Growing up, catfish was one of my favourite foods — one of the only fishes I enjoyed eating, in fact. As I got older, and lived and travelled outside of the South, I begin exploring (and appreciating) other types of finned food, but it took a while for me to appreciate salmon. It tasted so radically different from catfish, it took a few years of living in the Pacific Northwest for it to click with my palate.
It would be unfair to blame albumin — the white stuff you sometimes see seeping out of the fish — as the sole cause for my salmon hesitation, but it certainly didn’t help.
Albumin — not to be confused with albumen, the protein in egg whites — is a liquid protein found in raw fish, including (and most noticeably) salmon. When the fish is cooked, the protein coagulates and the muscles contract, squeezing the semi-solid white albumin to the surface of your supper. Albumin is completely safe to consume, but quite unsightly.
There are two ways to reduce the appearance of albumin on your salmon. You can cook it gently, at a lower, slower temperature, as sudden high heat can cause the fish’s flesh to contract rapidly, forcing a bunch of albumin out onto the surface. You can also do most of your searing skin side-down, which not only keeps the albumin off the top of your fillet, but results in delicious, crispy skin.
But what if you want to broil or grill your salmon? And what if you don’t have the time or patience to wait around for a slow-roasted supper? In those cases, you can turn to the magic of brining. Not only can a quick brine give your fish a bouncier, firmer texture and better flavour, it can keep that gross white stuff from sullying your salmon.
According to Cook’s Illustrated, “The salt partially dissolves the muscle fibres near the surface of the flesh, so that when cooked they congeal without contracting and squeezing out albumin.” Cook’s Illustrated recommends a quick 10-minute soak in a nine per cent solution (1 tablespoon of salt per cup of water), but you can also use a 15-minute dry brine of one cup sugar and two parts salt and see very similar results. (I’ve been dry brining my salmon for a while now, and had completely forgotten albumin even existed until someone marveled at the lack of “white stuff” on my fish.)