How to Cook Salmon
Eating salmon is a great way to incorporate healthy Omega-3 fatty acids into your diet. But there are so many types of salmon to choose from. How do you know what to buy? What is each type of salmon best for? And how to cook salmon, whether you're buying King, Sockeye, or something else? For answers, we got on the phone with Jeremy Woodrow, Communications Director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. Here, a handy guide on the most common types of salmon and how to prepare them.
When Is the Best Time of Year to Buy Salmon?
Like all things from the natural world, Salmon has a season. While all are available frozen or canned year round, the fresh salmon harvest starts in mid-May and, depending on the species, runs through September or October.
What’s the Difference Between Wild Pacific and Atlantic Salmon?
You can think of Salmon in two big buckets: Wild Pacific and Atlantic. But there’s a trick: they’re not the same fish at all. “Wild Pacific and Atlantic salmon have about as much in common as a cow and a goat,” says Woodrow. See, 99% of Atlantic salmon is now farmed. (It’s actually illegal to farm finned fish in Alaska, where 95% of wild salmon come from.) And while the majority of salmon available in supermarkets in restaurants is still farmed, if you can find wild Pacific salmon, that's our first choice.
Now that we’ve cleared that up, look for these types of salmon in your supermarket...
Courtesy of Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute
Beloved for its size and rich flavor, King salmon is a favorite among fine-dining chefs. It’s the least abundant and considered a premium product. Woodrow says even local Alaskans get excited when a neighbor is cooking up a King salmon. Also sold under the name “Chinook” or “Black Mouth” salmon (the fish have black gums), King salmon tend to live longer than other species which means they build up more Omega-3s—those magical healthy fats we’re all trying to sneak into our diet—between their skin and muscle. That fat adds richness, big flavor, and an unctuous mouthfeel. Try it grilled with a sweet and spicy rub like our Cedar-Plank Salmon.
Next in class is Coho salmon, just behind King in terms of size and amount of fat. Coho salmon “run”, that is migrate, during the late summer so look for it fresh around September and October. Also known as “Silver” salmon, Coho are voracious eaters, building more fat—and flavor—toward the end of their lives. Like King salmon, Coho loves high heat: try it seasoned simply with salt and pepper and grilled alongside late summer corn or in our Gingery Salmon With Peaches.
Sockeye salmon is perhaps the most recognizable thanks to is deep red color. Despite what you may think, the color doesn’t actually have anything to do with flavor. In fact, Pacific salmon get their color from their diet of other wild fish and crustaceans (farmed Atlantic salmon achieve their pinkish hue from dyes added to their feed). Sockeye’s firm texture makes it a great all-purpose salmon: try it grilled, broiled, roasted, or poached. Look for it fresh from mid-May through mid-September and frozen year-round. It's sure to stun in this gorgeous Salmon Salad With Herbed Yogurt.
Prized for its roe (eggs), Keta, or “chum” salmon, is often found pre-portioned in the frozen food aisle. As the Keta’s time to spawn approaches and the number of eggs increase, its flesh becomes more mild. That’s why it’s often sold with other flavors added (think, peppered, Cajun, or smoked). It’s generally the third largest salmon so you can find bigger, thicker filets. New to salmon cooking and eating? Choose Keta for its mild flavor and forgiving size which makes it harder to overcook. Consider it your “starter salmon” and use it in this simple Salmon Filet With Citrus and Thyme.
Along with Sockeye, Pink salmon is one of the most abundant and affordable types of salmon available. It has a rosy pink flesh and is often available canned. With a delicate flavor and tender texture it’s great for smoking. Because it’s less fatty than other varieties, lower temperature cooking methods are recommended: try is slow-roasted or poached in this Salmon Salad With Beets.
As mentioned above, Atlantic salmon is an entirely different fish than Pacific salmon. Fun fact: Atlantic salmon can spawn more than once, while Pacific salmon die after they spawn. Nearly all Atlantic salmon is farmed and will have a uniform orange color. Those white stripes between the layers of orange flesh? That’s connective tissue and are more prevalent and thicker in farmed salmon. Try it roasted low and slow at 300°F with a sliced lemon scattered over top or in these Salmon Tacos With Cabbage Slaw.
Most salmon can be found frozen or “re-freshed”, a newish term for previously frozen. If you’re not sure which to buy, choose frozen. Most frozen salmon hits the deep freeze right on the boat from which its caught, which ensures the quality of the fish stays top notch and that it gets labeled appropriately. Plus, frozen salmon is often more affordable than the fresh stuff.
Want to cure or pickle your salmon? Go with frozen fish. In fact, choose frozen salmon whenever your fish is destined for a cold preparation and definitely if you plan to serve it raw. Look for salmon labeled “sushi grade” which, in the case of salmon, technically means “frozen”. Because it's so readily available frozen, salmon is a great year round choice.
We like to cook our salmon until it’s just translucent in the center. Wonder what that white stuff is that appears on the surface of your cooked fish? It’s not fat, but Albumen, the same protein in egg whites. If you see it, it’s a sign that your fish may be overcooked. If it's a regular occurrence, slow down your salmon cooking process by either lowering your heat or removing it from the oven or stove earlier. And if you do overcook it, don’t worry: tossed with a little mayo, mustard, chopped celery and pickles, you’ve got yourself a delicious tuna salad alternative.