How to buy and cook salmon, America’s sweetheart fish

It's among the most ubiquitous seafood, but take a look at different varieties and find incredible flavor

Topics: Eyewitness Cook, Food,

How to buy and cook salmon, America's sweetheart fish

Americans used to have few warm feelings for fish, eating on average about 20-30 nanograms of it per year. But then we had the ’80s, and along with the leg warmers and the curiously colored denim came our love of salmon. It was a bizarre turnaround, with salmon sold as the unfishlike fish when its flavor is so strong and distinct. But there my mom was, big hair and all, at the suddenly popular FoodTown fish counter, picking up salmon steaks. David McRae, a sockeye salmon fisherman in Bristol Bay, Alaska, told me that in those days, the price of salmon was so high that tender boats would roam the bay, buying fishermen’s catches with cash kept in stacks of hundreds. “It was like the Wild West,” he said, “with as much cash as fish on those boats.” The Cocaine ’80s were the Salmon ’80s.

But then the explosion of farmed salmon made the fish really cheap and truly ubiquitous. We could be here all weekend talking about the environmental and economic impacts of farmed (aka “Atlantic”) salmon (and the recently approved farmed salmon genetically modified to grow at twice its normal rate), but today, let’s just focus on flavor. To my mind, the vast majority of farmed salmon tastes lifeless, fatty pabulum with a fishy muddiness. And it’s heartbreaking that this is the flavor most people know as “salmon,” when wild-caught Pacific salmon can be so stunningly delicious and varied in its flavor.

But wild Pacific salmon can also be confusing, since there are very different types, seasons and ideal cooking methods. So I called in a ringer, the extraordinary chef Greg Higgins of Higgins Restaurant and Bar in Portland, Ore., and he offered pointed advice on selecting and cooking salmon.

First, a note on salmon seasonality, and fresh vs. frozen. You can reliably get “fresh” wild salmon from mid-April until about late October. The quotation marks, though, are there because, often, some of this salmon has actually been frozen, sometimes called FAS (frozen at sea). The freezing technology is good enough that there isn’t much impact on quality and, in fact, Greg notes that FAS salmon often scores higher in taste than “fresh” stuff because most fresh fish isn’t handled perfectly. So this means you can get good-quality wild salmon all year if it’s frozen and stored properly. That’s going to be a matter of trust between you and your fish seller.



King salmon (aka chinook)

Characteristics: King salmon is the most sought-after wild Pacific salmon and the largest of the salmon varieties, so its fillets are often thick and meaty, which is really nice for keeping the interior lightly cooked and still getting a charred or seared crust on the outside. It has great natural oil content, giving it moisture and juiciness — and it makes it a forgiving fish if you do overcook it somewhat. That oil carries a rich, deep, round flavor, almost buttery, and gives the flesh a silky tenderness.

What to look for: Assuming you’re buying precut fillets or whole sides, look for signs that they’ve been handled well: not a lot of visible tears or separation in the muscle tissue. Greg handles these like babies.

The skin should have bright color and a good metallic luster. If the scales are still on, you want them really on, not flaking and falling off. You want the flesh to be bright and vivid, but bear in mind that the color of a king salmon’s flesh depends on its diet, and it can range from ivory to creamy, pastel orange to nearly red. Finally, smell the fish. That will be the giveaway — a clean, briny smell of fresh ocean, not, as Greg says, “Like a fish that washed up on the beach.”

Ideal preparation: Greg says, “I’m not really a poached salmon kind of guy, but king is great for that. I like to get a good crust on it, on a grill or in a pan, to get a good sear on it but keep that medium-rare interior. I never like to lose sight of the taste of the fish. The way I cook it at home is to marinate it in a little bit of soy sauce and hot sauce for an hour or two. I blot it dry, brush it with oil, and char it on a wicked hot grill, leaving it pretty rare in the middle. Or in a pan, I salt and pepper it, get a little bit of oil hot enough to almost smoke, and sear the skin just enough to crisp it, flip, and finish in a medium-hot oven for a few minutes at most. At home, I don’t think it really needs any sauce, but of course people expect one at the restaurant.”

Sockeye salmon (aka red)

Characteristics: My personal favorite, sockeye is the darkest, most vibrant red of any salmon — the color is utterly striking. It is quite a bit leaner than what many people are accustomed to, but is has a distinct depth and concentrated flavor many chefs love. Raw or very gently cooked, it has a clean, briny, grassy, mineral quality, like the ocean, as people say of oysters. When cooked a little more, it has a satisfying, meaty chew, but it does tend to dry out if overcooked. Sockeye was long a canning and smoking fish, but lately processors have been focusing on bringing well-handled, high-quality fillets to market.

What to look for: Greg loves sockeye, but notes that the way it is often fished (in short, intense runs) leads to fish that isn’t always handled with utmost care. Look, as mentioned above, for shiny skin and neat scales and for flesh that isn’t torn or separated, but keep in mind that sockeye tends to get battered a little more, and it tears pretty easily anyway. You just don’t want it to be out of control. When you press a finger into the flesh, it should feel firm and want to bounce back. Look for flesh with really bright color, from blood-orange tones to nearly brick red, and again, for a clean, ocean smell.

Ideal preparation: With sockeye, you want to highlight the flavor and preserve its sleek tenderness, so be careful not to cook it on too high a heat — that would dry it out and get it tough in an instant. Instead, if you’re searing in a pan, let the oil be just at the point where it’s shimmery and wavy, not smoking; or opt for a slow roast at 275-300 degrees; or grill it on a cooler grill. It doesn’t take much cooking, and you want it pretty rare to medium rare. Or you can go in the opposite direction and barely firm it up. Greg suggests a warm oil poach: Season the fish with salt and pepper and slip it into a pan of oil (olive, or whatever you like) that’s at 160 degrees. Pull the fish out as soon as it firms up a bit and is warmed through. Incidentally, he also really loves sweetness with this fish, so a marinade withf some sugar is particularly lovely.

Coho (aka silver)

Characteristics: Once highly prized, Coho salmon has fallen out of favor partially because it has been so overfished that it’s not abundant generally and because the fad for king really took over. Coho is milder in flavor than king, but has good oil content, with a lighter-colored flesh.

What to look for: See above for king salmon

Ideal preparation: With flesh somewhat more delicate than king salmon and with smaller fillets, coho is interchangeable with king so long as you cook it at a slightly cooler temperature. It’s a great fish for curing – gravlax or smoking.

 

Chum salmon (aka keta or dogs)

Pink salmon (aka hump)

Characteristics: Both chum and pinks are really primarily canning fish, so it’s hard to find them in fillet form. Greg is quite fond of pink salmon, whose flesh is delicious and complex, but which also spoils easily and ships poorly. And Mark Canlis, of the Seattle landmark restaurant Canlis, sent me an interesting e-mail on chum :

Many of the issues around salmon are that everyone wants the same species. Worse, they want the same species from the same rivers, thus creating massive strain. Keta, also known as chum (its sex-appeal-less other name) is sometimes garbage, sometimes brilliant. From the Yukon River, it’s spectacular: fat levels that nearly double that of a Copper River king. There’s the added benefit that eating one supports the Yu’pik Eskimos, North America’s longest lived indigenous tribe.

 Finally, a note on sustainability: When I spoke with Greg, who is a deeply knowledgeable advocate for sustainable food and a founder of the Chefs Collaborative, he told me a story:

I was once at a brainstorming session on sustainability. The guy across the table was a scientist who worked for a great shellfish company. He said, “What’s on my mind is why people in the Northwest continue putting wild salmon on their menus. In some cases it’s an endangered species. I cook wild salmon at home. But chefs doing it is putting too much pressure on the species.”

My take is that if we didn’t feature it, it’d be out of sight, out of mind, and we’ll stop spending money on protecting salmon habitat, which is an even greater threat to these fish. But here’s a guy who’s a scientist, who knows his stuff, and that’s his thinking. There are all kinds of choices you can make, and there are values attached to them. The reality is that you have to make those choices.

Of course, it’s hard to have to consider every meal you order and every trip to the market for all the ramifications. Especially since, as Greg and Mark mentioned, it’s not just the variety of salmon you choose that matters, but where and how it’s fished — and that information isn’t always readily available.

But there are resources for people who are interested in doing it as right as possible. Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch is a really respected source of information on what fish are great choices — and it provides handy printout cards for you to keep with you when going shopping. Ecotrust’s Salmon Nation is a great website for information on Pacific salmon in particular.

And it doesn’t stop with your own choices. As Greg said, “What really helps is having consumers go in and drive the decisions of the sellers. Ask about what you’re buying at markets. This bottom-up way of driving demand in sales is a lot more powerful than people think. The whole idea of these seafood watch cards is changing how fish is sold dramatically. It used to be that chefs were terrified of them, but they’re a lot more comfortable with them now, and they’re becoming more accountable to their customers’ demands.”

Silky marinated salmon

One of Greg Higgins’ favorite ways to treat great salmon, this simple, quick method gives the fish a luxurious texture, flavor and acidity to balance the richness, like a light ceviche.

Ingredients

  • About 2-3 ounces of salmon per person as an appetizer
  • Lime juice, as needed
  • Extra virgin olive oil, as needed
  • Salt, to taste
  • Green chiles, minced, to taste (optional)
  • Horseradish, grated, to taste (optional)
  • Dill, chopped, to taste (optional)
  • Pink peppercorns, ground, to taste (optional)
  • Shallots, minced, to taste(optional)

Directions

  1. Cut salmon into 1/4- to 1/8-inch strips. Set them in a bowl just a little bigger than you need to hold them. Season with salt and toss lightly.
  2. Combine olive oil and lime juice in a ratio of 2 parts of oil to 1 part lime, enough to cover the fish in the bowl. Heat the mixture with any of the optional flavorings to 110 degrees. Whisk together as much as possible, and stir into salmon mixture.
  3. Let salmon marinate in the warm liquid for 15 to 20 minutes. The heat won’t cook it, but will speed up the marinade’s penetration into the fish. Remove fish from marinade and serve immediately with salad greens, toasts, or however you’d like. Or leave the fish in the marinade for a few hours or overnight for a more traditional ceviche effect.

Seared sockeye salmon with watermelon salad

Serves 4

Some dishes are so ridiculously simple it’s a little stretch to even give a recipe for them, but this is something I put together this summer that made me very, very happy. As Greg noted above, sockeye goes particularly well with a little sugar, and the melon and basil give the lovely, minerally fish a crisp, aromatic, sweet foil.

Ingredients

  • 4 6-ounce sockeye salmon fillets
  • 2 pounds of watermelon, cubed
  • 6-8 leaves basil, sliced into thin ribbons
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Olive oil, to taste,
  • White wine vinegar, to taste
  • Splash of oil of your choice, for searing

Directions

  1. In a big bowl, toss the watermelon and basil with a few generous pinches of salt, enough to make you realize there’s salt in there, but not enough to make it taste salty. The salt will draw out a fair bit of juice from the melon and firm up its texture. Let this marinate for at least 20 minutes at room temperature. No harm if it’s out longer than that.
  2. When you’re ready to eat, splash a little bit of olive oil on the salad, just enough to create a roundness in the flavor. Give it a taste. If it’s nice but you feel like it could use a little more perkiness, splash on a little vinegar, too.
  3. Lay the salmon fillets out on a couple of thicknesses of paper towel skin-side down, and cover the other side with paper towel as well. This draws moisture away from the surface and will let the skin crisp nicely.
  4. Select a pan – if you have one that will fit all the fillets comfortably with no bunching, great! If not, use two pans, or cook them in batches. Generously season the skin-side of the fish with salt and pepper. Heat the pan over medium high heat with a splash of oil, just enough to coat. Swirl it. When the oil is at the “wavy” shimmery stage, lay in the fish skin-side down and gently press on the fillets with your hand or a spatula to keep them from bowing. Keep pressing until the skin has set and they can lie flat on their own. Salt and pepper the flesh side while the skin is cooking.
  5. After 2 or 3 minutes, take a peek at the skin; if it’s a little golden and crisp, flip the fillets and cook for another 2 or 3 minutes. You want sockeye to stay pretty rare to medium rare, so check on the doneness either by cutting into it (should still be glossy looking but not, you know, cold), or poke at it with your finger. It should have a firmness somewhere between your earlobe (raw/rare) and the tip of your nose (medium/medium well done).
  6. Serve the fish immediately, skin-side up, with the salad alongside; the juices from the salad will run off and become something of a sauce for the salmon.

Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.

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