The Smart Cook's Guide to Salmon
Here's what you need to know and look for when buying this healthy, versatile fish. Plus, we share our best tips on cooking salmon at home.
Salmon manages to exist between two worlds in that it is both deliciously fatty, and all of that fat happens to be really good for you, too. This is because its oil is high in omega-3 fatty acids—an essential nutrient our bodies can't produce—which contributes to a long list of health benefits that encompass both beauty and brains: think glowing skin, shiny hair, less stress, and better memory. What a catch.
At the fish counter, the distinctive pink color of the salmon certainly stands out among the rows of silvery white pieces of cod or haddock, but choosing your fillet isn't quite as simple as shooting fish in a barrel, so to speak. When it comes to salmon, there are a few things you need to know before you buy.
Wild Versus Farmed
Most wild salmon are members of the Pacific species, with five major types: king (also called chinook), coho, pink, chum, and sockeye. Given that it is wild, it should be no surprise that this type of salmon has more variation than farm-raised. Everything from leanness, color, and flavor can differ depending on the season and the species—and that's not a bad thing. Farm-raised salmon, which makes up 75 percent, is a little like the wild west of aquaculture right now—meaning sustainable fishing practices are more the exception than the rule, and many do not meet the standards called for by nonprofit organizations like the Aquaculture Stewardship Council and the Marine Stewardship Council.
This issue is complex and ever evolving, but here's the deal for right now: If your budget allows, choose wild salmon from fisheries that prioritize a stable, growing fish population over harmful practices like over-fishing. Alaska, for instance, is a state that has balanced productivity and conservation with great success. When you shop for farmed salmon, shop your values by purchasing fish from responsibly-managed farms, like ones found in Maine or Canada's British Columbia region; avoid salmon produced in Chile or Canada's Atlantic region. For more specifics, consult Seafood Watch from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It's a great resource to bookmark.
Fresh or Frozen?
At the seafood counter, look for fresh salmon that appears bright and firm, with little to no odor to it (except for a pleasant brininess). Salmon is sturdy enough to withstand a deep freeze, so unless you have a fishmonger who gets a daily catch, the freshest option is in the freezer aisle. This is because the fish is frozen almost as soon as it is caught, preserving its fantastic flavor and making all five types of wild salmon species available year-round. Another bonus? There's no need to even thaw before cooking!
Salmon's buttery taste and firm texture make it an incredibly versatile fish to play around with in terms of flavor profile, and it does well with almost every cooking technique in the book: Fast and hot or slow and low, salmon is a resilient (and forgiving) piece of fish no matter how you prepare it. All those reasons—plus its many health benefits—are probably why there are about a million different salmon recipes out there.
Depending on the season, you may want to stay out of a hot kitchen. With a few tips and a good recipe in hand, you can grill this fish like a pro. Our personal favorite way to make salmon on the grill is with the cedar plank; it imparts a delicious hot-smoked flavor while keeping it incredibly moist, all with little to no effort involved. For those who love the flavor of pure salmon, baking in parchment is a surefire way to get moist, perfectly cooked fish every time. Poaching is another technique, albeit an old-school one, that lets the flavor of salmon shine through: This recipe gently poaches the salmon in a delicate broth of leeks and sliced lemon. Make it the night before for a brunch and serve it chilled, with a punchy, vibrant sauce on the side.
If you or any of your dinner guests are still iffy on the taste of seafood in general, there's still a salmon recipe out there to meet your needs. What those who are still undecided will need to be convinced that salmon is the king of fish is a bold glaze, piquant rub, or bright and sharp sauce to douse on their fish. Don't worry—the salmon can definitely take the heat. Lastly, there's no need to eat the leftovers the same way you had them the night before. Transform leftover cooked salmon into one of these easy recipes: fold it into cream cheese and aromatics for a delicious dip, pair it with assertive broccoli rabe and garlic in this hearty pasta, or form them into these delicate and crispy cakes.