Learn how long to marinate salmon for best results with our ultimate guide. Softer, juicier, and tastier salmon every time!
Salmon is one of the best fish you can eat. It’s full of protein and healthy fats, it responds well to a variety of cooking methods, and it has a buttery, flaky texture that you just can’t beat. One of the best ways to add flavor and “wow” factor to your salmon is to marinate it.
How Long to Marinate Salmon
Marinating is a great flavoring and preparation method because it not only adds flavor but helps add moisture to the meat. This means your food is less likely to dry out in the cooking process.
Salmon, like most fish, is alarmingly easy to overcook. It can take only seconds to turn your succulent salmon fillet into something dry and unappetizing. When you marinate salmon, however, and cook it properly, you end up with a tender, moist piece of fish with plenty of flavor.
How long should you marinate salmon for? It all depends on the size of your salmon.
Smaller salmon pieces like fillets can marinate for thirty to sixty minutes. On the other hand, a full sized salmon steak can marinate for up to two hours. We recommend that you always marinate your fish for less than 2 hours, as this can break down the delicate proteins in the fish, resulting in mushy textureless fish. Six hours is the absolute maximum marinating time for salmon if you’re using a marinade with an acidic base like vinegar or lemon juice.
❗How long you should marinate salmon depends on the size of your fish, the ingredients in your marinade, and how much flavor you want to lend the fish flesh.
In this article, we’re covering as much about marinades as we can. We’re looking at various marinade flavor profiles and how they affect the marination process. We’ll also look at the different marinating times for salmon and how you can cook them to perfection.
Cooking With Salmon
Salmon has increased in popularity quite a bit over the recent years. It’s one of the most widely consumed fish species on the planet. Pretty much every culinary tradition has a few salmon dishes. Salmon not only tastes great, but it’s great for you. It’s very rich in omega-3 fatty acids (more casually known as healthy or good fats) and protein.
There are two types of salmon, broadly speaking. These are wild caught and farmed salmon. There are various species in both categories, and different regions all over the world use different species. The availability of wild vs caught salmon is also a factor.
It’s easy to confuse salmon for trout, particularly when looking at the meat side by side. Both have soft, pink flesh and similar textures. However, the two are quite different.
Before you choose a recipe or a marinade, you first must look at your piece of salmon. Always consider the color of your salmon when choosing a piece. Deeper, darker colored salmon always tastes better than lighter color salmon. More color equals more flavor. Red salmon is, however, considerably rarer than pink salmon.
Of course, any piece of fish you’re cooking with needs to be free of stains, blemishes, and odors.
Why Marinate Food?
Marinating is actually quite an old cooking preparation method. We do it for more than just additional flavor, too. Marinating meat or vegetables helps to tenderize the food. This is really useful with meats, which can become dry or tough during cooking, and is commonly used to tenderize tougher cuts of meat.
Marination also adds extra moisture to the meat, preventing it from drying out. The idea is to end up with a piece of salmon that is softer, juicier, and tastier.
Choosing a Marinade
Salmon is a wonderfully diverse piece of fish. Accordingly, it has more flavor pairing options available than virtually any other fish species. Choosing a marinade for your salmon is pretty easy, as long as the marinade has a nicely balanced flavor. Marinades have a few key categories to consider.
You can choose between salty, sweet, tangy, creamy, smoky, green (fresh), or pungent marinades. Whichever one you choose will have a different effect on your salmon meat and a different flavor, too.
- Salty marinades typically include ingredients like soy sauce, miso, olives, capers, anchovies, or Worcestershire sauce.
- If you have a sweet tooth, it’s good to consider marinades including ingredients like honey, sugar, molasses, or agave nectar, all of which are naturally sweet.
- You can also choose from fresh, sweet ingredients like a variety of berries (cherries, blueberries, or raspberries), citrus fruits (clementine and oranges), or peaches and nectarines. Some wines will add sweetness and acidity, too.
- A tangy flavor profile is pretty easy to achieve because you don’t need much to get that nice acidic tang. Lemon, lime, and vinegar are classic tangy marinade ingredients. Any naturally sour and acidic fruit like grapefruit is useful, as are the acidic white wines often used for cooking.
- Are you a lover of smoky flavors? You can incorporate smoked products like smoked paprika, chipotle chilis, toasted spices, or smoked meats into your marinade.
- For a creamy marinade, you can’t go wrong with things like yogurt, crème Fraiche, cream, butter, cream cheese, or sour cream. Sour cream will also add some acidity.
- Pungent marinades are those with strongly flavored, highly aromatic ingredients like garlic, horseradish, onions, and seed oils.
- Fresh, green marinades are typically made from a combination of herbs and green veggies, like dill, fennel, tarragon, parsley, basil, sage, bay leaves, thyme, rosemary, and coriander. Cucumber, asparagus, and snap peas are great, too.
How To Marinate Salmon
Now that you know about the different salmon flavor profiles, it’s time to consider how to marinate the salmon itself.
- Prepare your marinade as per recipe instructions. Be sure to check our Six Salmon Marinades.
- Pat your salmon dry with paper towel.
- Add your marinade to a zip-lock bag or a plastic container. Carefully add the salmon, sealing the container or bag to make sure no liquid leaks out. Ensure the entire piece of salmon is covered in marinade.
- Let your salmon sit in the marinade for anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours in the fridge. You can’t keep fish at room temperature, so you need to keep it in your refrigerator.
Once your salmon has finished marinating, either rinse it, or cook it in the marinade. This depends both on the marinade and your own personal preference.
What Affects Marinating Time?
Marinating is more art than science, and every piece of meat will differ. It’s good to know some rough time frames, however, to start with.
❗ The most important variable that will affect your marinating time is the size of your salmon. If you have a smaller piece, it will require less marinating time. Likewise, large pieces need longer to marinate. A salmon fillet, due to its firmness, will probably need up to an hour to marinate properly.
A salmon steak is larger and thicker, so you’ll probably need up to two hours to marinate it.
- If you’re cooking with a whole side of salmon, you’ll need much longer, but be sure to keep notes as you’re doing it because different fish will be differently sized. This means different marinating times. It’s best to simply check the fish every thirty minutes. If the fish’s texture is starting to be affected by the marinade, it’s time to stop marinating and get cooking.
- Another factor to consider is your choice of marinade ingredients. Marinating meat tenderizes it. That’s the point. Acidic, salty, and dairy based ingredients are great for marinating meat. Some fruits, like pineapple, also contain enzymes that rapidly speed up the tenderizing effect.
- If your marinade doesn’t have any (or many) acidic, salty, or dairy ingredients, you can marinate the salmon for longer. A good rule of thumb is that no tenderizing ingredients means you can extend marinating time by 50%: a 30 minute marinade can now be 45 minutes.
- If your marinade does have a lot of these ingredients, it can draw out the moisture from the fish, drying it out. This seems paradoxical, which is why it’s so important to marinate the fish for the right amount of time.
- The final factor in marinating time is the final intensity of your choice of salmon. Some marinades take a longer time to absorb into the meat. To get more flavor intensity, marinate for longer.
Can You Marinate Salmon For Too Long?
Keeping a piece of salmon in a very salty or very acidic marinade for too long will dry it out or break down the meat. At some point the salt and acid will start extracting moisture from the meat.
Marinating salmon beyond this point will make it disintegrate, breaking down the protein in the fish, giving you a mushy, unpleasant fillet.
You should marinate your salmon for 30 minutes to 1-2 hours before cooking, depending on the size of the fish and your choice of marinade.
Generally speaking, you should cook the fish within an hour of marinating. Waiting longer will overprocess an overmarinate the fish.
Generally speaking, you can cook dry rubs immediately if you want, but if you’re seasoning salmon with a dry rub, letting it wait a little while to infuse is also good. Be careful not to leave dry seasonings on for too long, as they extract moisture from the fish.
Always marinate salmon in the fridge. No exceptions. Marinated salmon will keep in the fridge for up to 6 hours, bearing in mind that your should vary this length depending on the size of your fish and your choice of ingredients.
How to Cook Marinated Salmon
You can pan-fry, bake, poach, air-fry, grill, or sear your salmon. Before you cook it, decide whether or not to remove the marinade before cooking. As a general rule, frying or searing salmon in a pan or griddle requires you to remove the marinade. Baking salmon allows you to keep the marinade in the pan.
Otherwise, the usual rules about cooking salmon, like using a meat thermometer and letting it rest, still apply.