There are few forkfuls as satisfying as a bite of expertly seared salmon: Your fork shatters the salty, crispy skin, then slides through the buttery, rosy flesh. It’s the ultimate duality of textures, and you need only a few simple tools and tricks to achieve it:
Dry, dry again
Fish skin loves sticking to cooking surfaces, especially when it’s wet. Blot the skin of your salmon (or any skin-on fish you’ll be cooking) with paper towels when you remove it from the refrigerator and unwrap it, then repeat right before you season the fish and place it in the skillet. Some cooks like to press a paper towel on top of the skin and leave it there while they heat up their skillet, but we find this actually makes the skin more moist (Think about it: would wrapping yourself in a wet towel dry your body faster than wiping and leaving your skin exposed to the air?).
High, then low.
Even if your fish skin is bone dry, it’ll still want to stick to a cold pan. Cast iron is undoubtedly the best vessel for cooking extra-crispy fish, but only if you start with a hot skillet. Preheat your skillet for a few minutes before adding oil (this prevents the oil from getting too hot before the pan is evenly warmed up), then add the oil and heat it until it shimmers like a mirage. Then, immediately after you add the fish to the pan, decrease the heat to low. The gentle heat will both cook the fish more evenly, giving the skin time to evenly brown and crisp.
Press the flesh
When fish skin hits a hot pan, it shrinks and curls in on itself. To prevent this, press down on fish as it cooks with a flexible fish spatula for 10 to 15 seconds at a time, alternating between fillets as they threaten to bow—like a very slow game of Whack-a-Mole. After a minute or two, the fish will relax and stay flat without you needing to press it.
This may sound obvious, but we see this mistake all the time: Once your fish is cooked through, transfer it to a plate—Skin. Side. Up!—and let it rest for a couple of minutes before digging in. Lastly, if you’re serving your fish with a sauce (or even just a drizzle of olive oil), serve it on the side—or below—the fish: any liquid on top of that crackling, fussed-over skin can make all your efforts in vain.
Seared Salmon with Broccoli Rabe
Four 6-ounce salmon fillets, with skin
2 tablespoons vegetable or grapeseed oil
1 pound broccoli rabe, stems trimmed
Extra-virgin olive oil, for serving
Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil and prepare an ice bath. Working in batches, blanch the broccoli rabe until bright green and crisp tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to the ice bath to cool, then drain and lightly squeeze dry.
Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat for a few minutes, then the oil and heat until it shimmers. Just before adding the fish to the pan, pat the skin side of the fillets dry with paper towels and season all over with salt. Lay the fish in the pan, skin side down, and immediately turn the heat down to low (this will give you more time to crisp up the skin). Using a spatula, press down on the fillets for 10 to 15 seconds at a time to ensure as much skin-to-pan contact as possible.
After a few minutes, gently nudge the salmon fillets: If they slide around the pan easily, you can start lifting them up with a spatula to peek at the skin below. They’re ready to flip once the skin is golden brown and the flesh is opaque almost all the way through, about 5 to 7 minutes, depending on the thickness of your fish. Flip the salmon and cook the flesh side for 30 to 60 seconds or until the fish is opaque through (an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the flesh will read 120°F to 125°F for medium rare to medium).
Transfer the salmon, skin-side up, to serving plates. Heat the same cast-iron skillet over high heat until it just begins to smoke, then add the broccoli rabe and season with salt. Cook the broccoli rabe, turning frequently, until warmed through and lightly charred in spots, 1 to 2 minutes. Divide among the plates, drizzle with olive oil, and serve with lemon wedges.
Cast Iron Cookware that Makes Clean-up Easy
The key to reliable, use-it-every-day cast iron is seasoning: a smooth, well-seasoned skillet will clean up with just a quick wash, and produce natural non-stick performance every time. Apply a dab of Field Seasoning Oil after cleaning to protect your skillet and build durable non-stick seasoning.