How To Grill Salmon Without It Breaking Apart Into a Million Pieces, According to an Executive Chef

Photo: Stocksy/Jill Chen
POV: The rooftop is officially open, the friend group is coming over, and you’re in charge of not only grilling the salmon—hi, intimidation—but ensuring it looks presentable, too. Before you go into a full-blown panic envisioning yourself fishing (pun intended) pieces of burnt salmon out from between the fiery grill grates with tongs, we’ve got you covered.

Cooking a beautiful fillet of salmon on the grill can feel like one of the most daunting tasks you’ll face all summer long aside from wearing enough SPF. But with the help of a professional chef who's loaded with tips and tricks for grilling salmon to perfection, you’ll be serving up restaurant-worthy grilled masterpieces in no time. Time to fire up the Weber.

Experts In This Article

Cooking on salmon on the grill without it falling apart completely

According to Matthew Padilla, the culinary innovation chef of True Food Kitchen, there are two main factors that will make or break (pun intended) salmon on the grill: Heat and patience. “The trick is to preheat the grates and the grill so it’s nice and hot—above 550ºF, or it will stick,” Padilla says. Additionally, Padilla recommends cleaning the grill with a brush before cooking the fish to prevent sticking.

So, how can you tell when the fish is ready for flipping, aka the most stressful part? “You’ll know it’s ready to turn if it lifts off the grill easily. If it’s sticking, keep it on a little longer,” Padilla says. In other words, have patience, and don’t dare fuss with the fish once you lay it down. As the fish cooks, it undergoes the Maillard reaction, a chemical reaction between amino acids (like protein) and reducing sugars that results in browned color and that classic caramelized taste. Cooking the fish at high heat is key for creating that crust and browning reaction that prevents the fish from sticking to the surface or falling apart.

For restaurant-like crosshatch grill marks and bonus points for presentation, Padilla recommends placing the fish at a two-o’clock angle (in relation to the grates on the grill) and then turning it to 10 o’clock once you’re able to lift it without breaking it apart. He then repeats the process on the other side to get the same visual effect on both sides.

How to grill salmon on a cedar plank

Another foolproof way of ensuring that your salmon doesn’t stick to the grill is by using a cedar plank that also imparts a smoky, delicious flavor while it cooks. “For cedar plank salmon, I soak the planks for two to four hours before cooking. Then I warm up the grill, add the plank, and let it get hot for about five to seven minutes,” Padilla says. “Finally, I place a skinless salmon portion on the plank—with what would’ve been the skin-side down—and cook for 10 to 15 minutes. But that can vary depending on the size of the salmon."

For tender, flaky, and never-dry salmon, Padilla recommends cooking it to medium doneness or until it reaches an internal temperature of about 135ºF to 140ºF. But if you prefer it on the rarer side, he says to aim for 125ºF. For context, medium rare is around 130ºF, medium is 135ºF, and medium-well is about 140ºF. However, keep in mind that the USDA recommends cooking fish until it reaches an internal temperature of 145ºF to prevent the risk of foodborne illness.

How to cook salmon with the skin on

For ultra-crispy skin, Padilla notes that cooking salmon on a pan is ultimately better than grilling it. “For skin-on salmon, I prefer to cook it in a sauté pan. I warm a pan up and add olive oil. Once the oil is just starting to smoke, I add the fish, which you should season before cooking on both sides,” he says. Then, he says it’s important to keep a watchful eye on the temperature of the pan by keeping it hot enough so that it sears the skin but not too hot that it burns it completely.

In all, Padilla says this process should take about three to four minutes, which you’ll repeat on the other side. “Again, you’ll know if it’s ready to flip if it’s not sticking and nicely browned,” he says.

As for the perfect flavor, he recommends keeping it nice and simple. “I prefer a nice sea salt, but you can absolutely marinade it,” Padilla says. The choice is yours.

Up next on the grilling menu are easy vegan hot dogs:

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