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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Enhance Juiciness and Crisp Skin of Salmon with Kenji López-Alt’s Simple Tip: Salt and Wait

Dry-brining, also known as short-curing, is a popular method for enhancing the flavour, texture, browning, and scorching of meats by letting them sit in salt for a whole day before cooking. Is there a reason we don’t dry-brine fish more often, especially salmon?

Shake (pronounced shah-keh), a combination of “shio” (salt) and “sake” (salmon), is a mainstay in Japanese breakfasts and bento lunches, where it is often served broiled or grilled over rice. The original, salty recipes developed for use in the days before refrigeration have given way to milder contemporary ones.

Wonderful even in Western recipes, the method eliminates common issues when cooking salmon at home, such as spattering, sticking, and the challenge of achieving a well browned outside without drying out the inside.

I went to Seattle’s Pike Place Market and purchased a variety of whole salmon (coho, sockeye, wild, and farm-raised king) to get a feel for the market. I used roughly a teaspoon of kosher salt per 5-ounce fillet and chilled them uncovered in the refrigerator the next day. Then, I compared them to fillets of the same fish that had been prepared the same way, just before cooking, except that they had been salted. Each was fried skin-side down in oil heated to a constant 370 degrees Fahrenheit in a matching pan. I prepared the salmon fillets in my usual fashion, with the skin side down and cooked them to an internal temperature of 100 degrees (about medium-rare with a transparent centre for salmon fillets).

The fresh fillets’ extra moisture produced a lot of spatter at the beginning of cooking, but the dry-brined fillets’ reduced moisture produced almost no spatter throughout the sear. While the fresh fish became a milky white as it cooked, the dry-brined salmon maintained its vibrant orange colour. The dry-brined fillets achieved their desired internal temperature around 20 percent quicker, with superior external browning and sharper skin. They were also substantially simpler to flip than the fresh.

I was able to calculate the amount of moisture lost and when it occurred by weighing the salmon fillets before, during, and after preparation. The moisture content of each salmon fillet decreased by between 8 and 11 percent. What then is the distinction?

Most of the moisture disappears from the dry-brined fillets while they’re being stored, and just a trace appears when they’re being cooked. However, when using fresh ingredients, all of the moisture is released into the pan and must be evaporated. This is why cooking fresh fillets may be a frustrating experience since they never seem to become brown or crisp. Proteins are expelled along with the water from the fillets, forming ugly white clumps that detract from the fish’s aesthetic appeal. Sticking and splattering are both caused by an overabundance of moisture in the pan, especially moisture that is rich in proteins.

Dry-brined fillets taste juicier and firmer than their wet-brined counterparts, although losing the same amount of total moisture. My colleague Harold McGee, author of the food-science bible “On Food and Cooking,” says that this has to do with the way liquid is bonded within the salmon. Myosin, the primary protein in muscle fibres, becomes more water-soluble when exposed to salt, which in turn strengthens its association with water and its attachment to the salmon’s flesh. Dry-brined salmon retains its vibrant orange colour even after being cooked because salt causes certain proteins to precipitate before they exit muscle cells. When you take your first mouthful of fresh salmon, the remaining water rushes out quickly, leaving the fish drier as you chew. With its bonded moisture, dry-brined salmon is more of a gradual release, remaining juicy until the very last bite.

On occasion, I’ll wait until the day of a meal to purchase the fish I’ll be serving. When this occurs, I prepare for a dirty hob by thoroughly drying the salmon before cooking it. To enhance the cooking and eating attributes of salmon, I can think of no method with a higher reward-to-effort ratio than dry-brining, provided I have at least a day to devote to the process.

Jonathan James
Jonathan James
I serve as a Senior Executive Journalist of The National Era
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