Soaking Salmon in Milk Supposedly Takes Away Fishy Odor and Taste, So We Tried It

Who knew?

Molasses-Soy Glazed Salmon and Vegetables
Photo: Alison Miksch; Prop Styling: Mary Clayton Carl; Food styling: Karen Rankin

When a friend first told me about soaking salmon in milk, I was skeptical to say the least. Framed as a way to "get rid of fishiness," the technique didn't make sense in my mind. Why would milk have the power to do such a thing? Then, I remembered that Southern cooks have been soaking chicken in milk (namely, buttermilk) to make the best fried chicken for generations—and they know what they're talking about. Clearly, milk has some sort of marinade magic.

Salmon is a frequent dinner main in my household, largely because it's quick, healthy, and can be very versatile in terms of flavor profile. Sometimes, I'm in a Dijon mustard, lemon, and garlic mood. Other times, the combination of ginger, soy sauce, and hot honey is calling my name. However, there is nothing more discouraging than bringing home a piece of salmon from the grocery store and opening it up to a slight fishy smell. While I understand that salmon in general can be a more fragrant fish to cook, there are levels to it that I've become attuned to as someone who makes salmon at least once a week and never lets it sit in the fridge for longer than one day.

Also, let's be clear: There is a big difference between slightly fishy and salmon that's gone bad. Salmon that has turned will be slimy and mushy instead of firm, discolored, and emit a truly terrible, almost-sour fishy smell. It's happened to me once, and trust me, you will know.

Back to the milk. Apparently, the proteins present in milk can bind to the fatty acids that have been exposed to air and give salmon its fishy odor or taste and mitigate them to be more neutral. (Fishiness is caused by the oxidation of fatty acids.) Seeing as milk—at least, buttermilk—is often used to tenderize chicken with its lactic acid, I can see how a similar chemical-breakdown process could happen when soaking fish in milk. Hey, I'm no scientist!

So, being open to any quirky trick that will make sure my salmon smells and tastes extra fresh, I grabbed a jug of milk. My testing was two-fold: I used fresh pieces of salmon for the first round, and then a week later, I used pieces of salmon I had frozen previously and thawed the day-of to cook. Online research had recommended letting the fish soak submerged in milk for around 20 minutes, before rinsing and cooking in your preferred fashion.

I smelled the fish before and after to see if there was a noticeable change—and to my actual surprise, there was. The fishy smell on the fresh salmon was already very subtle, but it was completely nonexistent after soaking in milk. After thawing the frozen salmon, there was a slightly fishy smell, which all but disappeared after soaking in milk. When cooked, all the salmon (both fresh and frozen) tasted fabulous and not fishy at all.

It still might not fully make sense to me, but I'm happy with the results and will continue to do it in the future. C'est la vie!

Note: I tested with whole milk, so I can't speak to whether alternative milks such as almond and oat milk would render the same results.

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