Food and Drink

Make salty, crispy skin the star of your salmon dinner

So, you go to start up the backyard grill, open it and find two dry, forgotten, charred salmon skins left from the last time someone grilled a couple fillets and forgot to clean up. Sound familiar? The other day, I came across a couple of these skins on a friend’s grill, and then I started thinking about how delicious crispy salmon skin is. What if instead of being something we leave on the grill, the crispy charred skin becomes the showpiece?

That’s what led me into a week of trying techniques for cooking salmon that get skin extra crispy and delicious. Per-pound prices on early summer red salmon are great, so if you’re curious, now’s the time to try it for yourself.

My favorite technique comes from Seattle-based J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, who wrote last month in The New York Times food section about dry-brining. This technique really blew my mind because it was so simple and made for glorious perfect bites of flavorful salmon with extra crispy skin. He offers the option of broiling the fish, but I went with his pan-fry technique. I modified his instructions slightly because of what I had on hand. The only essential tool is a good instant-read thermometer.

Here’s what I used, which was enough for four people:

• One red salmon fillet, weighing roughly a pound

• A teaspoon of sea salt

• Canola oil

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Following Lopez-Alt’s instructions, I dried my fillet well, covered it with the salt and put it in a paper towel-lined lasagna pan. I then put it in the fridge uncovered for 8 hours. (My fridge smelled fine.) It came out dry and a little sticky on the outside — it reminded me of the smoking process when you dry salmon after a wet brine to form a pellicle.

When I was ready to cook, I cut the fish into individual portions. After that, I heated a large frying pan over medium-low heat, rubbed the portions down with a little neutral oil and fried them for about 5 minutes, skin-side down. When the skin was brown and crispy, I had no trouble separating them from the cooking surface with a spatula.

I flipped them and fried each flesh-side down until it reached about 110 degrees on my instant-read thermometer. That leaves the fish on the rare side. Well done, Lopez-Alt says, is 135 degrees. I did not try cooking salt-brined fish on the grill, but stands to reason it would be extra crispy, well-charred and good.

The next method I liked was to pan-fry the fish on parchment paper — a technique that’s making the rounds on the internet. This method also made for crispy skin — though not quite as flavorful or crispy as the Lopez-Alt method.

Here’s what I used to make roughly enough for two people:

• Half a single red salmon fillet, about 8 ounces, patted dry

• 1/4 teaspoon of canola oil

• Season salt

• Half a lemon

I cut a piece of parchment paper so that it would fit in my cast-iron skillet. I heated the skillet over medium-low heat, put the parchment in the pan and drizzled it with the oil. I seasoned the fish on both sides, then laid it skin-side down, and cooked it for about 5 minutes. I flipped it and cooked it for a few minutes more until it reached an internal temperature of 110 degrees. Then I hit it with a nice squeeze of lemon. It was great. Though I preferred the Lopez-Alt method for the way the salt intensified the flavor, this is a great way to get a crispy skin if you don’t have time for the overnight brine.

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Julia O'Malley

Anchorage-based Julia O'Malley is a former ADN reporter, columnist and editor. She received a James Beard national food writing award in 2018, and a collection of her work, "The Whale and the Cupcake: Stories of Subsistence, Longing, and Community in Alaska," was published in 2019. She's currently writer in residence at the Anchorage Museum.

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