It's not about a special tool, not how long to cook each side, or the right way to flip. It actually happens before you even turn on your stove.

The Challenge: Searing salmon fillets is tricky, to say the least. First, the fillets each have thick and thin sides that cook at different rates, the thin side often overcooking before the thick side is done. The thick side also has more contact with the hot pan, so the outside crust is also uneven.

Second, the skin takes longer to cook than the flesh; it's usually not done when it's time to flip.

Third, despite being a richer, fattier fish, salmon cooks much faster than you think. By the time the skin is crisp and the thick side has caught up to the thin side, the fillet is often overcooked.

The Solution: The key to perfectly seared salmon is to add your fillets to a cold, dry pan, then turn on the heat.

Starting your fillets in a cold pan cooks the fish slowly and evenly. It gives the skin more time to become crisp and golden and for the natural fat to render. (This is why you don't need to add oil to the pan.) Cooking gradually also helps the fillets to stay flat so you get a golden-brown color all over both sides of the fillet. By the time the pan is hot, you'll be ready to flip the fillets and finish cooking.

fresh salmon filet on a piece of wax freezer paper
Credit: Meredith

How to Pan Sear Salmon

1. Season both sides of the salmon fillets with salt and pepper. Add fillets skin-side down to a dry, cold nonstick skillet. Turn the heat to medium-high.

2. Cook the fillets for 6 minutes. At this point, the skin should be crisp and you should see the salmon fat bubbling around the edges. The flesh should be cooked about a third of the way through.

3. Flip and cook for another 6 minutes. To test for doneness, use the tip of a knife to peak between the flakes of fish. It should be a slightly darker pink at the center. You can also insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the fillet; aim for a temperature of 125 degrees F.

four salmon filets in carbon steel pan on a blue fabric background
Credit: Caitlin Bensel/Meredith

A Few Fishy Tips to Remember

When you shop, look for fillets that are the same size and shape. You can also purchase a large piece of salmon and cut into fillets at home.

When cooking, stick to medium-high heat. You don't want to rush the sear. If your burners run hot, go with a heat level that's closer to medium.

For salmon that's the same doneness all the way through, remove the pan from the heat after searing and cover. The residual heat from the pan will continue cooking the fillets without overcooking them.

Ready to cook? Check out our favorite salmon recipes for seared fillets, along with baked, broiled, and grilled salmon recipes.

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