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This easy and decadent Copper River salmon is made with pan-seared fish topped with a quick butter and lemon sauce.
There’s no doubt about it: we get to taste test some pretty fantastic seafood on a pretty regular basis.
Recently, we’ve enjoyed lots of treats from Alaska, such as sablefish (black cod), spot prawns and lingcod.
And I’m always on the lookout for more seafood delicacies!
A few weeks ago I got an email about Copper River sockeye salmon for sale and I knew we needed to try it.
After tasting the fish, I knew you needed to try it too.
This pan-seared option (topped with a lemon butter sauce!) is my favorite way to prepare this specialty fish. The sauce plays off this fish’s famous buttery flavor and the lemon helps bring a little acidity to the dish.
What is Copper River Salmon (+ Why is it So Expensive?!)
Copper River salmon – get this – are caught in Alaska’s Copper River.
I know – unexpected, right?
So, why is this fish so special?
For one thing, Copper River is the first salmon run open to commercial fishers each year. And the price reflects that.
Salmon fishing in the Copper River is highly regulated and limited. The price reflects that too.
But what you may really want to know is, does it taste better than other salmon?
Of course, as with many things, taste is subjective. But here’s what to expect if you try it.
These salmon eat lots of fat before beginning their swim through the fresh water river.
Their specific diet makes this fish very mild and buttery-tasting. So if you’re looking for extra-buttery king salmon or a mild, delicate Sockeye salmon, this is your fish!
And yes, I said a “mild, delicate Sockeye salmon.” This normally strongly flavored fish has a much tamer flavor when caught in the Copper River.
What About Bristol Bay Salmon?
Alaska’s other famous salmon run happens in Bristol Bay, Alaska.
I’ve tasted salmon caught in both places. I found the Bristol Bay salmon to have a slightly more pronounced flavor than that from the Copper River, but I can’t choose a favorite. I loved both!
Want to check out other ideas for a decadent salmon dinner? Try salmon meuniére, pan-seared salmon with lemon risotto, or this salmon broccoli pasta!
Where Can I Buy Copper River Salmon?
I got mine as a special order from the a community supported fishery, or CSF. This fish can be somewhat tricky to find, but if you do find it, it’s quite a treat!
How to Pan-Sear Copper River Salmon
Skin-on fillets are good in this recipe because the skin will end up nice and crispy! But you could also use skinless ones.
Take the salmon fillets and pat them dry. After seasoning them, let them rest at room temperature for a few minutes.
These steps are important. Fish that’s too wet won’t sear well. Fish that’s too cold might stick to the pan.
Next, add oil and butter to a heavy pan. Cast-iron or carbon steel pans work well for this.
I like to use my Lodge 12″ carbon steel skillet.
Melt the butter, and add the salmon fillets skin-side down.
After a few minutes, you’ll notice that the fish turns opaque from the bottom up. When it’s halfway cooked, it’s time to flip. Use a thin metal spatula.
This Wusthof fish spatula is very effective, but I’ve also heard good things about this Toadfish fish spatula!
If the fish is resistant to the spatula, wait about 30 seconds and try again. It will release when ready.
Allow the salmon to finish cooking. It should only take a few more minutes. Instead of timing it, though, it’s best to just watch for when the sides are completely opaque.
Move the cooked fish onto plates. Cover them to keep them warm, or set in a low-heat oven.
How to Make the Butter Sauce
To make the sauce, add lemon juice to the butter that’s left in the pan.
Cook over medium-low heat for about a minute until the liquid has reduced a bit. Add in some herbs.
The sauce is ready! Drizzle it over the warm fish and top with more herbs. Serve right away.
Copper River Salmon with Butter Sauce
- 8 ounces salmon (2 fillets) If using Sockeye, take extra care to avoid overcooking
- pinch salt, pepper
- ⅛ teaspoon paprika (optional)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon butter or clarified butter Or use extra olive oil
- 1 lemon, juiced
- Handful fresh herbs (parsley, chives, basil, cilantro etc)
- Pat salmon dry. Sprinkle fillets on both sides with salt, pepper and the paprika (if using).Allow fillets to rest at room temperature for about 15 minutes. (Cold salmon is more difficult to sear.)
- Add olive oil and butter to a heavy pan. Melt butter over medium heat. Place the fillets skin-side down in the pan and cook 2-4 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fillets. (If your salmon fillets don't have skin, it doesn't matter which side you cook first.)As the salmon cooks, the flesh will begin to turn opaque from the bottom up. When the fish has cooked halfway through, it's ready to flip.Avoid touching the fish until the fish is ready to flip.
- Use a thin metal spatula to test the fish. If you can slide the spatula under the fish without the fish sticking to the pan, it's ready to flip. If the fillets won't release, give them another 30 seconds. They'll release when they've finished cooking.Cook fish another 2-4 minutes until done. Timing will depend on the thickness of the fillet. (Watch the sides of the fillets to see when the fish is done cooking. It's finished as soon as there are no more translucent patches and it's fully opaque.)
- Transfer the fish to plates, leaving the excess butter in the pan. Cover fish to keep warm, or set fish in a 200ºF oven.Reduce heat to medium-low. Add the lemon juice to the pan, stir with a wooden spoon, and allow the juice to reduce for about a minute. Add half the herbs and turn off the heat. Serve fish hot with pan sauce and remaining herbs.
- Make sure to pat the fish dry. Wet fish won’t develop a crispy skin.
- Make sure to let the fish rest at room temperature for about 15 minutes. Cold fish tends to stick to the pan.
- Test the fish with a thin metal spatula before attempting to flip. If the fish doesn’t release, give it another 30 seconds and try again.
- If your butter and oil begin to smoke, lower the heat slightly.
- Have all your ingredients prepared before beginning so that you can watch the fish carefully while it cooks. I prep everything while the fish rests at room temperature.
- The skin is edible!
- Salmon may be plated skin-side up or skin-side down.
- To keep the skin crispy longer, especially if holding the fish in a warm oven before serving, store cooked fillets skin-side up to keep the skin from becoming soggy.
- Top the fish with buttery, toasted almonds.
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