batches if needed; don't overcrowd the skillet.)
- Cook 3 minutes, gently flip salmon and cook skin side 2 minutes more for medium doneness. Leave lemon halves on cut side during this time.
- Transfer fillets and lemon halves to a serving plate to rest a few minutes.
- Serve salmon with a squeeze of caramelized lemon juice, sliced green onion and fresh parsley or other herbs. Enjoy!
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