There are many types of salmon commercially available and the types available to you may differ by season, geography, and whether you’re seeking fresh or frozen fish. If you don’t live where you can get fresh fish that was caught that morning, it’s usually best to go with frozen. It will have been flash-frozen on the boat and will taste fresher than a “fresh” fish that undertook a journey to get to you.
Beyond flavor and technique, it’s important to consider the source of your salmon (and any seafood, for that matter.) If you’re not already familiar with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, have a look– it’s a great resource for making sure that your seafood choices are sustainable ones. Luckily, many types of salmon, both wild-caught and farmed, currently make the sustainable list– chances are, you’ll be able to easily make a purchase that’s good for everyone. Read their guide to salmon here:
You’ll note that almost all types of salmon are available as wild-caught, and that this is the top choice for sustainability according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. They also give a nod to farmed U.S. salmon, (although you should read their factsheet closely, as they explain the difference between good farmed systems and damaging ones). They recommend avoiding salmon farmed in other countries.
Now let’s discuss the different types of salmon, and their flavor profiles.
U.S. Atlantic salmon are widely available; usually as commercially-farmed. They are pink in tone, (usually a lighter pink than Pacific salmon) and also possess a milder flavor than salmon from the Pacific. This makes Atlantic a good “gateway salmon” for people who have found the fish’s strong flavor off-putting in the past. Because all salmon, including Atlantic, has flavor notes that will carry through in dishes where milder fishes would become afterthoughts, try preparing Atlantic Salmon in a jerk marinade on the grill, or in a Thai curry, and your salmon-phobic friends may find it more appealing. (A note from a few months later: There’s increasing evidence that this farming is harmful to the ocean environment. See a Ted Talk on the issue, here. I think you should skip the mild farmed salmon and go straight to wild.)
King, or Chinook, salmon, are from the Pacific Ocean, from the Pacific Northwest up through Alaska. Their flesh has more of a red/orange tone than pink, and they have a higher fat content than Atlantic salmon, as well as a much richer flavor. They are typically wild-caught. Their large size lends itself well to dramatic, whole-fish presentations. Consider this salmon in particular when you’re looking to impress.
Coho, or Silver, salmon have pink flesh, hail from the Pacific Ocean and are available both wild and farmed. They have a more intense taste than Atlantic salmon, but less so than King. They’re a good, versatile, all-around salmon; usually easy to find in the store, and easily adaptable to multiple preparations.
Sockeye, or Red, salmon have a darker red flesh than Coho, and a more intense taste. They’re generally wild-caught; also in Alaska or down the cold Pacific Coast to British Columbia. Thanks to its assertive taste, this is a salmon for salmon-lovers. The deeply-colored flesh plates beautifully.
You’re unlikely to encounter other varieties of salmon, such as “chum” or “pink,” in the fish case, but you are likely to find them in a can. I’m not much of a fan of canned fish; so I don’t have any recommendations here. Maybe that will be a challenge I’ll set for myself, another day.
Most cooking techniques, such as grilling, smoking, poaching, baking, steaming, or broiling are appropriate for all types of fresh/frozen salmon.
One key cooking method is typically avoided with salmon, and that’s frying. The fish is so fatty (with good fats, which render at high heat) already, that you’re likely to end up with a greasy mess if you deep-fry it, or even shallow-fry it. However, you can pan-fry salmon fillets quite successfully, with a little olive oil. The key is just to keep the oil to a minimum. I like to do a pan-fried salmon filet, coated with ground black peppercorns, with bacon and salad greens in a balsamic vinaigrette, between a couple of slices of warmed ciabatta.
The shot that opened this post, of Grilled, Wild-Caught Alaskan Coho Salmon and Fingerling Potatoes with Salsa Two Ways, was taken at a late-summer BBQ. No matter what type of salmon you have, the fish’s firm structure and assertive taste are good candidates to be taken to new heights on a charcoal grill.
What are your favorite salmon preparations, and what types of salmon do you prefer? Please share in the comments section.