Paula Wolfert’s Oven-Steamed Salmon

Cooked in the oven with a pan of water underneath, salmon fillets steam gently for a incredibly supple texture.
Cooked in the oven with a pan of water underneath, salmon fillets steam gently for a incredibly supple texture.

One of the great joys of summer in the Bay Area is the advent of wild king salmon season.

Few things can top the rich, lush, buttery, deep taste of this magnificent fish.

Generally, I’m all about grilling it, oftentimes on a cedar plank.

But when I spied this recipe for “Oven-Steamed Salmon,” I couldn’t help being intrigued.

It’s featured in the treasured cookbook, “Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life” (Grand Central Life & Style, 2017). Food writer extraordinaires Emily Kaiser Thelin and Andrea Nguyen teamed with esteemed food photographer Eric Wolfinger to create this cookbook, which celebrates the delicious life work of Paula Wolfert, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2013.

Wolfert learned this technique for salmon from the legendary French chef Michel Bras.

Salmon fillets — of any size — are cooked in a pan in a very low-temperature oven, anywhere from 225 to 275 degrees (I went with 260 degrees), with a frying pan full of just-boiled water underneath. So even though the fish is in an oven, it effectively steams in it.

The raw salmon fillets ready to go into the oven.
The raw salmon fillets ready to go into the oven.
The resulting cooked salmon.
The resulting cooked salmon.

This leaves the salmon incredibly moist and supple. The flesh doesn’t flake into distinct shards. Rather, the flesh is ever so soft, almost spoonable.

The one drawback is that the skin never gets crisp, of course, which may leave some dismayed. However, just follow the lead of my husband. He separated the skin from the cooked salmon, then placed it on a lightly oiled plate in the microwave for about 1 minute. The salmon skin emerged crisp-chewy, much to our delight.

To serve, just place each cooked fillet on a plate and sprinkle on some snipped chives. I went one step further and drizzled on some nice extra virgin olive oil.

It’s a novel, elegant way to cook salmon that leaves it with a decidedly distinct texture.

Soft and delicate.
Soft and delicate.

Oven-Steamed Salmon

Olive oil, for greasing

Center-cut salmon fillets, preferably wild-caught Alaskan king of sockeye, 1-inch thick and any size between 5 ounces and 2 1/2 pounds

Flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Snipped chives, for garnish (optional)

Extra-virgin olive oil, for garnishing (optional)

Position an oven rack in the lower third of the oven and a second rack in the upper third. Preheat the oven to between 225 and 275 degrees. Grease a thin sheet pan with olive oil

Carefully place a frying pan of just-boiled water in the lower oven rack. Arrange the salmon on the prepared sheet pan, season generously with salt and pepper, and place on the upper oven rack. Bake until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part registers 110 degrees for rare, 115 degrees for medium-rare or 125 degrees for medium. This should take 10 to 12 minutes for 5-ounce fillets or 20 to 25 minutes for a 2 1/2-pound fillet. (The color of the salmon will not turn dull and the texture will be very juicy.)

Transfer the salmon to a platter or one or more individual plates and season with more salt and pepper, if desired. Sprinkle with chives and drizzle with a little extra-virgin olive oil, if using, and serve.

Adapted from “Unforgettable” by Emily Kaiser Thelin, Andrea Nguyen and Eric Wolfinger

Another “Unforgettable” Recipe to Enjoy: “Duck You Can Eat with A Spoon”

A Different Oven-Steamed Fish to Try: Oven-Steamed Fish with Crispy Garlic and Red Chile Oil

Plus More Salmon Recipes: Planked Salmon with Nectarines, Thyme, Honey, Almonds and Ricotta

And: Broiled Sesame Salmon Bibimbap

And: Glazed Grilled Salmon

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One comment

  • What a terrific recipe! And it’s one I’ve seen before, either in one of Wolfert’s books, or a magazine/newspaper article that she wrote. Totally forgot about it. And now that you’ve reminded me of it, something I’m totally going to make. I LOVE wild salmon season, and this is a great way to celebrate it. Thanks.

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