How to Pan Fry Salmon

Published on 04/13/2023 · 5 min readNot sure how to pan fry your fresh salmon? Kitchen Expert Paul Z. walks you step by step through the process so you can get the best tasting salmon possible.
Paul Z., Kitchen Expert
By Kitchen Expert Paul Z.

All photos by Paul Z.

There are many ways to prepare salmon: grilled, smoked, baked, or battered. The easiest way to cook salmon is by pan-frying. It’s so easy, you can accomplish pan-frying salmon with a few staples in the pantry, oil, and a hot pan or skillet. I prefer pan frying to baking or grilling due to the time saved preheating your pan vs an oven or grill. It’s fast, and you’ll be eating in less than thirty minutes.

Salmon is versatile and there are many salmon recipes to choose from. You can cut salmon fillets into strips and pan-fry them, serving them with fries as fish and chips. You can also prepare a simple seared salmon recipe for a fast, easy weeknight dinner paired with your favorite side dish. Despite its distinct flavor, salmon is complemented well by various seasonings, marinades, and preparations. It pairs well with many side dishes, and some of my favorites include steamed jasmine rice, brown rice, roasted tomatoes, spinach salads, and roasted zucchini. Below, I’ll show you what you’ll need and how you can easily pan-fry salmon.

What You’ll Need

  • Salmon Fillets - If possible, choose wild-caught salmon. Wild salmon is more excellent in healthy omega-3 fatty acids than farm-raised salmon.
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil - Quality olive oil enhances and improves the flavor of any dish. I prefer EVOO as a healthier option to butter.
  • Salt and Pepper - Use kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper. Like seasoning a steak, a liberal sprinkle of salt and pepper will season the fish, but will not overpower the flavor of the salmon.
  • Garlic Cloves - Use about two fresh crushed garlic cloves as aromatics; add them to the pan while cooking.
  • Lemon and Herbs - Use fresh herbs for garnish and fresh lemon slices for an added drizzle of lemon juice to the cooked salmon.
  • Cast Iron Skillet - Cast iron's heat retention and heat radiation are unbeatable. It is a perfect cooking vessel for pan-searing and achieving crisp salmon skin.
  • Fish Spatula - A metal fish spatial is an excellent tool for carefully turning fish while pan-frying. Any metal spatula will work if you do not have a fish spatula.
  • Paper Towels - Gently pat the salmon fillets with paper towels to remove excess moisture.

Pan-Frying Salmon in 4 Steps

1. Remove your salmon fillets from the refrigerator and gently pat them with paper towels, removing excess moisture from the fish. Add a healthy pinch of kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper to the salmon fillets from top to bottom. Set them aside and preheat your cast iron pan.

2. Place a 12-inch cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. The pan is ready to cook when a light smoke appears. Add olive oil, distributing the oil evenly to the pan. The oil must be hot to pan-fry salmon.

3. Carefully place the salmon skin on the cast iron pan and sear in the olive oil for three to four minutes. Add the crushed garlic cloves.

4. Once cooked to the desired doneness, remove the salmon and place the filets on a cooling rack, salmon skin side up to maintain crispiness, and let them rest for several minutes. The outside of the skin should have a crunch for texture, and the thickest part of the fillet should be opaque.

If you are unsure about doneness, you can use a cooking thermometer. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends the desired internal temperature to be 135°F for medium-cooked salmon, up to 145°F for well-done salmon.

You can also make a pan sauce from pan drippings to complement your salmon. Leave the cast iron skillet on medium-high heat. Add minced garlic and two cups of white wine, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Reduce the liquid by half, add a pat of butter and continue to stir. The sauce shall thicken slightly. Remove from heat and add the sauce on top of your salmon fillets. Drizzle them with juice from fresh lemon slices. Serve the salmon fillets alongside your favorite side dish and garnish with fresh.

Leftover Ideas

Store leftover salmon in an airtight container. You can use these leftovers for other dishes. I like to glaze mine with soy sauce, flake the cold salmon filets and mix them with steamed white rice to make salmon musubi for my kids. Or you can toss the leftovers with lemon juice, olive oil, capers, olives, feta cheese, minced red onions, and salt, and add this to your favorite bread for a fresh salmon salad sandwich.

Other Notes

If you do not have a cast iron skillet, a non-stick pan or stainless steel pan will work. Try to use a pan with a heavy bottom, as this will retain heat evenly and radiate heat during the cooking process. If you're cooking with non-stick cookware, do not use a metal fish spatula; this will scratch the pan's surface. Be sure to use appropriate utensils for no-stick cookware that will not damage the pan's quality.

Last Thoughts

If you're slightly adventurous and want a break from filets, you can pan-sear salmon bellies if available. They're fattier and packed with flavor and are excellent when glazed with shoyu. If salmon is not your jam, you can substitute it with any firm flesh skin on white fish filets. Some of my favorites are hake, pollack, cod, or halibut. I live in Hawaii and use Onaga (red snapper) or Opah (moonfish) as an excellent fish for pan searing. These all have a mild flavor and adapt well to this recipe. As always, don't forget to ask a Curated Expert to help outfit your kitchen with essential cookware and cutlery today.

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