Marinating food is one of the best flavoring methods you can use, especially with pieces of meat that have a tendency to become tough and dry during cooking.
Salmon, like most types of fish, is no exception. You can very easily overcook it in a matter of seconds. By marinating your piece of salmon beforehand, you help make it more tender and add moisture and flavor into it.
This results in a perfectly soft and juicy piece of fish that is cooked to perfection!
So, how long should you marinate salmon? Smaller pieces like fillets can marinate for 30-60 minutes, whereas larger pieces like steak can be marinated for up to 2 hours. Never exceed 24 hours of marinating, as it will only break down the proteins and result in mushy fish. 6 hours is the longest salmon can marinate in an acidic base.
How long you should marinate salmon depends on the size of the piece of fish, the ingredients in the marinade, and how intense you want the flavor.
In today’s’ article, we will be looking at all things marinade! We will discuss all the different marinade flavor profiles you can choose from and how they will affect the process.
We will also have a look at the different marinating times for different pieces of salmon, and ultimately how to cook them to juicy, tender perfection.
Cooking With Salmon
Over the decades, salmon has become increasingly popular and is now one of the most consumed fish species around the world.
Virtually every culture (especially those based near or around coastal regions) has some type of salmon dish.
Salmon is not only known for its delicious flavor but also its many health benefits. It is extremely rich in omega-3 fatty acids (or what is commonly referred to as good fats) as well as protein.
You can find two main types of salmon, farmed or wild. There are many different varietals in both categories. Not all of the species are available around the world, and every region makes use of what is most readily available to them.
Common species used for food include Norwegian salmon, sockeye (red) salmon, and Atlantic salmon. These are only a few, as there are quite a few lesser-known varietals.
Salmon is often confused with trout when both types of meat are compared side by side, as they both usually have bright coral-pink flesh, but the two are actually quite different.
Before choosing a recipe, you must first choose your piece of salmon. A great tip to keep in mind when choosing salmon is to look at the color.
The deeper or darker the color (red or pink for example), the better the flavor of the piece will be and the firmer the flesh. Having said that, many red varietals are much more scarce than pink or white.
The fish or piece of fish that you choose should always be stain and blemish-free, and most importantly, odor-free.
Why Marinate Food?
Marinating food is an older cooking method than one might think and it is done for more than just flavor.
By marinating a piece of meat or vegetable, it helps tenderize and soften the item. This method is especially useful with meats, as they have a tendency to become dry and tough during cooking.
It also adds extra moisture to the meat to further help prevent it from becoming dry. What you will ultimately end up with is a softer, more tender, juicier, and flavor-packed piece of salmon.
Choosing a Marinade
Salmon is a surprisingly diverse piece of fish and personally, we think it has a ton more flavor pairings than most other species.
Choosing a marinade will be relatively easy as long as it has a well-balanced flavor. With marinades, there are a few routes you can take.
You can choose to go salty, sweet, tangy, creamy, smoky, green (fresh), or pungent. Each of these will have a different effect on the salmon meat and will directly impact the flavor as well.
When making a salty marinade for salmon, you can choose ingredients like soy sauce, miso, olives, capers, anchovies, or Worcestershire sauce.
If you feel like a sweeter flavor profile, you can easily incorporate naturally sweet ingredients like honey, sugar, molasses, or agave nectar.
You can also choose sweet fresh ingredients like a variety of berries (cherries, blueberries, or raspberries), citrus fruits (clementine and oranges), or peaches and nectarines. Certain wines will also help add sweetness to your marinade.
Making a tangy flavor profile is very easy, as you don’t need to add much of an ingredient to achieve a very sour taste. Simple ingredients to use include lemon, lime, and naturally, vinegar.
You can also use more interesting sour ingredients like cumquats, grapefruits, or gooseberries. There are a ton of acidic white wines that will add a lot of depth to any marinade as well.
Many people love smoky flavors which can be achieved by incorporating smoked products like smoked paprika or smoked meats. Toasted spices also add a unique smokiness as well as chipotle chilis.
To make a creamy marinade, you can use yogurt, crème Fraiche, cream, butter, cream cheese, or sour cream (which will also add acidity).
Pungent marinades don’t sound very appealing, but they are actually more common than you might think. The term is only used to describe marinades that use strongly flavored ingredients like garlic, horseradish, onions, and seed oils.
Lastly, the green or fresh marinades use a blend of herbs and a variety of other fresh green veggies and fruits.
Herbs that pair amazingly with salmon include dill, fennel, tarragon, parsley, basil, sage, bay leaves, thyme, rosemary, and coriander.
Other fresh ingredients that can help make a great fresh marinade include cucumber, asparagus, and sugar snap peas.
How to Marinate Salmon
Now that we have looked at the different flavor profiles you can choose for your marinade, let’s take a look at the process itself.
Here’s how to marinate your salmon:
- Make your marinade according to the recipe’s instructions.
- Pat the piece of salmon dry with a paper towel or kitchen towel.
- Add the marinade into a zip-lock bag or plastic container. Gently add in the salmon piece and seal the bag or container to ensure to liquid will come out. Make sure the whole piece is covered in marinade.
- Marinate the salmon anywhere between 30 minutes to 6 hours in the refrigerator. Because you are working with fish, you cannot keep it outside at room temperature.
Once you have finished marinating your salmon piece, you can choose to rinse it or cook it with its marinade. This depends on the ingredients in the marinade and is up to your personal preference.
What Affects the Marinating Time?
Marinating food isn’t a precise science and every piece of meat or vegetable will differ. That being said, some timeframes will help you a lot.
The first and biggest variable that will affect the marinating times of your salmon is the size of the piece. The larger the size, the longer it will take to fully and evenly marinate. The smaller the piece, the quicker it will fully marinate.
Fish fillets will take anywhere between 30-60 minutes. Salmon, which is a firmer type of fish, will be more around the 1-hour mark compared to flakier fishes like Tilapia.
Fish steaks are usually larger and thicker pieces of meat, so they will naturally have a longer marinating time, about 1-2 hours.
Whole large fillets or fish halves can marinate a lot longer, but make sure to take notes as each fish have different shapes and sizes which will definitely affect the times.
Start by checking your half after 30 minutes and afterward at each 30-minute interval. Now, there are also some other factors to consider when determining a marinating time. The biggest being the ingredients used in the marinade.
As we have already mentioned, the reason you marinate meat is to tenderize it. Ingredients that speed up this process are usually acidic, salty, and dairy-based ingredients. The enzymes in certain fruits also have a fast-acting tenderizing effect.
If your marinade doesn’t contain a lot of these ingredients, you will have to marinate it for longer, probably at least 50% longer (45 minutes instead of 30 minutes).
If your marinade does contain a ton of these ingredients, it can actually have the opposite effect of adding moisture, as the salt or acid will keep drawing out the moisture, which will result in a tough and dry piece of salmon.
The last important factor to considering when choosing how long to marinate your salmon, is how intense you want the flavors to be. Some marinades and ingredients take longer to “absorb” into the meat.
To achieve the perfect flavor intensity, you may need to extend the marinating period and make notes for next time.
If you are still unsure about the timing, simply follow the marinade recipe instructions and you’ll be just fine!
Can You Marinate Salmon for Too Long?
You can definitely marinate salmon for too long. If you refer back to the above section on marinating times, we briefly mentioned that marinating salmon in an acid or salt-based marinade too long will result in a dry and tough piece of meat.
This is because at some point around the 24-hour mark, or even sooner, the acidic and salt ingredients will start extracting the moisture it just helped add.
If you further marinate your salmon beyond that time, your salmon will begin to disintegrate as the acid has begun to completely break down the protein bonds that hold the meat together. This will result in a mushy and soft fish.
How Long Before Cooking Should You Marinate or Season Salmon?
As we’ve covered, you can marinate your salmon between 30 minutes to 6 hours depending on the size of the piece, the intensity of flavor you want, and the ingredients in the marinade itself.
Once you’ve marinated the piece of salmon, you should cook it within 1 hour after it has been rinsed or cleaned. The longer you take to cook it, the more the meat and marinade will process and it could still result in overprocessed fish.
When seasoning your salmon with salt or a dry rub, you can also decide whether you want to allow it to infuse with the fish, or if you want to cook it immediately.
Dry seasoning ingredients will extract moisture, so make sure that you don’t keep it on too long. Remember, always keep your marinated fish inside the refrigerator for as long as possible.
How Long Can Marinated Salmon Stay in the Fridge?
While your salmon is marinating, you should always keep it inside the fridge – no exceptions!
Many people say that it marinates faster at room temperature, and although this is true for other pieces of meat, fish cannot be kept under the same conditions.
You can keep your marinated fish in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours, but remember that you shouldn’t marinate your fish that long, especially if it is a small piece and a marinade with tons of salt and acid.
How To Cook Marinated Salmon
After all that marinating, your salmon is finally ready to be cooked! There are a surprising amount of cooking methods you can use with salmon.
You can choose to pan-fry, bake, poach, air-fry, grill, or sear your salmon.
Before cooking your marinated salmon, you have to decide whether or not you want to remove your marinade before the cooking process starts. You can, of course, refer to your recipe instructions, or adhere to the following rule of thumb.
If you plan on frying or searing the salmon in a pan or griddle, it is best to remove the marinade from the fish, but you don’t have to rub it clean or rinse it – that part is up to you.
If you have decided to bake your salmon piece, you can definitely keep the marinade in the pan – then it almost becomes a shallow braising method. But of course, you can clean off the marinade before baking the piece of salmon as well.
There are a ton of options and if you are unsure and your recipe doesn’t state anything specific, remove the excess marinade to be safe.
The following methods are the most common ways to cook marinated salmon.
How to Pan-fry Marinated Salmon:
- Remove the salmon from the marinade. Do not rinse or rub off excess liquid. Simply place it on a plate until you are ready to cook it.
- Heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the salmon piece to the pan (skin-side down first, if it still has its skin) and fry for about 3 minutes.
- Using a fish spatula, flip the piece over and cook for another 5 minutes on the other side.
- Remove the piece from the pan and allow it to rest for a minute before serving.
How to Bake Marinated Salmon:
- Preheat the oven to 375°F. Line a baking sheet with non-stick baking or parchment paper.
- Add the piece of salmon with the marinade into a baking pan. You can also choose to remove some marinade, but it is entirely up to you.
- Bake the fish in the preheated oven for about 15-20 minutes depending on the size. Fully cooked fish should be roughly 110-125°F internally. During cooking, the marinade will become thick and sticky, which makes the perfect sauce.
- Remove the fish from the oven and serve with some of the sticky marinade sauce.
These methods are sure to give you the best results and make sure your salmon is juicy, tender, and flavorful.