Savory-sweet fish, topped with tangles of herbs and bright lemon juice, looks and tastes like a celebration for your pandemic pod. There’s an unexpected inverse relationship between how easy it is to make this dish and how special it feels when it’s served. A four-ingredient, five-minute glaze coats a single slab of salmon, and the whole thing comes together in under 30 minutes.
While it helps to start with the highest-quality salmon, any fresh option will be delicious using this slow-baked technique. It yields tender fish that flakes apart in silky slips and prevents the squeaky dry bites and excess white protein globs of salmon that’s been cooked too hard or too long or both.
In “The River Cottage Fish Book,” Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Nick Fisher explain: “It’s not that cooking fish is difficult. It’s just that overcooking fish is easy.” Baking salmon at a low temperature helps prevent that and yields a balance of opaque and translucent flesh that is sometimes referred to as “medium-rare.” Even though that description is somewhat accurate, it’s confusing to use the same language you’d use for steak with fish. Fish cooks much faster and its ideal internal temperature is 120 to 130 degrees, which would be very rare in steak.
But you don’t need a meat thermometer to know when salmon is done. You just need to stop cooking it when it feels nearly hot. To test for the right temperature, slide a metal cake tester or thin paring knife into the fillet’s thickest part, hold it there for a few seconds, then press the tip against your upper lip, which is sensitive to heat. It should feel very warm. The salmon will continue cooking on its way to the table and end up hot in the center as it rests while everyone gathers to eat.
The method alone delivers perfect salmon, and the glaze guarantees an impressive main dish. Maple syrup tastes festive with its natural sweetness, and a dollop of mayonnaise ensures richness. Since the salmon doesn’t brown or crisp in low heat, it gets pops of crunch from whole mustard seeds and finely sliced cilantro stems instead. The stems — and roots — carry an intense aroma, echoed by the delicate leafy tops that garnish.
Served straight from the baking dish, this simple centerpiece is as quick to clean up as it is to prepare. It’s the sort of low-effort cooking that leaves you with time for holiday projects — or a well-deserved rest at the end of an exhausting year.
Recipe: Baked Maple Salmon