A couple of weeks ago, my friend Debbie Carlson was leafing through Mystic Seaport Seafood Secrets Cookbook and came across a recipe for Poached Salmon à la Dishwasher, which was, yes, a recipe for poaching salmon in the dishwasher. Debbie is an excellent cook, but the recipe called for a ridiculous amount of aluminum foil—enough to wrap around a roasting pan twice—and she was concerned about whether it would be safe to eat. So she did what any sane person with a friend who works at a food website would do: She dared that friend—that is, me—to cook it and report back.
Of course I took her up on it. My honor as a food writer was at stake. What else was I supposed to do?
Dishwasher salmon, it turns out, is not an original idea. It appears that the first person who published a recipe for fish cooked in a dishwasher was Sheila Nickerson, a writer in Juneau, Alaska, and a contributor to Bear Soup And Salmon Mousse, a community cookbook produced sometime in the 1980s by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Like many early recipes, Nickerson’s instructions for preparing Salmon À La Dishwasher were vague enough to allow for plenty of improvisation by future chefs.
How do you do it? Take one small salmon—or a piece of salmon (under 10 lbs. works best), wrap it well with aluminum foil (use at least 2 sheets), find a suitable rack in your dishwasher, insert, close door, and start. Though detergent isn’t necessary, there is no reason you can’t wash your dishes and cook the salmon at the same time. Just be sure the salmon is tightly wrapped.
What happens? Depending on the model of your dishwasher and the parts of its cycles, the salmon is boiled, steamed, and baked.
The results? One moist and tender salmon ready for eating. Simply remove from dishwasher and, opening foil carefully, place on platter. There will be no cooking odors at all.
Nickerson recommended that cooks enhance the flavor of the salmon with their favorite sauces or garnishes: lemon slices, sauces, or vegetables. “Salmon cooked in foil with fresh apricots, or oranges and grapes, is excellent.”
Dishwasher salmon was further publicized by Food Network star Bob Blumer, who cooked it in the premiere episode of his show The Surreal Gourmet in 2005. Blumer’s recipe included precise measurements and also a Piquant Dill Sauce, prepared on a regular stove. From there, the method spread throughout the internet.
The recipe in Mystic Seaport Seafood Secrets Cookbook differs from most of the others in that the salmon is poached, or cooked directly in liquid—hence the need for a roasting pan with all that foil wrapped around it. It also requires the salmon to rest in the refrigerator overnight. The other recipes are more like sous vide: food wrapped up and then cooked in hot water at a precisely maintained temperature. You can poach anything if you have a stove, but not everyone has a sous vide machine. Therefore it only seemed right to use one of the other recipes for dishwasher salmon. Plus, it would mean instant gratification and less foil.
I bought an eight-ounce fillet of salmon. Then I considered what I should put in the foil packet with it. I decided on thinly sliced lemons and rosemary, both of which I already had on hand. The other great consideration was whether to use soap. But I could not countenance wasting that much water to run the dishwasher on an empty cycle. All the recipes were full of assurances that if you used heavy-duty foil, wrapped the salmon tightly enough, and believed in yourself, your dinner would be detergent-free. (Foil itself won’t transfer any harmful chemicals to the food and is also dishwasher safe.)
So I wrapped the salmon, lemon, and rosemary up tight, plopped the packet in the top rack of the dishwasher, and pressed start.
While I waited, I did some research into other things I could possibly cook in the dishwasher. How impressive would it be to invite people over (when that sort of thing is allowed again), dump a few foil packets or Mason jars into the dishwasher along with the dirty dishes, and then do nothing besides laugh and eat canapes until dinner was ready?
Unfortunately, when I looked up recommended sous vide cooking temperatures, I saw that fish cooks at a considerably cooler temperature than meat or poultry or even vegetables, 126 degrees Fahrenheit compared to 150 degrees or hotter for other types of food, and it takes less time. I’m not exactly sure how hot my dishwasher gets—for some reason, the manufacturers failed to provide this information, which seems like an egregious oversight for an appliance that can be used for cooking—but I was also pretty sure I didn’t want to run it for the several hours it takes to sous vide a chicken breast or a steak (not to mention the entire day it takes to sous vide a pork belly).
The dishwasher churned away. Outside, the sky grew dark. I began to get hungry and began doing a mental inventory of my refrigerator and cupboards to figure out things I could eat if the salmon turned out soapy. But at long last, it finished. The foil packet sat in the top rack, perhaps marginally shinier than when I had put it in, but otherwise undisturbed.
I unwrapped it. The fish definitely had the look of something that had been cooked. I tried to lift it out of the foil and onto a plate, but it was so flaky, it fell apart. It looked like it had been evenly cooked all the way through and was moist throughout, instead of noticeably drier on the outside, which is what usually happens when I cook salmon. (This is the reason why, on the rare occasions when I do try to cook it, I use the cheapest fillets I can find, so I don’t ruin them.)
Then came the moment of truth: I tasted it. It tasted the way it looked: moist and flaky and salmon-y. It did not taste of dishwasher detergent. Although I knew I was far from the first person who had attempted to cook fish this way, I felt like I had made a marvelous discovery. How many other methods of cooking allow you to make dinner while performing a household chore? What efficiency! God bless America and its appliances!