Japanese salted salmon is a classic breakfast dish, commonly served with rice and miso soup. Made with fresh salmon and seasoned simply with salt, the fact that you only need two ingredients almost makes this dish too good to be true! And I'm going to share all the tips to make it perfect every time.
What is Shiozake?
Shiozake (塩鮭) is a simple dish made with fresh salmon and salt. Shio (塩) means salt and sake or zake (鮭) means salmon. The name says it all really!
Salted salmon is most commonly grilled, but more people pan fry these days too.
You might have seen this salted salmon dish on Japanese TV shows, anime or manga, it's a popular dish to eat for breakfast.
Stereotypical Japanese breakfast
Whenever we think of a traditional breakfast, most Japanese people would probably say:
- A bowl of rice
- A bowl of miso soup
- Nori seaweed
- Some pickles
- Salted salmon
Of course not many people have all of these for breakfast these days, but I believe my grandmother who's in her 80's still has this type of breakfast on a regular basis.
If you have a chance to stay in traditional Japanese hotel (ryokan), I'm sure you will see all of these things as breakfast (and it's usually HUGE!).
Autumn and winter are the best seasons
The season for salmon in Japan is basically from autumn to winter. This is because in autumn, all the salmon try to migrate up the river. Although, salmon can be enjoyed even in the summer months because of the preservation technology, the freshest salmon is always the best.
If you want to eat salmon or salmon roe in Japan, it is better to eat it in autumn or winter.
Ideal salmon for this dish
When selecting your salmon fillets, you want to choose the freshest ones with the best taste and flavour. This dish is only seasoned with salt after all, so good quality salmon is important.
Here are a few tips to consider when choosing your salmon.
- Vibrant color (bright pink, not too dull)
- Thick flesh
- Least amount of drips
The next tip is only applicable in Japan, but the saltiness of the fish can be indicated as "mild" (甘口), medium (中辛) and salty (辛口). Although the kanji used in mild "甘” means "sweet", the salmon is not actually sweet.
It's up to you to decide how salty you like your fish, but "salty" (辛口) is actually very salty so many people opt for "sweet" (甘口) these days.
Using a frying pan to cook Shiozake
Even though shiozake is usually grilled and the recipe I'm going to show today uses a grill, there are some people who prefer using frying pan for this dish. I only recommend this if you don't have a grill.
To give you more options, I will quickly go through the process for how to cook this dish with a frying pan.
Laying baking paper out the pan
We never use oil to cook shiozake and so to avoid burning the salmon fillets and prevent them sticking to the bottom of the pan, using baking paper is recommended.
First we line the frying pan with a sheet of baking paper and then place the salted salmon fillet on top of it, skin side facing down, and cook over medium heat.
Not only is it easy to cook the salmon, but it is also much easier to wash the pan after cooking.
Cook one side for 3 minutes
With a medium heat, fry the skin side for 3 minutes.
It is important to cook with a medium heat here because if you use a low heat, you end up cooking for too long and the umami will escape.
On the other hand, if you cook them with a high heat, the surface will burn but the inside is still raw.
Adding 1 tbsp of sake or water
After 3 minutes, gently turn the salmon over and sprinkle with a tablespoon of sake or water, then reduce the heat to low and cover with a lid.
Sake adds umami, makes the fish more tender and helps soften the fishy taste and smell, but the main purpose is steaming here so it's perfectly fine to use water.
Allow the salmon to steam on low for 3 to 5 minutes (depending on the thickness), then remove the lid and turn up the heat so that the excessive moisture will evaporate.
Then turn the fillets over again to remove the moisture from the other side too.
Using frozen salmon fillets for salted salmon
You should always defrost the salmon fillets before cooking. If you try to cook them from frozen, you can end up with salmon that is burnt on the outside and raw in the middle.
I recommend defrosting in the fridge overnight for the best texture and flavour.
Also, wiping off the moisture accumulated from the defrosting process is very important. This type of moisture can cause a fishy smell, so wipe it off thoroughly with kitchen paper before cooking.
Tips and tricks to make amazing salted salmon
Salted salmon is one of the simplest Japanese recipes. I mean literally, it's salted and grilled! That's it! However, simple recipes are often hard to perfect. I always get obsessed with these type of dishes because it's hard to please myself I suppose!
So in this section, I will list all the tips and tricks to make an amazing Japanese-style salted grilled salmon!
Salting the sake the night before
To be honest, a lot of salmon fillets in Japan are already salted so it might not be applicable if you live in Japan. If you use unsalted salmon, I'd recommend sprinkling it with salt the night before.
It's okay to put salt on salmon just before grilling, but I prefer add salt on salmon the night before and rest over night in a container with clingfilm. This will allow the salt to absorb deeply into the salmon, resulting in a better flavour.
Salt is 1-2% of the weight
To make it authentic Japanese style salted salmon, the ideal amount of salt would be 2% of the salmon's weight. However, this salt level is for salmon that is intended to be eaten with a big bowl of plain rice like Japanese people would traditionally do.
So if you don't want it to be too salty or you don't plan to eat it with plain rice, you might need to consider bringing it down to 1% or 1.5%.
For example, for 200g of salmon fillets 1% salt=2g, 1.5%=3g, 2%=4g. 3g of salt is approximately ½ tsp.
Drying the salmon with kitchen towel before grilling
If you rest the salmon fillets overnight in the fridge, they tend to be moist and this could cause fishy smell.
To avoid the unwanted fishy-ness or unpleasant taste, we dry the salmon with kitchen paper before cooking.
Add 1 tsp of sake before grilling salmon
One of the common tips people use in Japan is adding sake to the salmon before grilling. It's kind of funny because in Japanese, salmon is called sake (鮭) too.
Sprinkling the salmon with sake enhances the flavor, adds umami, softens the fishy smell and improves the texture of the salmon meat, making it more fluffy and tender.
If you can't get sake, it's fine to leave it out. This is just a technique used to level up the salmon, you can still make delicious shiozake without sake.
Preheat the grill for 3-5 minutes
Preheating is actually important when it comes to grilling fish.
Before placing the fillets on the grill, preheat the grill for 3 to 5 minutes to make sure it's hot enough to start cooking evenly.
This tip not only prevent the fillets from sticking to the grill, but also ensures nice grill marks on the surface of the fish.
When I cook salmon under the grill, I like to place it on top of a piece of aluminum foil.
I also recommend making walls by folding the edges of the foil up. This helps prevent fish juice leaking out into the grill.
Place fillets skin side up first
There has been never ending debate in Japan "whether you eat (or like) eating salted salmon with the skin on.
I personally think the skin is the most delicious part, so for people like me, it's important for the skin to be extra crispy and juicy.
To achieve that, let's place the fillets skin side up first and make it crispy!
Is there ideal cooking time?
In general, the ideal cooking time is supposed to be 3-4 minutes on the skin side, then 4-5 minutes on the other side. But of course it varies depending on how big or thick your salmon fillets are.
The important thing is, you cook the skin side with a medium heat until it gets crispy (but don't let it burn!) and then flip and grill on the other side until it's cooked through.
If the meat side is not cooked enough (still pink in colour) after 4-5 minutes, turn down the heat to medium low or low, and keep checking the doneness. (The colour of the salmon should become a paler pink.)
Perfect salted salmon is crispy on the skin, cooked all the way through but still fluffy and juicy, not dry.