Finally, we can start grilling, pan-searing, steaming and poaching wild salmon again. After its annual winter hiatus, wild salmon are running, and the freshly caught fish are already showing up in area stores. Lucky us.
Unless you’ve been living in a cave, then you already know that nutrient-dense wild salmon is considered one of the most healthful foods around — it’s loaded with heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, lots of the B vitamins and vitamin D. Right now, and until the season ends in November, wild salmon is abundant and available.
But what are the differences among the three main species of wild salmon we eat — Chinook, sockeye and Copper River? That question alone is why most of us are confused about wild salmon.
Chinook is another name for king salmon. A sockeye is also known as a red, and Copper River? Well, that’s not a type of salmon; rather, it’s where a salmon — be it king, sockeye or coho — was swimming upstream when it was caught.
If salmon is not clearly identified, it’s best to ask about its origins. Because there’s not a uniform labeling system for salmon in the U.S. — where it is sometimes identified by the river of origin rather than the species — knowing exactly what you’re buying can be tricky.
To clear things up, here’s a little wild salmon 101 from Jon Alexis, owner of TJ’s Seafood Market in Dallas:
“Everyone knows the story — when it’s time to spawn, wild salmon return to their birth river, go against the current, then lay their eggs at the mouth of the river. When that river’s water temperature is ideal for spawning [it differs based on latitude, snow melt, etc., which is why they don’t all run at the same time], the salmon gather at the mouth of the river to spawn.
“Each river is different. Take the two most famous salmon rivers. The Copper [in Alaska] is 300 miles long, full of white water rapids and a mile climb in elevation. The Columbia [in the Pacific Northwest] is 1,200 miles long and flat the whole way. These are two totally different physical challenges, so comparing their salmon is a little like comparing an NFL linebacker to an Olympic marathon runner. Both are in peak shape but built for different feats. Salmon are perfectly engineered for their rivers. The tougher the river, the better the salmon.”
The differences among king, sockeye, and coho?
King salmon is considered the best and most desirable. It’s the fattiest, richest and tastiest of the bunch, and the first wild salmon of the season. The white stripes you see in this salmon are the layers of fat — and this is a good thing — and it’s how the wild salmon stays so moist and tender when it’s cooked. King is available right now.
Summertime means sockeye, a bright red salmon that is much smaller and thinner than king salmon and has less fat and creaminess. Its flesh is more delicate than the king’s, but it is packed with flavor.
Coho has the least-strong flavor of the three. Even those who say they aren’t fans of salmon may like it because of its super-mild flavor. It is available in the fall.
King from Alaska’s Copper River will be available usually middle of May to mid-June, and sockeye will continue through the summer. Kings and sockeyes from other Alaskan rivers and from the Columbia River start to appear in the summer. Kings end late summer/early fall, and sockeyes continue to run after the kings stop.
Now a few tips on cooking wild salmon. First, because it can be so rich, you’ll want to cut back on portion size, which also helps with the food budget. I usually serve a 4- to 4 1/2-ounce portion.
Second, fish is meant to be cooked medium. (“Picture a steak. Now picture what a medium steak looks like. It’s not well-done and it’s not bloody raw,” says Alexis.) Still unsure about when it’s done? Shoot for an internal temperature of 140 to 145 degrees.
Third, salmon doesn’t need much help. A little salt and pepper and onto the grill is the way to go. Be sure to leave the skin on, let it crisp and serve the salmon skin-side up.