The Ultimate Guide to Salmon

By | September 13, 2022

How many times have you heard nutritionists, magazines, and basically the entire internet say, “Eat more salmon!”? Though you may be tired of hearing salmon practically proclaimed as lord and savior of your health, the pink fish does come with tons of benefits.

Salmon’s not only a good source of protein, potassium, and vitamin B12, but is also famous for its omega-3 fatty acids. These good-for-you fats have been associated with healthy brain, heart, and joint function.

Only trouble is, there’s a whole lotta fish in the sea. We’re talking farmed, wild, keta, and coho, to name just a few of the many salmon options.

With so many different varieties, it’s worth finding out which ones have the most health benefits — and, of course, how each one tastes. If you’re looking to eat well, check out this ultimate guide to how to buy, store, and cook salmon.

salmon on pink background header
Jeff Wasserman/Stocksy United

Types of salmon

Not all varieties of salmon look or taste the same. (But you probably knew that already.) To tell them apart, you can go by visual cues and packaging labels — and don’t forget that you can always ask the folks behind the seafood counter for all the fishy details.

Sockeye salmon is a Pacific variety recognizable by its deep red color, fatty texture, and strong smell (though it should never be too fishy). You can purchase it as steaks or fillets, and it’s 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 is typically about 8-12 pounds (but really big guys can weigh up to 23-24 pounds), so you can cook the entire thing on a grill or smoker. It’s also native to 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’s recognizable by its distinctive humps when spawning.

Chum salmon is one of the smallest varieties, at around 8-15 pounds. It’s mainly used for its large roe, available in jars or frozen, but you may see it in fillet form under the name keta salmon. Because it has less oil, it’s lighter in taste than sockeye.

Steelhead salmon is actually ocean trout that migrates upstream just like actual salmon. Since it behaves like salmon and has a similar texture and flavor to the real thing, modern fish classification has granted it a place under the salmon umbrella.

Atlantic salmon is almost always farm-raised (less than 1% comes from the wild) and is typically artificially colored. The good news: It’s available year-round. And while farm-raised Atlantic salmon is typically fattier and higher in calories than wild-caught, it’s still very nutritious.

To finish things off, the king of salmon! King salmon (aka Chinook salmon) is often considered the best salmon money can buy, with the highest amounts of omega-3s and — some say — the most buttery flavor and thickest texture.

Of course, these perks (and the fact that it’s one of the rarer species) come at a higher price tag. King salmon is at the top of the budgetary food chain. Available in shades of pink, orange, and marble, king salmon is typically found in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and parts of Asia.

Sustainability considerations

You’ve probably heard that wild-caught salmon is a more sustainable choice than farmed, since it’s not given antibiotics, treated with pesticides, or exposed to contaminants common to fish farms.

Still, the debate on salmon’s sustainability isn’t as clear-cut as it might seem. Open waters may have pollutants or contaminants of their own. And wild-caught salmon may be from areas that have been over-fished, threatening their native populations.

To determine whether any salmon is sustainable, you’ll want to get a few questions answered. Did it come from an overfished population? How was it fed? Did it receive antibiotics? Was it raised at a fishery that’s been certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (a non-profit that sets standards for sustainable fishing)?

Again, don’t hesitate to ask your local fishmonger for clarification — or do your homework if you’re ordering salmon online.

Buying salmon

When buying salmon from a store, you can use your senses to assess its quality. It should be light pink if farm-raised and dark pink if wild-caught, with no gray or brown spots. If you can take a whiff before purchasing, do so! Your fish should smell mild, not fishy (a briny, oceanic scent is good), and it should be firm, not slimy to the touch.

Frozen wild salmon is also a good choice if it’s frozen fresh off the boat. Just note that most “fresh” fish at the supermarket have been previously frozen, so don’t assume buying from the freezer case is a lesser option. But look out for ice crystals and freezer burns when buying frozen fish.

For raw dishes like sushi and poke, buy the freshest farm-raised raw salmon (previously frozen salmon eaten raw can cause food-borne illnesses).

How to store salmon

Salmon can sit outside the refrigerator for up to 2 hours and inside of it for up to 2 days. Store your fish in the freezer for up to 8 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.

As for store-bought smoked salmon, pay attention to its expiration date. After opening, it can last in the refrigerator for a week.

Cooking with salmon

Before cooking, properly thaw and pat dry your salmon with paper towels. To quickly release excess water, lightly sprinkle the salmon with salt, refrigerate for 5-8 minutes, then pat dry. Following this step ensures you get a nice sear when cooking.

Fat and oil content determine how you should cook the salmon — and you’ve got plenty of options for cooking! Grilling, poaching, sous-vide-ing, searing, steaming, smoking, and baking all work well.

Chum and pink salmon are generally used for canning or smoking because of their lower oil content. Coho and sockeye, on the other hand, are more versatile, as they have a high fat content and hold up extremely well to searing, poaching, or baking.

Chinook salmon lends itself well to any type of cooking technique. Because it contains plenty of fat, it may not even require any additional oil or butter during cooking

Need a go-to salmon recipe? 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.

To go all-in on nutrients, you can even cook fillets without removing their skin.

“I would recommend eating salmon in its purest form, that is with skin on,” says Amara Enciso, executive chef at The Jorgenson House in Juneau, Alaska. “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.”

Bottom line

From the humble chum to the royal King, there’s a type of salmon for every cooking need. Depending on your budget, sustainability concerns, and flavor preferences, the best type of salmon will vary. Just remember that all varieties have plenty of nutrients to offer. So which will it be, one fish, two fish, red fish, or pink fish?

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