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How to Cook Wild Salmon (and Why)

Wild salmon is a luxury worth every penny. Learn which species are readily available and how to cook them

June/July 2014 Issue
Photos: Scott Phillips
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I’ll never forget the first time I cooked a wild salmon. I had just moved from the Midwest to Portland, Oregon, to attend culinary school, and I was working as a line cook, too. So there I stood in the restaurant prep kitchen, staring at the 25-lb. fish lying on my cutting board. It was gorgeous, a king salmon with gleaming silver-black skin, sturdy bones, and bright orangy-red flesh. Back in Wisconsin, I’d only worked with farmed salmon, whose flesh is pale pink and rather flabby, with thin, soft bones. But this wild salmon was nothing like that; I swear, it felt almost alive in my hands. The flesh was firm and resilient, the bones strong as I cut through them. It was the freshest, most robust fish I’d ever cooked.

And my first bite…wow! I finally understood why people pay a premium for wild salmon. It practically melted in my mouth, and tasted like a complex combination of sweetness and the sea. It reminded me of breathing ocean air when you first get to the beach.

Since then, I’ve cooked hundreds, if not thousands, of wild salmon recipes in restaurants, in cooking classes, and at home, yet I still get a rush when the first fresh wild salmon arrive at the seafood counter in May. From then until late September (when the season ends), wild salmon is on my table at least once a week. And in the off-season, I buy and cook frozen wild salmon (albeit a little less frequently, because it’s pricier and the texture isn’t quite the same).

Wild salmon should be on your table, too. Not only is it incredibly delicious, but it’s also good for you and the environment. Below, I’ll explain why and tell you about the five salmon species you’ll find at the market. I’ll also share some of my favorite recipes for wild salmon cooked every which way. You’ll see: Wild salmon is a luxury worth every penny.

Five Major Species

There are actually seven species of wild Pacific salmon, but the five below are what you’ll find at the market; the other two, found in Asian waters, are rarely sold in North America. There are subtle differences in the texture, color, and flavor of each species, but they can all be used for the recipes featured in this article.

King (in season May to June)

Also called Chinook, this is the largest Pacific salmon species (average adult weight is 20 lb., but it can go up to 50 lb.). It’s the earliest to market and the most sought after, prized for its high fat content and meltin- your-mouth flesh that ranges in color from ivory to deep orange-red.

Sockeye (in season mid-May to late July)

Known as “red salmon” by fishermen because its skin changes from gray to bright red during spawning season, sockeye is a smaller species (average weight is 6 lb.) with the firmest texture and a strong, rich flavor.

Coho (in season August to September)
Also called “silver salmon” for its bright, silvery skin, coho’s deep orange flesh is firm and meaty, with a more delicate flavor than king salmon. Cohos are the second largest species, with an average weight of 12 lb.

Keta (in season June to September)
Formerly called chum, this medium-size salmon (average weight is 8lb.) has firm, light orange-pink flesh, a mild flavor, and relatively low fat content. It’s often smoked, but recently, it’s become more popular as an affordable fresh fish. Sushi lovers prize keta’s large, juicy eggs.

Pink (in season mid-June to mid-September)

The most abundant of all the species and the smallest (average weight is 2 to 3 lb.), pinks have rosy flesh, a tender texture, and the second-highest fat content. They are often smoked and/or canned, but have recently gained favor as an economical fresh or frozen choice for those who appreciate mild-flavored fish.


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.)

Cooking Tips

Go med-rare, or raw Don’t be afraid to eat wild Pacific salmon that’s not cooked all the way through. Its succulent texture shines when the fish retains a touch of translucence in the center. Or be bold and try it raw.

Grilling gold Sometimes, fat is a good thing, like when you consider how the high fat content of wild salmon helps it stand up so well to the heat of the grill, basting it from the inside out.

Quick cook Wild salmon cooks—and overcooks—quickly. A good rule of thumb is to cook it for 8 to 10 minutes per inch of thickness, regardless of the cooking method.

Whole Wild Salmon, On And Off The Grill

• Make sure the salmon you buy fits onto your grill with enough room to roll it over so you can grill both sides; most grills can accommodate a small coho or standard sockeye or keta.
• Confirm that the salmon has been dressed (gutted and scaled) before you pay for it; it’s a messy job better done at the store. are necessary to roll the fish over.
• Heating the grill grates well and oiling them several times help keep the salmon skin from sticking. Dusting the skin with flour and oiling it just before it goes onto the grill help, too.
• Don’t forget to soak the toothpicks so that they don’t burn during grilling.


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