Why is wild better?
Pacific salmon are anadromous, which means that they begin their lives in fresh water—rivers and streams—and migrate to the ocean after one to four years. After spending another one to seven years at sea, adult salmon use their incredible olfactory senses to return to the exact freshwater spot where they were hatched; there, they reproduce (spawn) and ultimately die.
That upstream journey from the ocean is a mostly summertime affair, beginning in May and ending in October, depending on the species. It’s a long, hard trip, with some fish swimming up to 2,400 miles to their spawning ground. Before they go, salmon gorge on krill and small fish, storing the energy from the food as fat in their flesh.
To catch the salmon at this point, at their fattest (and tastiest), fishermen meet the salmon close to the coastline and in estuaries before they swim upstream. The fish are caught, immediately stored in ice slush in the fi shing boats’ hulls, processed on land shortly thereafter, and swiftly airshipped across the globe. In other words, the wild salmon you can buy in Manhattan on Friday could have been caught in the Pacific Ocean as recently as Wednesday.
Wild salmon have a meaty, succulent texture and rich flavor thanks to their diet and active lives, in contrast to farmed salmon’s softer texture and milder flavor, a result of life in confi ned spaces eating processed food pellets.
On the dinner table, wild salmon’s high fat content, so rich in omega-3s, makes it a healthy, delicious choice. That fat also translates into versatility in the kitchen, letting you cook wild salmon any number of ways. Read on for some of my favorite recipes.
Wild salmon, at the store and at home
• For the best flavor and texture, buy fresh wild salmon the same day you are going to cook it.
• Use your nose—salmon (and all fresh seafood) should smell of nothing but the sea. Avoid any that smell “fishy.”
• For whole salmon, the eyes should be clear and moist, not sunken or red. The gills should be bright pink or red, not brown or gray.
• For fillets and steaks, look for tight flesh with no gapping. Gaps appear as the flesh deteriorates and can also be a sign that the salmon was handled roughly during processing.
• Larger fillets from the head end of the salmon tend to have a more uniform thickness, so they cook more evenly.
• Look for salmon displayed on mounds of ice or in dry trays at the fish counter; when fish sits in liquid, its flavor leaches out.
• If you can’t cook fresh salmon right away, loosely wrap it in plastic and keep it in the coldest part of the refrigerator for no more than 2 days, or wrap well in plastic and heavy-duty foil and freeze for up to 3 months.
• Defrost frozen salmon overnight in the refrigerator. Put the unwrapped fish on a rack over a rimmed baking sheet or in a colander set over a bowl so that any liquid can drain away.
Beware of pin bones
Pin bones are small, flexible, needle-like bones that run the length of each salmon fillet. Some fishmongers will already have removed them for you, but it’s best to make sure before cooking. To check, run your fingers lengthwise in both directions down the center of the fillet, feeling for the tips of the bones, which are spaced about 1/2 inch apart.
If you find any, use clean needlenose pliers or tweezers to grab the tip of each bone and give it a gentle tug, pulling it out in the same direction it lies; pulling the pin bones out in the opposite direction will tear the flesh. (You can watch a video demo of a clever trick for removing pin bones.)