Raw salmon is a tasty, fishy treat — and it makes sense to wonder if it’s safe. Welp, some good news: Salmon is completely safe to eat raw if you prep and store it correctly. And even better news: We’re going to tell you exactly how to do that.
Can you eat raw salmon? The straight answer
Raw salmon is a popular ingredient in many dishes all over the world — sushi, for example, is notable for its raw salmon offerings like sashimi. If you’re ever in the Nordic regions of the world, you can enjoy a hearty raw salmon, salt, sugar, and dill appetizer called gravlax.
But raw salmon is still raw. Like all raw animal protein, it carries risks. These include parasites like helminths or bacteria like Salmonella.
Are these risks enough to make it unsafe? No. All raw animal proteins carry a small amount of risk. But the diseases like trichinosis you can get from eating, for example, raw pork, might be life threatening. Not so with salmon.
That being said, there are definitely a few things to consider if you’re planning on making raw salmon a regular feature of your diet. You may not die from bad salmon, but salmonella still isn’t fun.
Get ready, because we’re gonna talk you through eating raw salmon without playing food-poisoning roulette.
Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Also, it’s delicious.
But that doesn’t mean you can just waltz down to the river, karate chop yourself a salmon, and munch on it Gollum-style. That may work for bears, but it might make you sick.
Let’s be real, though: You probably won’t be getting your salmon directly from the water. Most folks buy it from the chilled section of their local store, which already significantly reduces the risks of gut troubles.
Salmon is safer than almost all other animal proteins to eat raw if you store and prepare it the right way. But it still presents a risk of infection by bacteria, parasites, and other pathogens that can cause probs in your bod.
Should I eat raw salmon?
Well, if you want to. We can’t tell you what to do.
Many dishes like sashimi and gravlax make use of raw salmon as the main ingredient. Cooking the salmon in these dishes would basically ruin the dish (not to mention that it’s a bit of a snub to the local food culture, especially with cuisine like sushi that’s steeped in tradition).
Can you eat undercooked salmon?
Cooked salmon is relatively safe, and raw salmon is relatively safe. Salmon that’s in-between, though? That’s grade-A danger flesh.
When you cook salmon, make sure it has a minimum core temperature of at least 145ºF (63ºC). The reason? Most bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens thrive in temperatures between 40 to 140ºF (4 to 60ºC).
So, your refrigerated raw salmon is probably too cold for bacteria to thrive. Cooked salmon is far too hot. Undercooked salmon is a frickin’ breeding ground where every bite turns into a game of toilet-bowl roulette for future you. It’s best to avoid eating it.
Who CAN’T eat raw salmon?
The possible pathogens in raw salmon can pose a hefty risk if you are:
- a child
- an older adult
- receiving treatment for cancer
- a person with liver disease
- a person with a positive HIV diagnosis or who carries the virus
- carrying a transplanted organ
- living with diabetes
Infections that most folks can shrug off with little more than an upset tummy can be fatal for people with a compromised or not-fully-developed immune system (as in the case of children and fetuses still enjoying that womb life).
These folks would do best to dodge salmon.
Raw salmon is delicious and safe enough that it’s a mainstay of many dishes around the world. However, it is an animal protein. And, like all animal proteins, salmon can be a breeding ground for bacteria, parasites, and other microscopic no-nos.
The raw salmon you buy in stores should be free from contaminants. But this is never a guarantee.
Bacteria and parasites can pop up
Even when food producers follow all health and safety laws, there’s always a slight risk of contamination. That’s not the fault of the food people, either. Parasites, bacteria, and viruses are alive. And, as “Jurassic Park” taught us, “Life, uh…. finds a way.”
According to the FDA, salmon is a known source of parasites. One common variety of salmon-loving parasites are helminths, aka Diphyllobothrium nihonkaiense. These tapeworms are found in all kinds of fin-fish like salmon.
If you get an infection from Diphyllobothrium nihonkaiense, you might develop diphyllobothriasis. This can cause nausea, diarrhea, unintended weight loss, and abdominal pain. So, yeah — not pleasant and best avoided.
It’s not just parasites, though. Salmonella, perhaps the most notorious bacterial food poisoning, is a risk with contaminated salmon. Salmonella isn’t the only pathogen that likes to swing by a raw salmon party, either — there’s a whole gaggle of associated bacteria and viruses present in raw salmon.
These include (but aren’t limited to):
- Clostridium botulinum
- Staphylococcus aureus
- Listeria monocytogenes
- Escherichia coli
- Hepatitis A
Persistent organic pollutants are a risk with any seafood
There’s also a small chance that salmon (both farmed and wild) contain trace amounts of persistent organic pollutants (POPs).
POPs cover anything toxic in the environment, including pesticides and manufacturing chemicals. These are always a risk with any type of seafood, as most of these POPs find their way into the waters of our rivers, lakes, and oceans.
Exposure to POPs may increase your risk of:
- congenital anomalies
- immune disorders
It’s important to note though that these risks are highest with prolonged, heavy exposure to POPs. The trace amounts that may be present in your raw salmon aren’t going to cause long-term health probs, as researchers found in a study when testing goods for concentrations of brominated flame retardants in a Spanish fish market.
So yeah, raw salmon has risks. But those aside, it’s entirely safe to eat raw salmon.
There’s always going to be a little bit of risk with eating raw salmon. But that risk is obviously way, way higher if you eat salmon that’s gone bad.
The good news is that it’s pretty easy to tell bad salmon from the fresh and probably-not-going-to-give-you-salmonella kind. Here are some signs to look out for:
It smells *bad*.
In any other food, a fishy smell is bad. But if you’re sniffing fish, then fishiness is exactly what you want to be smelling. What you don’t want to smell is a musky or ammonia-like smell. If you open the packet and get a waft of nose-hair-curling acridity, chuck out that salmon.
Salmon’s natural fishy scent isn’t all that strong as far as fish go (unlike mackerel, which reeks of the sea). If the natural fishy odor of your salmon is a bit too fishy, then it’s probably best to avoid it.
It looks gray.
Raw salmon is reddish in color (it doesn’t get the pinky hue unless it’s cooked). Salmon with gray skin has definitely gone bad — milky, slimy residue is also a sign of salmon you shouldn’t eat. Dark spots and mold also indicate that your salmon is no good. And… well, don’t eat moldy food.
It doesn’t feel like raw salmon should.
Give your salmon a bit of touchy-touchy treatment with your fingers. If it feels slimy or falls apart when you touch it, that’s one risky salmon. Salmon should feel moist and firm, not like slimy shredded pork.
With raw salmon (like all foods), storage is everything if you want to keep that risk of gut trouble as low as possible.
Storing your raw salmon at the right temperature is key. That’s what refrigerators are for, though, right? As long as your fridge ain’t on the fritz (so it can keep things at 40°F (4°C) and below), keeping your salmon in there should cover you. Once in there, it’s best to eat it within 1 to 2 days.
You can freeze raw salmon, too. If you’re into delayed gratification, you can pop your cuts of raw salmon in a vacuum-sealed/freezer bag and keep them for up to 3 months. Depending on how much you’ve frozen, popping it in the fridge for 24 hours should cover you for defrosting.
Bacteria don’t just sit in one place — they can cross-contaminate other foods. So, keep your other goodies away from the salmon, as well as containing your salmon in a sealed container, away from its roommates in the refrigerator.
There’s an ongoing debate about whether or not you should wash animal proteins before cooking them, and salmon is no exception.
The debate does seem to be between anecdotal evidence (“My Mee-Maw said you should always wash your fish and meat.”) and actual science (the USDA and food scientists suggest that rinsing animal proteins doesn’t actually kill any bacteria, but can increase the risk of cross-contamination).
Sometimes, you may want to give your salmon a rinse to remove any loose scales or other debris (especially if you’ve skinned it yourself). If you are going to rinse your raw salmon, make sure you do it with cold, fresh water. Warm temperatures turn your salmon slices into a microbial orgy.
The best advice here is to put washed salmon back in the fridge before serving. This can help you make sure that you don’t allow any pathogens the salmon might’ve picked up during the rinse to start multiplying.
Now you know how to safely pick and store raw salmon, it’s time to put that bad boy to work — and what’s better than sushi? It’s rolled-up raw fish rice time.
Ingredients for raw salmon and cucumber sushi rolls
- 100 grams (g) sushi rice
- 1 tablespoon (tbsp) caster sugar
- 1.5 tbsp (25 milliliters) rice vinegar
- 100 g skinless salmon fillet, thinly sliced
- 1/4 cucumber, also thinly sliced (lengthwise too, i.e. the total opposite way to how your brain tells you a cucumber should be sliced)
- 2 nori sheets (nori is the seaweed sushi rolls are wrapped in)
- First, get your sushi rice. Rinse it in a colander until the water runs through clear. Let it drain for 15 minutes (mins).
- Pop that rice in a pan of 200 milliliters water (half a pint). Bring to the boil, cover with a lid, and leave to simmer on a low heat for 20 mins (until all the water is absorbed). Once that’s finished, leave the rice sitting and covered for another 15 to 20 mins.
- Add the rice vinegar and caster sugar. In a large bowl, mix these into the rice and cover with a damp towel, then leave at room temperature until you’re ready for it.
- Take one of your nori sheets and cover it in half the cooled rice. Lay your salmon and cucumber slices across the rice, careful not to overfill. If you want to add a bit of kick, you can spread a pea-sized wasabi blob on top.
- Pinching one end of your nori sheet, roll tightly, and seal when you reach the end. Then slice the mega-roll you’ve made into six pieces. Do the same again with the remaining ingredients, until you have 12 ready-to-eat raw salmon and cucumber sushi rolls.
Making sushi is notoriously f*cking difficult. Don’t get frustrated if your finished rolls don’t look like those you’d buy premade. In Japan, it can take 10+ years of training to become an Itamae (head sushi chef).
Our recipe is great to get started on, but it leaves out the huge amount of technique and etiquette in sushi cutting and prepping.
Salmon is safer to eat raw than other animal proteins like pork, and the risks are low enough that it’s a popular raw ingredient in many cultural dishes (especially in Norway and Japan).
It’s not entirely risk-free, though. Salmon can contain many microbes and associated contaminants. Two of the most common are helminths and Salmonella, but the list is long and can also include environmental contaminants. People with developing or compromised immune systems should avoid raw salmon.
While you can eat raw salmon, undercooked salmon is a no-go. You should also avoid salmon that’s gone bad — you can tell if it’s gone off by a gray color, slimy texture, and needlessly fishy or ammonia-like smell.
For storage, refrigerate your raw salmon in a sealed container and eat it within 1 to 2 days. You can also freeze it for up to 3 months. While there’s a popular belief you should wash/rinse it before preparing, science doesn’t actually recommend it.