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Salmon Selection & Preparation

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Types of Salmon

There are two basic types of salmon: Pacific and Atlantic. Pacific salmon die shortly after spawning, while Atlantic salmon may survive and spawn again.

Pacific Salmon

There are seven species of Pacific salmon:

  • Chinook (or king salmon)
  • Sockeye (or red salmon)
  • Coho (or silver salmon)
  • Chum (or dog salmon)
  • Pink (or humpback salmon)
  • Masu (or yamame)
  • Amago (or biwamasu)

Of these seven, you’re likely to find Chinook, Sockeye, and Coho being sold fresh in markets. Masu and Amago are only found in Asia.

Chinook is the largest of the Pacific salmon, averaging 15-40 pounds, but growing as large as 100 pounds or more. It accounts for only 1 percent of the catch. It is highly sought after for its vibrant orange flesh, high fat content, and buttery texture. King salmon from Alaska’s Copper River is thought by many to be the “crème de la crème” of salmon.

Sockeye salmon is oilier than Chinook, making it ideal for grilling. Unlike other salmon, Sockeye does not lose its brilliant color when cooked. It is said to have a mineral-like flavor because of its plankton diet. Popular in Japanese sushi and sashimi, Sockeye average about 6 pounds.

Coho salmon has pink or red-orange flesh and averages about 10 pounds. Its taste is described as mild and sweet, and the flesh is leaner, firmer, and has a more delicate texture than other salmon.

Pacific salmon is available from mid-May through late September. Most Pacific salmon comes from Alaska, since much of the salmon of Washington, Oregon, and Northern California are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Atlantic Salmon

Unlike Pacific salmon, there is only one species of Atlantic salmon. In the wild, Atlantic salmon have bright pink flesh and are fattier than Pacific salmon. Since wild Atlantic salmon are virtually extinct because of overfishing and pollution, most Atlantic salmon found in markets is farm-raised in Canada, Chile, Iceland, Ireland, Norway, and the United Kingdom. Fish are raised in hatcheries until about 6 months old, then transferred to offshore saltwater pens. They average 10 pounds in weight when harvested.

While farm-raised salmon is available year-round and at very reasonable prices, many people believe it does not compare to wild salmon in taste or in the appeal of its flesh color. Also, many organizations have expressed concerns about the sustainability of fish farming and the impacts it has on the environment and wild fish species. A search of fish farming topics on the Internet reveals a wide variety of facts, opinions, and viewpoints on this subject.

What About Steelhead?

Until 1988, Steelhead were classified as the genus Salmo, along with Atlantic salmon, brown trout, and other Western trout species. Analysis of bone structures and biochemical tests revealed that Steelhead were more closely related to Pacific salmon, so they were reclassified as members of the genus Oncorhynchus, the same as Pacific salmon.


You’ll find farm-raised Atlantic salmon at most grocery stores. Some wholesale warehouse stores have an abundant year-round supply at very good prices.

Ocean-caught salmon are harder to find, especially if you don’t live in the Western United States. Seek out specialty retailers and farmer’s markets for these fish. In Northern California, they can be purchased right off the fishing boat in San Francisco, Half Moon Bay, and Santa Cruz. You may also find sources for ocean-caught salmon on the Internet.

When buying fresh, whole salmon, look for:

  • Fresh sea smell, not fishy or ammonia-like.
  • Clear eyes.
  • Bright red gills, free from slime.
  • Firm, shiny flesh that springs back to its original shape when pressed.
  • No cuts or nicks on the belly.

When buying fillets or steaks, look for:

  • Fresh sea smell, not fishy or ammonia-like.
  • Flesh that is moist, firm, and appears freshly cut.
  • No darkening or discoloration around the edges.
  • Flesh that isn’t separating from the bone.
  • If pre-packaged, a minimum of liquid.

Buy fresh salmon only from reputable sources that keep the fish properly refrigerated or iced.

When purchasing frozen salmon, look for packages that are frozen solid. Do not buy fish that is stored above the frost line in the freezer case or fish that shows signs of ice crystals, freezer burn or discoloration. Do not buy packages that are open, torn, or crushed on the edges.


Fresh salmon should be stored in the coldest part of the refrigerator (in the meat drawer or toward the back of the lowest shelf) and cooked within a day or two of purchase. Frozen salmon that is properly wrapped in moisture-proof paper or sealed in Cryovac may be stored up to 4 months in the freezer before taste and texture begin to diminish.


Frozen salmon should be thawed overnight in the refrigerator. Place the wrapped salmon on a shallow pan to catch any drips and allow 8-10 hours to thaw. Larger fish may take longer. Never thaw seafood at room temperature or in warm water.

When Is Salmon Done?

For somewhat underdone/translucent salmon, shoot for an internal temperature of 140-145°F measured with an instant-read thermometer. For moist, done salmon, 150-155°F. For a drier finish, 160-165°F.


Salmon is nutrient-dense, high in protein, Vitamin E, and Omega-3 fatty acids, which are said to lower cholesterol and blood pressure. Nutrition experts say that while salmon is fatty, it’s “good fat” and you should feel free to eat a lot of it.

What’s That White Stuff On The Surface Of Smoked Salmon?

The white gooey substance that forms on the surface of cooked salmon is called albumin. It consists of proteins that are squeezed out of the flesh during cooking and coagulate on the surface. Cook’s Illustrated magazine did some testing on this subject and found that albumin forms on salmon to some extent no matter how you cook it, although overcooking causes the most albumin formation.

When salmon is grilled quickly at high temperature, those proteins are trapped and solidify inside the meat, before they have a chance to reach the surface. But when salmon is smoked slowly at low temperature, those fluids emerge through cracks in the surface of the meat, where they solidify and turn white.

So the unsightly white curd is actually a sign that the meat is very moist and has been cooked “low and slow” with great care.

Albumin is unsightly but harmless. You can gently scraping it away with a knife or wipe it away with a damp paper towel before serving.

To greatly reduce the formation of albumin, Cook’s suggests brining salmon for 10 minutes in a solution of 1 Tablespoon of salt per cup of cold water. “The salt partially dissolves the muscle fibers near the surface of the flesh, so that when cooked they congeal without contracting and squeezing out albumin,” says Cook’s.

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