Salmon’s thick, meaty flesh excels at absorbing spice and herb flavors without sacrificing its innate sweet, buttery taste. The secret is a light hand when marinating and cooking, as doing either for too long can produce an overly salty, tough piece of fish.
Spice rub yields a satisfying crust for grilled or pan-fried salmon steaks or fillets, and the fish’s own oiliness sucks up the flavors in the skillet. For full-flavored blackened salmon, a signature dish of the South, rub a steak with paprika, cayenne and black pepper. "New York Times" food writer Mark Bittman recommends rubbing a salmon fillet with cumin, nutmeg, cloves and coriander seeds for browning in a pan to form a crust. You can also use a freshly ground blend of caraway, cumin, chili powder and garlic salt for maximum aroma. In all cases, rub the steak or fillet with the spices and cover it in plastic wrap, refrigerating it for up to six hours.
Steaming salmon fillets yields a soft, succulent piece of meat and releases the aroma of fresh herbs without burning them off. Combining the herbs with olive oil and citrus juice gives a more complex finish. A light sprinkling with dill and parsley lends a subtle flavor that provides a natural complement to the salmon’s own aroma, while rosemary, garlic and thyme imbue the flesh with a more pungent taste. For a Mediterranean flourish, oregano, thyme and tarragon showcase the salmon’s depth. Ultimately, few herbs are off the table, but lemon and salt are vital additions in carrying the flavors into the fish. If you're not adding the herbs directly at the cooking stage, spoon the marinade over the fillet in a flat dish and refrigerate it for an hour.
When to Brine
For grilled or smoked salmon, brining in salt or a saline solution -- a water and salt mixture -- is a tried-and-tested technique for drawing out the moisture and dissolving the muscle fibers near the surface for a more tender bite. Crucially, brining also limits the production of albumen, the white frothy liquid that oozes from the flesh, rendering it tough and flavorless. Brine fillets for 10 minutes maximum in a solution containing 1 tablespoon of kosher salt per cup, or go for a dry brine with kosher or non-iodized salt and an equal amount of brown sugar, marinating the fish for an hour wrapped in plastic film. Take care not to leave it in the marinade for too long or the fish will turn unpalatably salty; the skin is best discarded after cooking for the same reason. A dry-brined steak grilled over charcoal returns a deliciously smoky, sweet finish.
For a juicy fillet with a sweet, sticky outside, Jamie Oliver calls for an Asian-inspired blend incorporating soy sauce, ginger, lemon grass and garlic. Rub the marinade all over the fish, cover it with plastic wrap, and refrigerate it for an hour. The fillet can then be brushed with honey before going under the broiler for enough sweetness to counter the marinade’s salt, sprinkled with chili flakes for a little kick. A similar combination of soy sauce, lime juice and ginger makes for the perfect marriage of acid, heat and salt. Pan fry the fillets and use any remaining marinade as a base for noodles. A Provencal-style marinade uses onion, olives, capers, and garlic, best sauteed in a tomato sauce or light broth.