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What is the healthiest way to cook salmon?

Salmon is one of the most nutritious foods you can eat. It’s rich in high-quality protein, omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, potassium, selenium and various antioxidants. However, the cooking method can drastically change its nutrient profile. This article reviews the healthiest ways to cook salmon based on nutrient retention, safety, taste and ease.

Is Raw Salmon Safe to Eat?

Salmon is often consumed raw in sushi and sashimi. However, raw salmon may contain harmful bacteria and parasites. Parasitic infections from raw salmon are rare, but the consequences can be severe. Cooked salmon is a safer choice. If you do choose to eat raw salmon, opt for wild-caught fish, which is less likely to harbor parasites.

Baked Salmon

Baking salmon is one of the healthiest ways to prepare it. Oven baking allows the fish to retain moisture while cooking evenly all the way through. To optimize nutrition, bake salmon fillets with the skin on, as salmon skin contains high levels of omega-3 fats. Salmon that’s baked in foil or parchment paper retains more moisture than baking it uncovered.

Baking salmon with vegetables in foil is a simple dinner option. Baking times range from 8–12 minutes at 450°F (230°C) for medium-rare to well-done fish.

Benefits

  • Retains moisture well
  • Cooks fish all the way through
  • Easy cleanup

Tips

  • Bake at 450°F (230°C) for 8–12 minutes until cooked through
  • Leave skin on during baking to maximize omega-3s
  • Bake in foil or parchment paper to better retain moisture

Poached Salmon

Poaching involves submerging salmon fillets in a shallow pan of gently simmering liquid like water, broth or wine. It’s a quick and healthy cooking method that allows the fish to retain moisture.

Poach salmon on the stovetop or in the oven. Fillets typically take about 10 minutes to poach on the stovetop, while thicker steaks take 12–15 minutes. Poached salmon can be eaten as is or used in salads, sandwiches and other dishes.

Benefits

  • Retains moisture
  • Easy and quick
  • Cooks fish gently and evenly

Tips

  • Bring water, broth or other poaching liquid to a gentle simmer
  • Use fillets or steaks no more than 1–2 inches (2.5–5 cm) thick
  • Cook for 8–15 minutes depending on thickness

Grilled Salmon

Grilling salmon results in flavorful, tender fish that has a nice char. It gives you crispy fish on the outside with moist and flaky salmon inside. Grilled salmon fillets take about 10 minutes to cook through.

Look for thick fillets to avoid overcooking on the grill. Brush the fish with oil before seasoning to prevent sticking.

Benefits

  • Adds great flavor
  • Easy to make
  • Can be grilled whole for presentation

Tips

  • Get grill very hot before adding fish
  • Brush with oil first to prevent sticking
  • Cook skin side down first if skin is left on
  • Aim for 8–12 minutes total cooking time

Pan-Seared Salmon

Pan searing is a high-heat method that produces a crispy brown exterior while keeping the inside tender and juicy. It’s quick, easy and only requires a skillet.

Make sure the skillet is piping hot before adding oiled salmon fillets skin side down. Cook for 3–4 minutes until browned, then flip and cook for another 2–3 minutes until it flakes easily.

Benefits

  • Fast and easy
  • Produces crispy exterior
  • Great for weeknight meals

Tips

  • Get pan very hot before adding oiled fish
  • Cook skin side down first
  • Cook for 4–5 minutes per side
  • Let sit 2–3 minutes before serving

Is Smoked Salmon Healthy?

Smoked salmon is a popular preparation of raw salmon that has been cured and hot or cold smoked. Cold-smoked salmon is dried at low temperatures, while hot-smoked salmon is cooked at higher heats in smoke.

Smoked salmon is highly nutritious. It provides protein, B vitamins, selenium, potassium, omega-3s and antioxidants. However, sodium levels can range from 500–2000 mg per 3-ounce (85-gram) serving depending on processing (1, 2).

While smoked salmon is a healthy food, it’s generally recommended in moderation due to its high sodium content.

Type Sodium per serving
Cold-smoked 500–1200 mg
Hot-smoked 800–2000 mg

Benefits

  • Rich in omega-3s, protein, B12 and selenium
  • Contains antioxidants called astaxanthin

Downsides

  • Very high in sodium from curing and smoking
  • Not recommended for daily consumption

Canned Salmon

Canned salmon is a convenient and inexpensive option. It’s often wild-caught, sustainably fished and rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fats. Look for varieties packed in water rather than oil, which provides the most omega-3s and fewest calories.

Canned salmon can be used to make salmon patties, sandwiches, salads and more. Just be sure to rinse it well under cool water for about 30 seconds to reduce sodium levels.

Benefits

  • Inexpensive source of omega-3s
  • Long shelf life
  • Lower mercury than fresh salmon

Downsides

  • Higher sodium than fresh salmon
  • Less protein than fresh

Salmon Jerky

Salmon jerky is made by hot smoking very thin slices of salmon until dried. The process results in a shelf-stable snack that’s packed with protein.

Homemade versions may have less sodium than store-bought jerky. Look for no sugar added varieties.

Keep portion sizes of this high-sodium snack in check, eating no more than one or two ounces (28–57 grams) at a time.

Benefits

  • Concentrated source of protein
  • Contains omega-3s
  • Long shelf life

Downsides

  • Often very high in sodium
  • Lacks moisture compared to fresh salmon

Is Cured Salmon Healthy?

Cured salmon has been preserved using salt, sugar and sometimes nitrates. This includes lox, nova lox and gravlax.

Curing gives salmon a salty, tangy flavor and soft texture. However, cured fish is high in sodium. For example, a 1-ounce (28-gram) serving of lox can contain over 500 mg of sodium (3).

For this reason, cured salmon is best enjoyed in moderation as part of a healthy diet, along with plenty of fruits, vegetables and unprocessed foods.

Benefits

  • Tangy, soft texture
  • Easy to slice and eat

Downsides

  • Very high in sodium from curing
  • Not recommended for daily consumption

Cooking Methods to Avoid

Some cooking methods are less healthy than others. Methods that use high heat for a long period of time reduce the healthy omega-3 fatty acids in salmon.

Cooking salmon at very high temperatures, especially under direct heat like on a grill, can also lead to charring and the formation of carcinogens called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs) (4).

Here are some cooking methods to limit when preparing salmon:

  • Deep frying: Lowers omega-3s and adds calories and oil
  • Grilling, broiling or smoking at very high heat: Can burn and char the fish, forming HCAs and PAHs
  • Microwaving: Can turn fish dry and rubbery

Simple and Healthy Salmon Recipes

Because salmon is so rich in beneficial fats and protein, you don’t need complicated recipes to make it taste good.

Here are some easy recipe ideas that maximize the flavor and nutrition of salmon:

Baked Salmon With Lemon and Herbs

Ingredients:

  • Salmon fillets
  • Lemon slices
  • Dried oregano and basil
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions:

  1. Preheat oven to 450°F (230°C).
  2. Place salmon fillets skin side down on a baking sheet.
  3. Top with lemon slices, dried herbs and a drizzle of olive oil.
  4. Season with salt and pepper.
  5. Bake for 10–12 minutes until fish flakes easily with a fork.

Citrus Salmon Salad

Ingredients:

  • 5 ounces (150 grams) poached salmon, skins and bones removed
  • 5 ounces (150 grams) mixed salad greens
  • 1 grapefruit, peeled and divided into segments
  • 1 avocado, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions:

  1. Break salmon into bite-sized chunks.
  2. Toss greens, salmon, grapefruit slices and avocado together.
  3. Drizzle salad with olive oil and lime juice.
  4. Season with salt and pepper.

Baked Salmon Tacos With Cabbage Slaw

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound (450 grams) salmon, cut into 4 fillets
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 1 lime, juiced
  • 8 small corn tortillas
  • 1 cup (85 grams) shredded cabbage
  • 1/4 cup (4 grams) chopped cilantro
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions:

  1. Season salmon with salt, pepper and chili powder. Bake at 450°F (230°C) for 8–10 minutes.
  2. Warm the tortillas on the stove or in the microwave.
  3. Toss cabbage and cilantro with olive oil and lime juice.
  4. Flake salmon into tortillas and top with cabbage slaw.

Which Salmon Is Most Nutritious?

Salmon is one of the most nutritious foods you can eat, but the nutrient composition can vary based on different factors:

Wild vs Farmed

Farmed salmon has slightly more fat and calories than wild, but a much lower environmental impact. However, farmed salmon contains more omega-6s and less vitamin D and ASTA. Overall, both varieties are incredibly nutritious.

Nutrient Wild Farmed
Calories 208 225
Total fat 12 g 13.4 g
Omega-3s 2.1 g 1.9 g
Vitamin D 31% RDI 18% RDI
ASTA 350 mcg 3 mcg

Atlantic vs Pacific

Pacific salmon like sockeye and coho are fattier with more omega-3s than Atlantic salmon. However, Atlantic salmon is typically cheaper.

Nutrient (3 ounces) Atlantic Sockeye
Total fat 5.7 g 9.3 g
Omega-3s 0.9 g 2.6 g

Color

Salmon flesh comes in shades of pink ranging from pale to bright reddish-orange. Brighter salmon contains higher carotenoid antioxidant levels. However, all wild-caught salmon provides healthy amounts (5).

In farmed salmon, flesh color is manipulated by adding various feed additives to affect carotenoid levels. Thus, color is not the best way to judge nutritional quality.

The Bottom Line

Salmon is incredibly nutritious. Fortunately, almost all cooking methods lead to a healthy final product.

For the most benefits, choose wild salmon whenever possible, and prepare using simpler cooking methods like baking, poaching, grilling or pan searing.

Pair salmon with plenty of vegetables and limit cured and smoked varieties to occasional intake due to high sodium levels.