Sous vide times and temperatures are not set in stone. We discover new ways to cook everyday! Here's The Accidental Gastronomist’s experiments with salmon with how this popular fish can morph with slight differences in the temperature of your water bath.
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Several years ago I had my first sous vide salmon. Unfortunately that first try was not the best. It had a texture I found slightly mushy and unappealing so I concluded that I didn’t like salmon done sous vide. Sadly I wrote it off too quickly because sous vide’s versatility is the best way to create perfect salmon to suit anyone’s preference.
Over the past year I’ve cooked practically everything sous vide from meat to black beans, but I’ve completely avoided fish until now. Recently we obtained some amazing line caught King Salmon and I decided it was time to get back in that stream and fish for the perfect sous vide method. On a beautiful Saturday afternoon I gathered some foodie friends and we held “The Great Sous Vide Salmon Test.”
I vacuum-sealed 4 bags with 2 portions each so that we could test different temperatures as well as preparations. My research showed cooking times and temps ranging from 115°F for 12 minutes (Nathan Myhrvold) to 160°F for 10 minutes. Thomas Keller’s recipe for Oil Poached Salmon in Under Pressure calls for 140°F for 8 minutes for a perfect silky rare. Our group tended to like fish a little more done so we started at 15 minutes and kept the temps above 130°F.
This will not be my last test though. The combinations of time and temp are endless and the thickness of your cut of fish will largely determine how long it will take to achieve a desired doneness. For future reference, here is a collection of times and temps I have collected from around the web.
Thomas Keller Oil Poached Salmon - 140°F, 8 minutes
Modernist Cuisine – 115°F, 20 minutes
Douglas Baldwin – 122°F, 28 minutes
145°F for 15 Minutes – Medium Rare
This was a favorite of the two men in our group of four. The texture was moist and almost cooked through but not firm. To me it was almost like a poached salmon in texture. Because I didn’t brine the salmon there was quite a bit of that white stuff known as albumen, a protein that rises to the surface as the fish is cooked (This can be easily reduced though if you brine the salmon in 3-5% salt water). I patted some of the albumen off prior to serving. We served one simply with lemon so that we would have something to compare against.
Another portion I smoked with my smoking gun using hickory chips. This was my personal favorite. It had the flavor of fish cooked at a bon fire at the beach, but it was done perfectly! For me there is no better pairing than salmon and smoke. The texture was still that of poached salmon, however, the smoking gave it a flavor close to bacon. I loved this preparation but was still looking for a more silky rare texture. For those who ask for their salmon a little more done in restaurants this might be the perfect texture for you. It’s done but not too done.
145°F for 30 minutes - Medium.
This was slightly firmer than the portion done at 145°F for 15 minutes. It had a texture I’d call medium. It was still very moist but not as soft in texture without being flaky. This time we lightly toasted the salmon with my torch to crisp the skin then added a small dot of yuzu kosho and served with sea beans. The torch took care of the albumen and also gave it a nice char appearance without further cooking the salmon. It was one of the best preparations and the taste was a wonderful mix of umami, citrus, salt and fat in one perfect bite.
135°F for 15 minutes – closer to rare
The texture here was slightly less flaky than the portion done at 140°F but still not medium rare. I’d call this medium. Now in steak we know exactly what medium means, a large band of pink through the middle but firm to the touch. With fish it’s more tricky. Some might consider this perfect because it’s just past translucent in the center. For me what is lacking in this temperature is that silky texture you get from the translucent center of medium rare but that is a matter of preference. Cooking to medium on the stove or grill would normally yield a more flaky and somewhat dry on the edges piece of fish. Because of sous vide this was medium throughout and completely moist, again giving more the texture of a poached salmon. I used the torch on the edges and to crisp the skin and served it simply with lemon.
130°F for 15 minutes – silky and medium rare
Now THIS was perfect for me. It was still not quite rare, but was what I’d call medium rare. It has a silky wonderful texture that melts in your mouth like butter. The center was somewhat translucent. It was succulent but there was none of the mushy texture I recalled from my failed sous vide salmon encounter so many years ago. It is perhaps the perfect piece of salmon for a salmon lover. I am now a sous vide salmon convert because of this preparation. For this one, I put dill and lemon in the bag. After 15 minutes in the bath, I smoked it with hickory and served it on avocado with fresh dill.
147°F for 15 minutes – flaky and done through.
The final test was to get a more flaky texture without having to grill it after and risk overcooking the fish. 147°F gave us that nice moist fish that was cooked through and could be flaked off with a fork. This was the texture my husband was looking for. The amazing thing is that with sous vide I can actually cook salmon to order, getting everyone’s specific preference exactly right. In a later test I’ll go all the way up to 165°F, which is the supposed temp for medium, but I think I’ll drop cooking time to 10 minutes. I would also like to test 10 minutes rather than 15 and the difference between brined and unbrined. There are a lot of other fish in the sea, and a lot of preparations to try. My family might be swimming upstream by the end of summer. Stay tuned!
*Photos and post published with permission from The Accidental Gastronomist