Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
At a glance, wild-caught and farmed salmon may look similar, but they are actually very different. Wild-caught salmon is brilliantly pink or orange, firm and meaty while also imbibed with a rich, buttery flavor in contrast to the farmed variety’s dulled pink or gray color, softer texture and milder flavor due to a confined life in pens.
But better flavor and texture isn’t the only reason to put wild salmon on your shopping list. It also has advantages when it comes to sustainability and nutrition (yes, with its high content of anti-inflammatory omega-3s, we consider wild salmon worthy of the title of superfood). Read on to learn why you should consider switching to wild salmon, how to select and store it as well as how to cook it for great results every time.
The sustainable choice
Wild salmon is caught in the wilds of the oceans, where fisherfolk take out boats and catch fish in their natural habitat. Farm-raised or aquaculture, on the other hand, is the practice of raising fish in an aquatic farming operation from net cages hanging in the water near the ocean shore or in enclosed pens. While the cheaper option, farmed salmon raises concerns about the harmful organisms that migrate from pens to the open seas and wild fish.
Wild salmon is the foundation to the earth’s river ecosystems, and it’s a delicate symbiotic chain: Salmon runs pump nutrients into rivers that eventually flow into the ocean and their spawning creates nitrogen that aids in healthy tree growth. You’re also supporting an economy filled with fisherfolk and businesses dedicated to maintaining the wild salmon population for the environment and they’re legally enforced by caps to prevent overfishing, meaning each fish boat is monitored as to how many fish each is allowed to catch.
Farmed salmon is available year-round and responsible for over 90% of the salmon sales in North America. However, wild salmon is also widely available – you just have to know where, and when, to look for it.
A good number of wild salmon is harvested in late May and June and runs through to the end of September. There are many available species and varying price points ranging from the luxe river king salmon to the economical pink salmon. If you’re missing wild salmon outside the season, look to frozen Alaskan salmon, canned or pouched in your local supermarkets. With advanced food and freezing technology, we are spoiled for choice.
Types of Wild Salmon
There are five major species of wild salmon found in North America. While there are minor differences in texture, color and flavor, they’re all equally delicious and can be enjoyed grilled, pan fried, roasted, broiled or poached. Get to know the varieties of wild salmon below.
The most common in our markets and the most abundant of all the species, pink salmon also happens to be the smallest, averaging three to five pounds. Rosy pink with a tender texture, it has a high fat content and is often smoked or canned and commonly frozen for consumption.
Sockeye (red salmon)
A top species in our fish aisle and a major symbol in the First Nations culture, sockeye is a smaller salmon ranging from five to 12 pounds and sought after for its firm, rich orange texture and robust flavor.
Prized for its sheer size with an average weight of 30 pounds to a whopping 100 pounds, king salmon continues to win with a luxuriously high fat content.
The second largest after the king salmon ranging from 12 to 15 pounds, keta (or chum) salmon is an important food staple of Japan. It is preferred for its mild taste and tender texture over other wild salmon species. Its low oil content also makes it ideal for smoking, a skill among coastal First Nations.
Coho (silver salmon)
Acrobatic and hard to catch, coho is a fatty salmon that runs from eight to 12 pounds and is considered exceptionally tasty because of this species’ gluttonous nature as young adults.
Cuts of Wild Salmon
A salmon side can range from three to five pounds and is a single fillet that’s the length of the fish. The preferred method of cooking is broiling or roasting.
A single portion cut from a whole side ranging from six to eight ounces. Salmon fillets are incredibly versatile. You can grill, roast, broil, poach or pan-fry them.
A single portion cut perpendicular to the spine that include skin and bones ranging from eight to 10 ounces. Salmon steaks work best on the grill or pan-fried.
How to select
Confused or overwhelmed at the fish counter and not sure how to choose the freshest fish? We’ve got you covered with a few simple rules.
Choose a good quality fish market or fish counter with knowledgeable salespeople who handle the fish with care and establish a relationship. The display should be clean and packed with crushed ice to maintain freshness.
Buy fish the same day you are going to cook it for the best quality and flavor.
Your nose knows! All fresh seafood should not smell strongly “fishy” but rather, of the sea. If it smells funky, then move on.
When buying fillets and steaks, you want tight flesh with no gaps between the layers. This would be a sign of rough handling or deterioration. There should be no bruising or discoloration.
When buying a whole wild salmon, look for shiny firm skin (it should spring back when pressed), full and firm eyes (avoiding sunken or red eyes), the gills should be bright pink or red (not gray or brown) and the scales should be shiny with a metallic luster.
Don’t be afraid of frozen wild salmon, it’s been vacuum-sealed and look for the label indicating it was flash-frozen after harvest and it will taste just as fresh.
Ask your fishmonger to clean your whole wild salmon (gut and scale), it’s a messy job.
Ask for your fish to be packed with a separate bag of crushed ice to keep it ice cold. Whole fish can stored like this for two days, fillets and steaks for one to two days. Alternatively, place your fish in a resealable bag on ice in a bowl or place in a casserole dish and cover it with ice packs and place in the coldest part of your refrigerator.
Fish with benefits
Just like mom told us, fish is serious brain food. Wild salmon is a nutrition powerhouse. It’s high in protein, rich in B vitamins and abundant in omega-3 fatty acids that assist our cognitive operations like learning, memory and attention. Several studies have shown that omega-3 fats help protect the brain from developmental disorders, depression, cognitive decline and dementia while reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease in adults. It’s also a key nutrient for a healthy nervous system, brain and heart health development. And while farmed salmon is a source of omega-3 fats, the levels vary depending on the feed. Farmed salmon may also contain higher levels of PCBs, dioxins, chlorinated pesticides and other toxins making wild-caught salmon the better choice.
- Before cooking, run your fingers up and down the center of the fillet to find pin bones. (Pin bones are the flexible bones that run down the length of the fillet).
- To find the hidden pin bones, drape the fillet over an inverted mixing bowl. The curved shape will force the pin bones to pop out. Use fish tweezers to gently pull out in the direction it lies to prevent tearing the flesh.
- A rule of thumb is to cook salmon 8 to 10 minutes per 1-inch of thickness. This rule applies to all cooking methods. Remember, wild salmon is leaner than farm-raised. This means it will overcook quickly, and it will continue to cook after leaving the pan.
- To grill or not to grill? Heat the grate well, clean with a stiff brush then oil a few times to prevent sticking.
- When grilling a whole wild salmon or side of salmon, measure your grate and make sure it can accommodate with enough room when you roll and flip.
- Don’t hesitate to grill wild salmon, the fat content helps to stand up to the high heat. It bastes from the inside out and prevents drying.
Put your new knowledge into practice with our gorgeous wild salmon recipes. Try our Miso Wild Sesame Salmon Steaks with Fennel Citrus Salad and Wild Salmon Side with Lemony Dill Dressing.
Also check out Chef Nathan Lyon’s guide and video on How to find Sustainable Seafood.