Pan-Seared Salmon with Lemon Garlic Sauce

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Learn to make restaurant-quality pan-seared salmon at home with these simple techniques. Create golden crispy crust two ways: with or without the skin. Finish it off with an easy lemon garlic butter sauce for a quick gourmet meal.

Three fillets of pan seared salmon with lemon garlic sauce

Pan-searing is hands down my preferred method for cooking salmon fillets. It yields irresistible textures- a crispy surface along with tender and flaky pieces underneath. A few tricks will achieve this: Drying the fish well before frying, pressing the flesh down in the hot oil, and letting a crust form.

You can use any type of salmon, however, I prefer Scottish or Atlantic. The fillets tend to be at least 1-inch in thickness which is better for crust formation because it takes longer to heat to the center. They are also rich in fat and healthy omega 3-fatty acids. When the fat renders in the hot pan, it bastes the flesh and keeps it moist and flavorful.

Person removing the skin from a salmon fillet

Skin-Off: How to skin the salmon fillet

Place a cutting board near the edge of the counter. Place the salmon, skin-side down near the edge. This makes it easier to run the knife down the length of the board without hitting your knuckles.

Hold the knife at a slight downward angle to prevent cutting into the flesh. Starting at the tail end or corner of a center-cut fillet, use a long boning knife, utility knife, or chef’s knife to slice as closely between the flesh and skin. With your other hand, hold the tip of the skin as you use slow sawing motions.

Skin-On: Remove the scales from the fillet

It’s safe to eat cooked scales, although I prefer to remove as much as possible. Check by running the dull spine of a knife or edge of a spoon in both directions. This will help determine the direction of the scales. Hold the dull spine edge crosswise at a 45-degree angle against the skin. Scrape the blade across the skin until the scales pop off.

Using the back of a knife to remove the scales from a fish

Cut the fillet into portions

If possible, purchase a center-cut salmon fillet. This will give the thickest pieces that are consistent in size and allow for even cooking. Cut the salmon into even-sized fillets, about 2-inches wide. If the fish is really long, trim off some of the thinner side and discard. However, that part gets extremely crispy, so keep it attached if you like.

Dry the surface as much as possible

Drying the surface of the fish with paper towels is critical to crispiness and safety. The more moisture that’s removed, the faster the flesh or skin will turn golden brown in color. Water will steam, which makes it take longer to crisp. Also, if any water drops into the hot oil it will pop and splatter. So be careful when adding the fish to the pan.

Season the fillets

I tend to keep it simple with salt and pepper. Generously sprinkle both sides to enhance the savory taste of the neutral-tasting flesh. I do this right before searing because the salt draws moisture to the surface. If needed, dry it one more time if not cooking within 10 minutes.

Salmon fillets seasoned with salt and pepper on a sheet pan

Pan selection

A thick stainless steel pan, cast iron skillet, or nonstick pan work well for pan-searing salmon. However, stainless steel is my top choice and often used in restaurants for its ability to distribute heat quickly and evenly. High-quality versions have three layers containing aluminum, a fast heat conductor and distributor, bonded between stainless steel which retains the heat but slowly and steadily emits it.

Stainless steel pans need to be preheated before adding the oil. You can’t see it, but the surface is actually porous, and when heated those pores shrink. This only takes a few minutes over medium heat. To check, you can add a few water droplets, it’s ready if it stays intact and slips along the surface without bubbling and evaporating. Then wipe out the water and add in the oil.

Alternatively, nonstick is a great choice for those first trying the method, it eliminates the sticking factor, and you can really focus on color and hitting the right doneness.

Pressing a fish spatula against a salmon fillet cooking in a pan

Oil selection

Use a frying oil with a smoke point at least 375ºF (191ºC) and above. The fish will be cooked at a temperature around 350ºF (177ºC), so it’s good to have a heat buffer. Grapeseed, canola, vegetable, avocado, regular, or light olive oil (not extra-virgin) are good options. I prefer olive oil or avocado for its neutral flavor, especially since I use it in the sauce. Heat the oil until it shimmers, but not smokes. The latter is a sign that it’s too hot and it’s breaking down.

Don’t add cold salmon to the pan

Adding cold food directly from the refrigerator into the pan will cause it to stick more. It dramatically lowers the temperature and causes the pores in the pan to open instead of staying tight. Let the salmon sit at room temperature for at least 10-minutes before cooking.

Searing salmon with no skin

Sear the skinless fillet flesh-side down to create a golden, crisp surface. My chef instructor in culinary school told us that we should let the fish cook until about 75 to 80% in the thickest part then flip. Depending on the thickness, the process takes about 4 to 5 minutes.

The neat thing is you can actually see the fish turn from translucent to opaque on the edges, so pay close attention. This provides ample time for a thick crust to form on the surface. Turn it over, then continue to cook until the filet reaches medium-rare (slightly translucent in the center) to medium doneness (mostly opaque and flaky).

crispy skin on a pan seared salmon

Searing salmon with skin on

The key to nailing a crispy texture is to cook the salmon skin-side down first so it fry’s in the oil longer. You’ll notice that the skin will start to shrink the moment it hits the pan. Pressing it down with a fish spatula right away reduces the amount of buckling or curling. This will keep it flat and evenly fried.

The skin is full of collagen and omega-3 fatty acids, it needs slightly more time to change the texture compared to the flesh. This process will take about 5 to 6 minutes. You should be able to easily cut through the skin with a fork. I serve this type of fillet with the skin-side up on a plate which prevents the skin from getting soggy while sitting in the sauce.

Make a quick pan sauce

After pan-frying the fish, there will be fat rendered from the salmon and bits of flavorful fond from browning the protein. Don’t ditch the pan, use those wonderful drippings to make a sauce. I saute minced garlic, lemon zest, and fresh lemon juice until fragrant. To thicken the consistency, turn off the heat and whisk in cold butter. This keeps the sauce emulsified so that it clings to the fish. Chopped dill and parsley add a fresh herb aroma and taste to the dish.

Serve this with

salmon in a pan with garlic butter sauce

Preventing the salmon from sticking to the pan

Do not move the fillet once it hits the pan. The cool piece of fish will immediately change the surface temperature of a stainless skillet. This causes the pores of the pan to increase in size, then grab onto the food, making it stick. Don’t worry, after a few minutes the heat increases, and the pan gets back up to temperature. Tiny bits might stick (creating bits of tasty fond), but the larger piece of protein will naturally release.

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Pan-Seared Salmon with Lemon Garlic Sauce

Make restaurant-quality pan-seared salmon at home with these simple techniques and finish it off with a delicious lemon garlic butter sauce.
Pin Print Review
4.54 from 13 votes
Prep Time20 mins
Cook Time15 mins
Total Time35 mins
Servings 4 servings
Course Entree
Cuisine American

Ingredients

Pan-Seared Salmon (with skin)

  • 1 ½ pound whole salmon fillet, skin on, center-cut if possible
  • kosher salt, as needed for seasoning
  • black pepper, as needed for seasoning
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, light olive oil, grapeseed, avocado oil, or vegetable oil

Pan-Seared Salmon (no skin)

  • 1 ½ pound whole salmon fillet, skinless, center-cut if possible
  • kosher salt, as needed for seasoning
  • black pepper, as needed for seasoning
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, light olive oil, grapeseed, avocado oil, or vegetable oil

Lemon Garlic Butter Sauce

  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
  • ¼ cup lemon juice
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon dill leaves, roughly chopped
  • 1 tablespoon minced parsley
  • 4 lemon wedges

Instructions 

Pan-Seared Salmon (with skin)

  • Use the top of a knife (the spine) to remove the scales from the fillet if still intact. Run the knife a 45-degree angle against the skin to pop the scales off and discard.
  • Cut the salmon into 4 even-sized fillets, about 2-inch wide, and 6 ounces in weight, if not already portioned.
  • Thoroughly dry both sides of the salmon and skin with paper towels.
  • Right before cooking, season both sides of the salmon with salt and pepper.
  • Heat a 12-inch stainless steel, cast iron, or nonstick pan over medium heat until hot, about 2 minutes. Add the olive oil, then turn the heat to medium-high. Once the oil begins to shimmer, about 1 to 2 minutes, carefully add the salmon, skin-side down, one at a time. Using the back of a spatula, immediately press the fish down into the pan for about 10 seconds. This will help reduce the buckling of the skin. Add the remaining fillets to the pan, pressing each one down before adding the next piece. Reduce the heat to medium. Cook the salmon, occasionally pressing down on the flesh, until the skin is brown and crispy, and easily releases from the pan, about 5 to 6 minutes. The salmon will be about 75 to 80% cooked through.
  • Use tongs to carefully flip the salmon over. Gently press the surface to make direct contact with the pan, do not move the fillets. Cook until the surface is golden brown, the edges are opaque, and the center is slightly translucent, about 1 to 2 minutes. The internal temperature should read 120°F (49°C) for medium-rare, or 130°F (54°C) for medium.
  • Transfer the salmon to a paper towel-lined plate to drain the excess grease. Do not discard the pan.

Pan-Seared Salmon (no skin)

  • Use a boning knife to carefully remove the skin from the salmon if still intact. Cut the salmon into 4 even-sized fillets, about 2-inch wide, and 6 ounces in weight, if not already portioned.
  • Thoroughly dry the surface of the salmon and skin with paper towels.
  • Right before cooking, season both sides of the salmon with salt and pepper.
  • Heat a 12-inch stainless steel, cast iron, or nonstick pan over medium heat until hot, about 2 minutes. Add the olive oil, then turn the heat to medium-high. Once the oil begins to shimmer, about 1 to 2 minutes, carefully add the salmon one at a time, flesh side down. Using the back of a spatula, immediately press the fish down into the pan for about 10 seconds. Add the remaining fillets to the pan, pressing each one down before adding the next piece. Reduce the heat to medium. Cook the salmon, occasionally pressing down on the flesh, until the surface is golden brown, crispy, and easily releases from the pan, about 4 to 5 minutes. The salmon will be about 75 to 80% cooked through.
  • Using tongs, carefully flip the salmon over. Gently press the surface to make direct contact with the pan, do not move the fillets. Cook until the edges are opaque, and the center is slightly translucent, about 1 to 2 minutes. The internal temperature should read 120°F (49°C) for medium-rare, or 130°F (54°C) for medium.
  • Transfer the salmon to a paper towel-lined plate to drain the excess grease. Do not discard the pan.

Lemon Garlic Butter Sauce

  • Heat the same pan used to cook the salmon over medium heat. Add the garlic and lemon zest, saute for 30 seconds, until fragrant. Add the lemon juice, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon black pepper. Stir and cook for 1 minute. Turn off the heat. Whisk in the butter until a lightly thickened emulsion is formed.
  • Add the salmon back to the pan, garnish with dill leaves, parsley, and then drizzle with the lemon garlic sauce. Serve salmon with lemon wedges.

Recipe Video

Equipment

Notes

  • Four, 6-ounce fillets can be used instead of a whole salmon fillet. Oftentimes grocery stores sell cleaned and portioned fillets. 
  • If salmon fillets are thicker than 1-inch, adjust cook time as needed to hit the desired doneness. 

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Nutrition Facts
Pan-Seared Salmon with Lemon Garlic Sauce
Amount Per Serving
Calories 391 Calories from Fat 234
% Daily Value*
Fat 26g40%
Saturated Fat 8g40%
Cholesterol 116mg39%
Sodium 368mg15%
Potassium 874mg25%
Carbohydrates 4g1%
Fiber 1g4%
Sugar 1g1%
Protein 34g68%
Vitamin A 330IU7%
Vitamin C 17mg21%
Calcium 31mg3%
Iron 1mg6%
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet.

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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7 Comments Leave a comment or review

  1. Maria Terry says

    I normally tolerate salmon because it’s good for me. This was delicious. My husband asked for half a piece of salmon initially. It wasn’t long before he asked for and ate the other half with gusto.

  2. Nancy Call says

    The salmon skin stuck when I turned over the pieces, preventing the second side to brown. I used an All-clad frying pan. I waited two minutes for the pan to heat up and two for the oil to heat. Perhaps I didn’t wait long enough? I will try it again soon. Nevertheless the recipe was delicious and even better the next day for leftovers.

  3. Dave says

    I must try this. I’ve never been a fan of salmon but there’s always a turning point and this looks delicious. After all, all your recipes are outstanding.

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