How many times have you heard nutritionists say, “Eat more salmon!”? Though this fish is a great source of protein, potassium, and vitamin B12, it is mainly known for its omega-3 fatty acids that contribute to healthy brain, heart, and joint functions.
With so many different kinds of salmon, it may be worth knowing which ones are better than others and how each one tastes. If eating healthier is one of your goals this year, then check out this ultimate guide to how to buy, store, and cook salmon.
Not all varieties of salmon look or taste the same.
Sockeye salmon is a Pacific variety recognizable by its deep red color, fatty texture, and strong smell (though it should never be too fishy). It can be purchased as steaks or fillets and is best enjoyed grilled or smoked.
Coho salmon, also known as silver salmon, is best for those who don’t like the bold flavor of sockeye salmon. A whole fish can weigh 23-24 pounds, so you can cook the entire thing on a grill or smoker. It is also found in the Pacific.
Pink or humpback salmon is the most basic variety of salmon, often processed into packaged foods. Light pink, mild tasting, and low in fat, it is recognizable by its distinctive humps when spawning.
Chum salmon is one of the smallest varieties, at around 8 pounds. It is mainly used for its large roe, available in jars or frozen, but you may see it in fillet form under the name keta salmon. It has less oil so is lighter in taste than sockeye.
Steelhead salmon is actually ocean trout that migrates upstream just like its cousin—actual salmon. It has a similar texture and flavor. (The fresh water analogue to steelhead trout is rainbow trout.)
Atlantic salmon is only farm-raised, artificially colored, and available year-round. It is important to know how farmed Atlantic salmon was raised (type of feed, whether antibiotics were given) to make a call on whether or not it’s sustainable. Farm-raised salmon is typically fattier than wild-caught and has more calories, but is still very nutritious.
King salmon or Chinook salmon is the best salmon money can buy, though also one of the rarer species. It has more flavor, thicker meat, and more nutritional value. Available in shades of pink, orange, and marble, king salmon is typically found in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and parts of Asia.
When buying salmon from a store, look at its color—it should be light pink if farm raised, and dark pink if wild caught, and not have any gray or brown areas. You can also smell it to make sure it is mild, not fishy (a briny, oceanic scent is good), and it should be firm, but not slimy to touch.
Frozen wild salmon is also good, if it’s frozen fresh off the boat; most “fresh” fish at the supermarket has been previously frozen as well, so don’t assume buying from the freezer case is a lesser option. Look out for ice crystals and freezer burns when buying frozen fish.
Amara Enciso, executive chef at The Jorgenson House in Juneau, Alaska catches 100-200 pounds of salmon for personal use throughout the salmon runs during summer. Commercially, she recommends only wild Alaskan salmon, preferably sourced from a local company that ensures quality, such as Shoreline Wild Salmon.
Some chefs do cook farm raised salmon, only when it’s sustainably and organically raised. Chef and restaurateur Tom Catherall at Barbacoa in Atlanta says, “You are what you eat. Farm raised salmon is sometimes fed a diet not unlike dog food. It doesn’t have the same nutritional value as wild.” Catherall prefers Scottish salmon sourced from cold waters, which is parasite free.
The organic salmon farm sites in parts of Ireland are highly sophisticated and regularly audited. “Efforts undertaken to guarantee a healthy environment for the salmon and the wildlife in the area, ensures that organic salmon is the next best thing to wild salmon. It is more sustainable and as good tasting as wild salmon. So eating organic salmon is a very good alternative to wild salmon,” says Birgitta Hedin Curtin, founder of the Burren Smokehouse in Co. Clare.
Salmon can sit outside a refrigerator for up to 2 hours and in the refrigerator for up to 2 days. Store your fish in the freezer for up to 3 months if you don’t plan to cook it right away. In each case, it is important to properly wrap the fish in plastic or place it in an air-tight container before storing.
Before cooking, properly thaw and pat dry the salmon with paper towels. To quickly release excess water, lightly sprinkle the salmon portions with salt, and refrigerate for 5-8 minutes, then pat dry. Following this step will ensure you get a nice sear.
Fat and oil content determine how you should cook the salmon—grill, poach, sous-vide, sear, steam, smoke, or bake. Chum and pink salmon are generally used for canning or smoking because of their lower oil content. Coho and sockeye salmon are versatile to cook with, as they have a high fat content and hold up extremely well to searing, poaching, or baking. Chinook salmon is the highest in fat content of all salmon species, requiring no additional oil or butter, and lends itself well to any type of cooking technique.
Celebrity chef Johnny Hernandez recommends seasoning wild-caught Pacific or Alaskan salmon with a blend of fresh herbs, thinly sliced garlic, and olive oil. “Use a smoking hot pan and cook it to medium,” he says. To check if the meat is done, poke with a sharp knife and feel the meat beginning to flake. Overcooking will make the fish dry and chewy.
“I would recommend eating salmon in its purest form, that is with skin on. Salmon is commercially available to consumers, skinless and de-boned. However, if home chefs are able to obtain a whole salmon or fillets with skin intact, it is more flavorful and higher in omega-3’s, vitamins, and minerals,” adds Enciso.