I’m gonna be up front with you: this is not the best way to bake salmon, title be damned. I’ve spent the last few decades in the Pacific Northwest and am a firm believer in “less is more” when it comes to cooking salmon. Salt and pepper and EVOO and throw it on the grill. Salt and pepper and a little bit of garlic butter and stick it under the broiler. That sort of thing. Even the weird farmed Atlantic salmon has enough flavor to hold its own and enough fat to keep it moist without a lot of extra sauce. I’m okay with a simple sauce every now and again, or the occasional chowder or pot pie, but nine times out of ten I’m going to choose keeping things simple. That’s not to say that Best Baked Salmon is a complicated recipe. Of the six listed ingredients half are salmon, salt, and pepper. There’s a little bit of lemon juice and onion thrown in to spruce things up, but then we’ve got to drown the thing in a pint of sour cream.
For context, this recipe comes to us by way of the Sunset Cook Book, published in 1949. The titular Sunset refers to the long-running California lifestyle magazine which, remarkably, is still up and running as of this writing. They also appear to own (or at least license their name) to airport bookstores in California. This magazine was a fixture in our home growing up – a folksy mix of crafts, recipes, decorating tips, and inspirational stories – and I own a few of their other cookbooks (including the 1989 Sunset Wok Cookbook). Most of the recipes in Sunset Cook Book have the same upscale-but-not-snobbish approach as later books, with a distinctive sense of West Coast style but without necessarily busting the food budget.
For the last few decades “West Coast style” has implied, among other things, fresh ingredients and bright flavors, but Best Baked Salmon is – for better or worse – a product of its time. Of the two dozen or so fish recipes, more than half are drenched in cream, sour cream, or some sort of condensed soup. Others are mashed with eggs and crackers to form loaves or souffles. (White Fish in Wine Sauce, from the same cookbook, is a light and delightful exception.) The recipes, in general, align with the larger post-war trend of convenience and casserole-style proteins. In 1949 suspect that the bulk of the salmon enjoyed in American homes was canned, and that using fresh salmon was, in itself, enough to elevate the dish to Sunset’s standards. Instead of the usual chicken or tuna in cream sauce, the fashionable California homemaker would serve salmon.
But is it any good? Sure. This isn’t going to become a regular in my kitchen anytime soon, but the sour cream adds a little bit of moisture without burying the salmon flavor altogether. It is, in my opinion, wholly and entirely unnecessary but if I were served this in polite company I’d feel no inclination to be impolite. It is not a particularly pretty dish: the sour cream I used dried out and appeared to “break” during the cook, the same way that the top of a cheesecake might crack when baked. Serve it over spaetzle or egg noodles with steamed broccoli or a side salad. Enjoy!
- Preheat the oven to 375 F.
- Lay the salmon skin-down in a large baking dish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and spread lemon juice and onion evenly across the surface.
- Spread sour cream over the top of the fish, ensuring that all surfaces are evenly covered.
- Bake 45 minutes until salmon is cooked through and sour cream is cracked and lightly browned. Cut and serve over noodles or spaetzle.