Confit salmon was one of the first things that I cooked and thought, “huh, not everything fancy has to be hard”. It sounds fancy – it looks a little fancy and it tastes a bit fancy. But really it’s perfect to do for guests or a special dinner and the hardest part about it is not letting the cooking oil get too hot. I like to serve it with a vanilla mayonnaise, some cucumber pickled in cucumber syrup and a little grapefruit for a subtle play of contrasts against the meltingly tender fish. However, you could just as easily serve it wish a simple fennel salad (As the great Wakuda Testuya does) or you can even lightly smoke them and serve them with a sweetcorn velouté and toasted hazelnuts. You can mix up how you flavour the confit salmon itself. I infuse the oil with citrus and lemon thyme but you could spice it up with dried chillies and szechuan peppercorns and serve it with a soy honey dressing and some pak choi for an Asian twist. I guess all I’m really saying is it’s pretty versatile and once you’ve learnt the technique you can play around to your heart’s content and people will be super impressed.
So what is Confit Salmon? Confit comes from the French word confire which means to preserve. Same root of the French word for jam – confiture. Like all cooking definitions its boundaries start to blur with other cooking terms but at its core, confiting is cooking in a liquid which is inhospitable for microbes. The most common is oil or animal fat (as in a duck confit) but fruit is often confited in a high concentration sugar syrup. Unlike deep fat frying, when confiting in oil/fat the temperature is very low so you do not dehydrate the food which is the process which leads to the crisp textures found in frying. Confiting meat breaks down the tough connecting tissue and converts collagen into gelatin making it meltingly tender. That’s all very well for tough cuts of meat like duck legs but why would you want to make confit salmon, when fish is naturally tender. The answer is that you end up with a different texture to seared, poached or steamed fish. It’s delicate and soft and well worth a try. It’s also, believe it or not, harder to overcook confit salmon than seared or steamed salmon. The temperature of the oil is very low, around 50-55 degrees, which means it can take a minute or two longer rather than it needing to be within a few seconds when seared. The eagle eyed amongst you may notice that this temperature is significantly lower than normal confit temperatures. This is because fish is a more delicate meat and it takes less heat to both denature the protein and to break down the connective tissue. That’s what makes confit salmon quite a quick dish to actually cook.
There is one step before the cooking, however, and that is to cure the fish briefly. It’s not completely essential but I believe it dramatically improves the texture. Confit salmon without curing produces a texture similar to mi-cuit fish which can border on almost slippery. It’s delicious and if that’s what you want then it’s perfect. I prefer a slightly firmer yet still meltingly tender confit salmon. A confit salmon which still has a little resistance left but melts as soon as you push it. In other words a bit like Captain Darling from Blackadder, not too much front and certainly no trousers. I do it in a mix of sugar and salt with some lemon zest but you can throw in whatever flavours you like. Cure it for no more than about 2 hours or it will be too cured and I find 45 minutes is actually perfect. If you don’t have time for this step then don’t worry you can skip it but I think it’s worth it.
I hope you like this confit salmon recipe as much as I do and can use it to impress someone soon!
- 1 Salmon fillet per person. Skinned and deboned. My preference is to buy a loin of salmon and portion it into the right size pieces after curing
- Olive oil
- 1 lemon, sliced
- 1 orange, sliced
- Lemon thyme
- Salt and sugar to cure
- Optional: Vanilla mayonnaise – follow this recipe but add the seeds of a vanilla pod instead of saffron and sumac
- Optional: Cured Cucumber – Make this cucumber syrup, add white wine vinegar and leave cucumber in it for 1-2 hours
- Pat the salmon dry with paper towel. Mix together equal quantities salt and sugar and the zest of a lemon. Sprinkle liberally all over the fish pieces and place covered in the fridge for 45 minutes but no more than 2 hours. If you’ve purchased a whole loin of salmon, then cure the loin whole and then portion afterwards.
- Wash the salmon throughly in running cold water and then dry with paper towel. Refrigerate until needed.
- Add the lemon and orange slices to the olive oil in a heavy bottom pan. Add the lemon thyme and some crushed black pepper. Heat the oil until warm and then leave to infuse for a hour (or more) off the heat
- Warm the oil to 50-55 degrees celsius over a low heat. This should be warm to the touch but not scaldingly hot. This is the most important stage as if the oil is too hot the fish will overcook. If you have a digital thermometer, it’s very helpful at this stage, but you can absolutely do it without one.
- Add the salmon fillets gently to the oil. Make sure the fish doesn’t touch the bottom of the pan which is often hotter than the surrounding oil. Cook for 7-10 minutes. It may take slightly longer or slightly shorter depending on the thickness of the salmon and the exaqct temperature of the oil. The fish should change colour very slightly (but remain orange rather than light pink) and there should be almost no resistance to a metal skewer. It should feel like it would flake if pushed too hard.
- Remove and place drain of excess oil before plating and serving the confit salmon immediately.
TimedEating tips and tricks for making ahead.
- The fish can be cured in the morning. At an absolute push it could be done the day before but fish is honestly best served fresh.
- The oil can be flavoured up to a week in advance. Simply store in an airtight container in the fridge with the aromatics inside.
- The vanilla mayonnaise can be made up to 2 weeks in advance and will keep very happily in the fridge. It may firm up slightly in which case loosen it with a drop or two of water.
- The cucumber syrup can be made 2 weeks in advance and also freezes very well. It’s amazing in cocktails so I often make a decent batch and freeze it.
- The fish has to be cooked just before serving, but you can portion it all ready to go before people arrive.
- Alternatively, after cooking the fish, cool it immediately by wrapping in clingfilm and placing in an icebath. Then it can keep in the fridge for two days before being served cold. It’s still delicious but I prefer it hot.