Salmon is one of those rare foods that’s both tasty and healthy. It’s also a very versatile meat that can be poached, pan fried, baked, roasted and more. Trouble is, it can be pretty tricky to prepare. To Salmon Skin or not to skin is one of many concerns when cooking any fish.
With salmon, the answer is to leave the skin on. Scales are another story. Some chefs may find descaling just another laborious chore in the already messy affair of preparing fish. Whether the descaling is necessary is a matter of debate.
For some cooking methods, it’s recommended to remove the skin. For others, it’s best to leave it on.
What Do You Do With Salmon Skin With Scales?
The skin is both healthy and delicious, so keep it on! Unlike chicken skin that is full of fat and grease, salmon is healthy all the way through. The skin of a salmon is not only tasty but necessary for grilling or pan frying.
Start cooking your salmon skin side down until nice and crisp. You’ll find it quite easy for your spatula to slide right between the salmon’s skin and the hot surface.
Of course, you do want to remove the skin if poaching is your preferred cooking method. Roasted and steamed salmon can do without skin as well.
Why You Should Not Eat The Scales On Salmon
It won’t be pleasant. They’re not poisonous or a real choking hazard or anything. Swallowing a few salmon scales is harmless. However, these little hard, sharp things can cut your mouth, get stuck in your teeth or lodge uncomfortably in the throat.
That can ruin the dining experience, so make sure to scale your salmon if it hasn’t been already. Most purchased salmon will have the scales removed, but it can’t hurt to check if they missed a spot.
Of course, if you caught the salmon yourself or bought a whole salmon, you may need to scale it yourself.
This is easiest done on a whole salmon and takes a bit of practice to get right.
How To Scale A Salmon
Scaling a salmon requires cramping them off with something sharp. You will need the following implements to scale your salmon:
- The salmon (Of course!)
- A source of running water, preferably a sink
- Fish cleaning gloves or paper towels
- Fillet knife
Scaled salmon is not only easier to eat, but it makes for better presentation. If you catch your own salmon, you can do this at the dock, but some people prefer to do it in a kitchen. (It’s cleaner, and you don’t have to worry about seagulls making off with your catch!)
Scaling a fish is easier to do on a whole fish, so do it before cleaning. Follow these steps for a well scaled salmon.
- Rinse the salmon with cool running water. This will make scaling the fish easier, so keep the water going nearby.
- Grab the salmon by the tail. Paper towels will help you get a good grip, but fish cleaning gloves would be optimal for both grip and dexterity.
- Place the blade of your fillet knife against the skin crosswise on the fish. Hold it at about a forty-five-degree angle with the dull edge tilted towards the head.
- Scrape the knife down the fish from tail to head. There should be less resistance as you remove more scales.
- Keep going until you have removed all the scales. Flip the fish over and repeat the process on the other side until all the scales are gone.
- Rinse the salmon thoroughly. Double-check your work to make sure you’ve gotten all the scales off.
How To Scale A Fillet
Because a fillet is smaller than a whole fish, it is more difficult to scale. However, it’s the same principle. It is easier to scale a whole fish, but if you have purchased fillets that still have scales they can be removed.
You just have to be a little more careful so that you don’t hurt yourself with the knife. Keep in mind that the edges will be the most difficult. Use extra care in this area.
- Start by finding which direction the scales are overlapping. A fingernail will help you stand some scales up a little.
- Slide the blunt edge of the fillet knife under the edge of the scales to make them stand up more.
- Scrape away from your body in short strokes. The scales should come right off.
- If the scales are being a bit stubborn, a gentle stream of cool running water will loosen things up a little. It will also keep the scales from sticking to your hands.
- Have a paper towel or dish towel nearby to wipe the scales off the knife.
- Rinse your salmon under cool water to get rid of any lingering scales.
- Pat the fish dry before cooking. Your fish won’t get crispy if cooked while wet.
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How To Cook A Salmon With The Scales Still On
Of course, you could just forgo the whole scaling and get right to cooking. It is recommended that you have many toothpicks at the dining table if you decide to do this.
There are two methods of cooking salmon with scales intact. One is roasting and the other is steam sautéing.
To roast a salmon with scales:
- Let the salmon sit at room temperature for thirty minutes before cooking. This will help the skin come off in one piece.
- Coat the salmon with softened butter or olive oil. Season to taste with kosher salt, black pepper and herbs.
- Heat the oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit and place a baking pan half full of boiling water on the floor of the oven. This will create a steam that makes removing skin easier.
- Put the salmon skin side down on a well oiled wire rack that has been set on top of a rimmed baking sheet and place it in the oven.
- Roast the salmon until the flesh flakes apart easily under the tines of a fork. This should take about twenty to twenty-five minutes. Remove the pan from the oven.
- Slide a thin metal spatula underneath the salmon. Hold a plate in your free hand. Raise the salmon fillet from the wire rack and gently turn it over into the plate with the skin side up.
- Grab a corner of the salmon skin with your thumb and forefinger and peel it away. It should peel away in one piece. You might use the edge of a knife to aid in loosening the tab of skin, if required.
- Slip the spatula underneath the salmon and easily turn it over skinned side down on a clean serving platter. If you want, you can garnish the salmon using fresh herbs and lemon juice.
To steam sauté a salmon with scales:
- As with the roasting, let the salmon rest at room temperature for thirty minutes before cooking.
- Coat the salmon liberally with oil and season it to taste. Heat up a few tablespoons of oil in a sauté pan on the stove on medium-high heat for two or three minutes.
- Put the salmon in the pan skin side up and sear the flesh until it’s golden brown. This should take about two or three minutes. Bring the heat down to medium-low and turn the salmon over using a spatula.
- Pour about a quarter of an inch of stock, wine or water in the sauté pan and cover it up with a lid.
- Steam the salmon until the flesh flakes apart easily with a fork. This should take about five or six minutes. Take the salmon out from the pan and put it skin side up on a plate.
- Grab a corner of the skin and just peel it off. Flip the salmon over into a serving plate and garnish as desired.
The Scales Of A Salmon
Saltwater fish have particularly tough scales. Salmon are unusual fish in that they live in fresh water for the first four years of life before swimming out to sea, returning to spawn. The individual scales are smooth rimmed and nearly circular in shape.
The ridges on the scale are formed through growth and can give you a good idea of how old the salmon is.
How Spawning Affects Salmon
A spawning salmon is different from a usual salmon, you’d think at first glance they were two different species. How much a salmon eats affects their growth and thus scale development.
Because salmon don’t eat while spawning, a fish caught in this season will have small scales due to reabsorption. While spawning salmon are easy to catch and bears seem to love them, the flesh has a bit of a mushy texture from deterioration due to fasting.
A salmon that has already spawned is dying. It is starting to rot already and is full of bacteria. If you are not a bear, do not eat this!
Scaling Tools For Salmon
A good sharp filleting knife will do the job, but many people who prepare fish for cooking swear by special tools made with the purpose of scraping scales off fish.
A scaler can make the job much easier. Some handy people can build a scaler out of nails, wood and metal bottle caps. However, there are more conventional scalers on the market that can be used manually or electronically for quicker, more efficient scale removal.
In either case, stainless steel is the preferred material as it neither rusts nor absorbs odors. Anything else depends on your personal needs.
How To Cook Salmon
There are many different ways to cook salmon. If you are using a cooking method that calls for keeping the skin on, you can make it more flavorful by marinating the salmon overnight.
This way, the flesh absorbs the flavor. When grilling, remember to baste the skin in order to get it good and crispy.
If you are baking or broiling your salmon, place the fish on a rack to encourage the fat and liquids to drain off. This will make a crisp skin with no soft or soggy parts.
How To Pick Out A High Quality Salmon
You should, of course, only eat salmon that came from clean waters. A salmon that has absorbed toxins will negate any nutrition the fish flesh may have held and may even be carcinogenic.
A good salmon has clear eyes, no blemishes or brown spots and should smell like seawater. The skin is silvery and the flesh dark pink. Look for deep red gills and shiny, slippery skin.
The fish should feel firm, not floppy. If you are buying prepared fillets, the flesh should spring right back when pressed with a finger.
The Nutritious Benefits Of Salmon
If you want to eat the skin of a salmon, wild caught may be the safest kind to try. Many people eat salmon because it is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. The salmon’s skin has the highest concentration of omega-3 fatty acids.
This minimizes inflammation while reducing triglyceride levels. Fish is called “brain food” because omega-3’s support brain development.
Salmon is also a good source of the minerals phosphorus and niacin. The vitamins B and D can be found in this flavorful fish. Keeping the skin on while cooking your salmon will retain more of the nutrients.
What If You Decided To Leave The Scales On?
If the scales are very small and the fish is clean, leaving the scales on is harmless. However, do keep in mind that a salmon with small scales is likely undernourished.
If you want some extra collagen in your diet, something with small scales can provide. Do keep in mind, leaving the scales on your salmon may keep it from getting crispy. If you plan to cook your salmon by steaming or boiling, the scales have to come off.
It doesn’t matter either way if the salmon is baked. Salmon sushi is served with neither skin nor scales. Shiozake is typically prepared with skin but no scales.
How To Identify A Salmon
There are a few different types of salmon and ways to tell one species from another. What kind you get will have different scales and a slight variance in flavor.
When living in the ocean, their physical differences are subtle. Their appearance varies greatly when spawning. However, as said before, spawning salmon is not best for human consumption.
- Chinook: The Chinook salmon (AKA King salmon) will have large black spots on its dorsal fin, back and both edges of the tail fin. It will have a black gum line and prominent teeth. The scale size is moderate.
The tail has a silver pigment. It’s fatty with a high oil content but flavorful with a bit of a nutty flavor if pan roasted.
- Coho: Like the Chinook, the coho salmon has black spots on the back, but limited to the upper portion of the tail.
It also has a silver pigmented tail and moderate scales. The gum line will be white. This salmon has a mild flavor with a moderate oil content and is best served smoked.
- Chum: The chum salmon may have some pale speckling but no prominent spotting as in the Chinook and coho.
The base of the tail is slender and the scales are rather large. The gum line is white and the tail silver. The meat is very low in fat but not very flavorful. This fish is prized more for its roe.
- Pink: The pink salmon has oval-shaped black blotches on the back and tail fins. The scales will be on the small side.
There will be no silver pigment on the tail and the gum line is black. The lower jaw is rubbery. Pink salmon is commonly preserved by canning. The meat has a mild flavor, much like trout and a low oil content.
- Sockeye: There will be no prominent spots on a sockeye but maybe some speckling. The gum line is white with a dark tongue and small teeth.
The eyes are prominent and gold colored. No silver pigment will be on the tail and the scales are average sized. The meat is rather lean but cooks well with mayonnaise.
Why Do Fish Have Scales?
The main purpose of scales is to protect the skin. They protect the fish from injury as well as a defense against parasites. Scales have the added bonus of making the fish more aerodynamic, helping them cut through the water more quickly.
A salmon in particular needs scales that allow for swift movement through both ocean and river currents. Unlike reptile scales that form in the epidermis, fish scales form in the mesoderm. This makes them more like part of the skeletal structure.
Fish scales also have a vascular bone, which means they have their own blood flow. Every fish has a coat of mucous just under the scales, keeping the skin moist and making it even easier for the fish to cut through water.
While it is highly recommended to cook a salmon without the scales, this step can be skipped. For better presentation and a more effortless eating experience, it may be best to remove the scales.
If you are serving a salmon with naturally small scales, such as a pink salmon, you may find eating it with scales intact to be of no consequence.
The collagen is a good overall strengthening protein. Learning to scale a fish, particularly something as tough as the salmon, is a bit difficult but certainly worthwhile.
Frequently Asked Questions
Should You Remove Scales From Salmon Skin?
There is no rule which says that removing the scales from salmon skin is mandatory. However many chefs prefer to remove it as it may affect the presentation of their dish. They also fear spoiling the desired taste.
Can You Eat Fish Skin With Scales?
Yes, eating the fish with it’s skin and many people love to have them that way. Having fish with skin is safe if you are cleaning them properly.
Is Salmon Better With Skin On Or Off?
Eating salmon with skin or without is solely depend up to you. However, salmon skin tastes great and makes it easy to cook salmon. It prevents the delicate flesh of salmon from excessive heat and helps you to use your spatula efficiently.
- butter or olive oil
- kosher salt, black pepper and herbs
- Lemon Juice
- Baking Pan
- Wire Rack
- Metal Spatula
- Sit at room temperature: Before starting your cooking, wait 30 minutes to sit the salmon at room temperature, as it will help you peel off the skin.
- Coat with Butter: Start by coating salmon with butter or olive oil and seasoning herbs, salt, and black pepper.
- Heat the Oven: Heat the oven to 250 Fahrenheit and place a pan of boiling water on the floor.
- Place in Oven: Place the salmon on a wired oil rack and rack the baking sheet in the oven.
- Roast the Salmon: Roast the salmon for 20-25 minutes until the flesh flakes apart easily under the tines fork.
- Transfer it to the plate: Transfer the salmon to the plate with the help of a spatula.
- Peel away the skin: With the help of your thumb and forefinger, you can peel away the salmon skin or use a knife.
- Garnishing: Once you peel off the skin, flip the salmon skin side up and garnish it with herbs and lime juice on a serving plate.
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