Salt-Encrusted Salmon: a Midsummer Night’s Dream
As some of you may have suspected by now, I have a wee obsession with salt. I have a slightly larger obsession with Italian leather high heels, but my husband prefers me to cultivate the salt fixation, so here we are. It really is a fairly practical passion- much easier (both from a luggage and a pocketbook perspective) to bring back five varietals of artisanal salts in every shade of the rainbow from last January’s visit to Eataly in Torino than the same number in heels from 10 Corso Como in Milano- it was during the sales, however, so I had to push my luck and try both!
Stores like The Meadowin Portland make it easy to access the salts of the world under one roof, which is great in a pinch (pun intended), especially with some of the interesting products they have unearthed, like Himalayan Salt Slabs you can heat directly in your oven and fry eggs upon, among other uses. With online ordering enabled, the Meadow can satisfy even the most rarefied salt craving in a matter of days, however my true pleasure lies in the hunt.
Because salt is naturally occurring in flats and seas just about everywhere around our globe, it stands to reason that the flavor, color, intensity, and crystal structure will differ greatly with its point of origin. One of my favorite salts, Murray River Pink Salt from Australia, has a peachy hue, an airy flat granule like a snowflake, and a mildly addicting softness in taste that (perhaps dangerously) allows you to add more of it to whatever you’re seasoning than you might a typical finishing salt. I have yet to make that particular pilgrimage, though it stands in my mind as the holy grail of saltourism. Meanwhile I satisfy myself with picking up red Alaea and black lava salts in Hawaii, umpteen types of Fleur de Sel in France, and all manner of Sale’s from speziato to Trapani during biannual visits to our old home in the northern Italian region of Piemonte.
My singular passion for all things salt has led me down some interesting paths when it comes to culinary endeavors, one of my favorite being encrustation. The epiphany of flavor I experienced in Portugal a few years ago when I ordered Dorado in Salt Crust at D. Tonho was not unlike being released from the bondage of darkness and finally seeing the true light in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. I have since applied the technique to prime rib and beef tenderloin, but as yet have not had the opportunity with fish, as my husband leans decidedly toward the terra rather than the mare in terms of protein preference.
When the task of preparing a birthday dinner for my mother with salmon specifically requested as the entrée presented itself last week, I could not have been more thrilled. While Jonas would have to content himself with more of the Borscht soup course made from our abundant garden stock and an appetizer of Robiola with neighbor-made apricot preserves, the rest of us would become my guinea pigs for the salmon main.
Because I was encrusting a fillet rather than an entire fish, I wanted to minimize contact with the salt and the fish flesh. I devised a stuffing and trussing technique that worked perfectly to both protect the fish from over-salination as well to infuse it with the holy trinity of lemon, parsley and butter. I served the fish with passed lemon wedges and (you guessed it!) a selection of salts, of course seasonal herbs or your favorite alternative citrus would pair nicely with this dish as well.
- 1 3lb salmon fillet rinsed and patted quite dry
- 3+ tbsp olive oil
- Fresh ground pepper
- 10 fresh parsley sprigs
- One lemon, peeling partially removed with a paring knife to expose some lemon flesh out the sides, cut into four discs
- 4 tbsp butter cut into four pieces
- Kitchen twine
- 9 egg whites
- 3 ¾ c kosher salt (don’t use rock salt, but don’t get too fancy either- your palate won’t come into contact with the salt in this instance)
- Preheat oven to 450 degrees, adjust oven rack to lower middle position and lie a sheet of parchment inside a sheetpan
- Pepper the flesh side of the salmon and lie parsley sprigs across lengthwise
- Pair each lemon disc with a butter piece and lie each couple across the length of the fish so that you have a straight line of lemon butter packets across the majority of the fillet
- Cut 4-6 lengths of kitchen twine long enough to be tied around the salmon if rolled into a long tube and place the twine lengths under the skin side of the fillet in 1-2” intervals (you are preparing to roll the salmon here)
- Starting with the middle twine and working outward, roll the salmon carefully so that the lemon butter mixture stays inside and tie the salmon into as much of a roll as you can. I was not able to get mine completely closed, but it is fine, since the lemon is what ends up directly touching the salt crust for the most part
- Rub the salmon skin generously with olive oil. Be liberal, as this is what will prevent the salt crust from sticking to the fish
- In a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whisk egg whites to soft peaks. With a rubber spatula, gently fold the salt into the egg whites taking care not to overmix
- Spread 1/3 of the egg/salt mixture into the sheetpan in a form that will accommodate the salmon. Working quickly and gently, place the salmon on the mixture and begin spooning the remaining mixture over the salmon so that you entirely encompass the salmon, taking care that there are no holes where the fish peeks through (if the fish peeks through you will not have a seal, and moisture will leave the fish as well as compromising your cooking temperature)
- Immediately place the sheetpan in the oven and bake for 25 minutes
- Remove from oven, and let rest an additional 20 minutes. Break away the salt crust and cut away kitchen twine to reveal perfectly moist salmon
- Serve with passed lemon wedges and a selection of salts