This salmon piccata recipe is an easy gourmet meal, ready in just 30-minutes! Plus, clean-up is a breeze—I pan-sear the fish forming a crispy golden crust, then make a tangy lemon caper sauce all in the same pan.
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If you’re looking for a fast yet fancy seafood dinner, grab some salmon fillets, and you’re in for a treat. The bright orange flesh packs nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids for numerous health benefits, so it’s a great addition to your diet. Pan-searing creates a beautiful crispy golden crust, but afterward, there’s a ton of flavor left in the pan.
Don’t let those residual bits go to waste! Make a bright and citrusy piccata sauce with a bold mix of lemon, capers, white wine, and capers. The tangy flavors perfectly balance the rich and flaky salmon. Pair with freshly steamed rice, pasta, or veggies for a gourmet meal made right at home.
You can use any type of salmon for this recipe. I recommend Scottish or Atlantic varieties for their buttery and flaky texture. Or you can splurge on King (chinook) for its nutty flavor, its pricey but worth it for special occasions. Otherwise, Wild Alaskan salmon has a deep red color if you’re okay with a firmer texture.
Preparing the fish
I like to purchase a whole side of salmon, preferably center cut. You get more for your money and can control the size of the pieces for even cooking. You have to do a bit of butchering (which is quite fun!) to remove the skin and cut it into portions, but it’s a great skill to learn and practice.
Trim off the thin tapered sides of the fillet, then cut them into about 2-inch wide pieces, around 6-ounces in weight. You can make them larger for heartier portions if desired. If the extra work isn’t your jam, most grocery stores sell skinned and portioned fillets. They are more pricey per pound but a convenient choice.
Dry thoroughly and season
To ensure a super crisp browned surface on the fillets, dry them well. I use a paper towel to soak up the moisture on the top and bottom. This technique prevents the seafood from steaming instead of searing.
It’s also safer to pan-fry dried salmon because any residual water that comes into contact with the hot oil will pop and splatter, so be careful! Right before cooking, season with salt and pepper. Don’t salt too early in your prep, or this will draw out too much internal moisture to the surface, which we want to avoid.
You can use either a stainless steel pan or a nonstick pan. Although, I prefer stainless steel for even heat distribution. Make sure to preheat the pan before adding the oil to create a nonstick surface. It’s also easier to see the sauce develop and emulsify in a lighter color pan. However, if you feel more comfortable using a nonstick pan, especially if you’re new to cooking salmon, grab that instead.
The pan-searing technique
I’m a big fan of pan-seared salmon for its delightful contrast in texture and color. It’s a technique I learned in culinary school that always gets praise from my husband. If you like skin, you can keep it on for extra crunch, just cook it skin-side down first.
Use a high smoke point oil of at least 375ºF (191ºC) with a neutral flavor like light olive oil (not extra-virgin), avocado, or canola. Once the oil is shimmering, add the salmon to the pan presentation-side down and press on it to ensure even contact with the fat, then don’t move it! Let it cook about 80% through. You’ll see it turn translucent to opaque.
Flip it over and let it finish cooking. The entire process only takes about 7 to 8 minutes, depending on the thickness. Let it drain on a paper towel while you make the sauce.
How to make the piccata sauce
Similar to my chicken piccata recipe, the key ingredients of the sauce are vegetable stock or broth, lemon zest and juice, a dry white wine, and capers. They will reduce by half in the same pan used to make the salmon while infusing the briny flavors into the sauce. The heat on the stovetop evaporates some of the moisture and concentrates the punchy flavors.
To thicken the sauce consistency, whisk in cold butter over low heat. This process properly emulsifies the fat so that the sauce lightly clings to the fish instead of breaking down and becoming greasy. I also like to stir in chopped parsley and dill for fresh herbaceous notes. Add the salmon back to the pan to warm, and generously drizzle the lemon caper sauce on top.
Serve this with
The sauce is a powerful blend of citrus and tangy ingredients. It’s often made with lemon juice, capers for pungency, dry white wine, vegetable stock, or chicken stock. Cold butter is whisked in to thicken the sauce.
On an instant-read thermometer, the internal temperature should register at 120°F (49°C) for medium-rare or 130°F (54°C) for medium.
Yes, but you must defrost the pieces. Make sure to dry the surface well before cooking. The freezing process injures the muscle fibers, releasing a lot of juices. The excess moisture can be dangerous when added to hot oil and prevents a crispy crust on the fish.
The pickled flower buds have a very unique salty and tangy flavor. Chopped green olives or kalamata are an excellent substitute for a similarly intense briny and piquant taste.
The key to crispy crust formation
To create the sought-out crunchy surface and tender fish texture, make sure to dry the fillet well before cooking. Any moisture will create steam and a pale color instead of searing to golden hues. Once it’s the pan, resist the temptation to move the fish! The cool temperature of the fillet will briefly open the pores of the pan, making it stick. As the oil gets back up to temperature, a hard crust will form, and it will easily lift off the pan.
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- 1 ½ pounds whole salmon fillet, or 4 pre-portioned skinless fillets about 6 ounces each
- kosher salt, as needed for seasoning
- black pepper, as needed for seasoning
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- ½ cup unsalted vegetable stock, or broth
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest
- ⅓ cup lemon juice
- ¼ cup dry white wine, chardonnay, pinot grigio, or sauvignon blanc
- ¼ cup capers, drained and rinsed
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 teaspoon chopped parsley
- 1 teaspoon chopped dill
- Use a boning knife to remove the skin from the salmon if still intact. Cut into four even-sized fillets, about 2-inch wide and 6 ounces in weight, if not already portioned.
- Thoroughly dry the surface and skin with paper towels.
- Right before cooking, season both sides with salt and pepper.
- Heat a 12-inch stainless steel or nonstick pan over medium heat until hot. Add the oil, then turn the heat to medium-high. Once the oil begins to shimmer, about 1 minute, 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, 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 pieces over. Gently press the surface to make direct contact with the pan, do not move. 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. Turn off the heat.
- Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain the excess grease. Do not discard the pan.
- Carefully add vegetable stock, lemon zest, lemon juice, white wine, capers, salt, and pepper to the same pan used to cook the salmon. Stir to combine and bring the liquid to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce by half, about 5 to 7 minutes.
- Turn the heat to low, vigorously whisk in 2 tablespoons of butter—taste and season with more salt and pepper as desired. Add the salmon back to the pan and drizzle the sauce over top. Garnish with parsley, dill, and lemon wedges if desired.
- Storing: Cool completely, store in an airtight container, and refrigerate for up to 3 days.
- Oil substitutes: Grapeseed, avocado, or canola oil.
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