Salmon is one of the most popular fish in the US thanks to its light flavor that complements most vegetables and sides, low calorie count and wealth of lean protein and antioxidants. Its full-flavored flesh—which is sturdier than white fish—also makes it perfect for grilling.
With salmon season in full swing, local grocery stores and supermarkets are stocked to the gills (pun intended) with all kinds of options with labels claiming it to be “GMO-free”, “sustainable”, “line-caught”, “organic farmed” and so on.
To help you navigate the seafood section and make the most of your salmon meal, two fishing pros give the lowdown on how to choose the best salmon, where to find it and the best ways to prepare it:
#1 Know your salmon
There are two types of salmon based on their native habitat—wild-caught and farm-raised.
Farm-raised salmon are hatched, raised and harvested in tanks or fish pens. Meanwhile, wild-caught salmon, as the term suggests, refers to any salmon that is caught in natural environments like freshwater streams, lakes, rivers and oceans.
The North American waters are home to five kinds of salmon—chinook or king, chum, coho, pink and sockeye. These are harvested by fishermen from the Pacific Ocean during the summer months.
“Wild salmon have a stronger fish flavor because their diet consists mainly of other fish, shellfish and marine organisms,” says Sebastian Goycoolea, CEO of BluGlacier and Oshen Salmon. They are also softer and leaner so they grill faster and break more easily, he adds.
“If you have multiple options, you can make your choice based on how you intend to cook it,” suggests Hannah Heimbuch, a third-generation commercial salmon fisherman from Alaska who specializes in sustainable fishing practices.
The most popular variety is sockeye salmon, also called red salmon because of its beautiful deep red color. “It has a rich salmon flavor and is fantastic prepared simply with some herbs on the grill or roasted in the oven,” says Heimbuch.
Then there’s Coho salmon which is known for its orange-red flesh, delicate flavor and firm texture. “Coho is lovely paired with a flavorful sauce of your choice,” notes Heimbuch.
Next is pink salmon—a versatile and lean option with a light flavor which Heimbuch recommends for chowders.
King salmon is the largest of the species and is known for its rich succulent flavor and meatier texture. “This is because of its slightly higher omega-3 fat content,” Heimbuch explains. “I love to pan-sear a king fillet and get a nice crispy skin,” she adds.
Farmed salmon, on the other hand, have a milder taste. In addition, they are more fatty, firm and less prone to overcooking—so they can withstand rough handling better, notes Goycoolea.
#2 Check if it’s really fresh and sustainable
“Whether you go for wild or farmed salmon, look for responsibly managed fisheries that minimize their ecological impact,” suggests Goycoolea.
Always ask for specifics, the more information you have the better, says Heimbuch. The fishmonger at the fish counter should be able to tell you exactly how and where the fish was caught, says the fishing expert.
Ideally, the flesh should be vibrant and moist. It should also be able to snap back in shape when you press it with your finger. Plus, it shouldn’t smell fishy. If you’re buying a whole fish, make sure it has clear and bright eyes with dark pupils.
“Avoid anything that looks dried out or has brown spots or bruising,” Heimbuch suggests.
In the case of wild-caught salmon, an easy way to know you are buying the best sustainable fish is simply to choose salmon from Alaska, since all seafood out of the state is guaranteed wild and sustainable, says Heimbuch. “The State constitution mandates that all fish be harvested sustainably. You can also look for third-party sustainability certification labels like Alaska’s Responsible Fisheries Management (RFM) or Marine Stewardship Council (MSC),” she suggests.
#3 Buy during the harvesting season
“The best time to buy fresh seafood is during the harvesting seasons,” says Heimbuch. Wild salmon is a summer fish—so its harvesting season starts from mid-May through fall, she adds.
You can also check out frozen sustainably-sourced salmon, suggests Heimbuch. It’s often labeled as “flash frozen” or “once frozen.” “In Alaska, much of our catch is frozen right after it comes out of the water to lock in quality and preserve freshness,” explains the commercial fisherman. So if the seafood counter doesn’t have what you’re looking for, you can always check the freezer case—you’ll still be getting the same sustainable, high-quality fish, she adds.
#4 Choose the cut based on your cooking requirement
Salmon fillets are the most commonly available option at stores and supermarkets.
They are basically smaller portions of a side of the fish. Fillets are the most versatile cut and the easiest to work with.
The meatier fillets on each side of the backbone work great for smoking. It’s better if the portion has scales intact—makes it easier to flip and remove the fish from the grill as they help the skin bond more firmly to the flesh.
If you’re preparing it for a big crowd, look for a whole side of salmon which is a larger cut that typically weighs around four to five pounds. Or, you could buy a whole salmon which includes both sides of the fish, including the head, tail, scales and pin bones.
Salmon sides are perfect for broiling and grilling while the whole salmon is ideal for roasting and baking in foil.
For a hearty and sophisticated meal, try salmon steaks. These are crosswise cuts that include both sides of the fish with a piece of the backbone in the center. Because of their even thickness, salmon steaks are ideal for grilling. They do however require a few extra minutes of prepping before cooking as they come with the bones intact.
#5 Store it right
Whether you buy fresh or frozen, it’s best to take the fish out of its packaging, rinse it thoroughly with cold water and pat it dry with a paper towel before putting it away.
Fresh salmon can be stored in the freezer for up to three months. Store the fish in labeled Ziploc or vacuum-sealed bags. To separate them quickly after defrosting, wrap the fillets and steaks individually in wax paper before putting them in a sealable bag.
When you decide to cook it, move the fish to the refrigerator the night before. It’s best to consume the fish within two days of thawing.
The Best Ways To Cook Salmon:
Whichever technique you choose to prepare your salmon, start by rinsing the fish with cold water and bringing it to room temperature. Pat completely dry before cooking to make it less likely to stick to the grill or pan.
- Grilling: If you want to grill it, Goycoolea recommends leaving the skin on as it protects the fish and helps hold the meat together. “I use maple syrup or honey on my salmon. It caramelizes and adds a nice sweetness. I also add dry rubs or crushed fresh herbs,” he shares. Any seasoning is fine or you can skip it altogether as the grill adds its own flavor, notes Goycoolea.To prep the grill, scrape it down to make sure it’s completely clean. Use olive oil spray to ensure good slip when flipping, Goycoolea suggests. “I start with high heat and sear the meat side until it’s about 1/4 cooked—this takes less than two minutes. Then flip the fillet, turn the heat down, close the grill lid and cook the fillet on indirect heat until the salmon starts to flake where it is thin at the tail,” he explains. “The belly and the tail will be well done. The crown and shoulders of the fillet will be less cooked for those who like medium-rare salmon,” adds Goycoolea. [Pro tip: To avoid sticking, move the salmon around a little right after you put it on the grill. “It sears quickly and this little shift breaks the bond so that it can be easily moved again later,” notes Goycoolea.]
- Pan-searing: This is one of the easiest ways to cook salmon. Heat oil or butter in a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Once the fish is completely pat dried, season it with salt and pepper and carefully put it in the pan, skin-side down. Make sure the pan is hot enough to achieve a good sear before adding the salmon. Cook for three to four minutes over medium-high heat before flipping the fish and cooking for another three to four minutes or until it gets that delicious crispy exterior.
- Pan-frying: Another quick and easy method to cook salmon is pan-frying. Simply season the fish with salt and pepper and cook the fillet in oil or butter over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes on each side or until done.
- Baking: For baked or oven-roasted salmon, preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Season the salmon fillets with salt and pepper or herbs and spices of your choice. Place the fillets skin-side down on a lightly greased sheet pan or a non-stick baking sheet. Bake until the fish is nicely cooked through, for roughly 12 to 15 minutes. Add a dash of lemon juice and a sprinkle of freshly chopped herbs. You can pair it with grilled, baked or steamed veggies of your choice for an easy and healthy weeknight meal.
- Poaching: Poached salmon is a light and healthy dish that pairs well with roasted veggies or whole grains like brown rice or quinoa. For a simple poached salmon, add water to a deep non-stick skillet and put it over medium-high heat. Carefully place the salmon fillets, skin-side down, in the water and season with salt, pepper and other herbs and spices of your choice. The water should be just enough to cover the fish. Bring to a slow boil. Cover the lid and reduce heat to a gentle simmer until the salmon is firm and cooked through (for about six to eight minutes for leaner cuts and 15 to 20 minutes for thicker fillets).
- Broiling: This is a trickier way to cook salmon in the oven that requires constant monitoring to avoid overcooking. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees F for about five minutes with the cooking rack about six inches from the heating element at the top. Brush the fillets with oil or butter and sprinkle salt and pepper as desired. Place the fillets, skin-side down, in an aluminum foil-lined baking dish or an oven-proof skillet. Broil for 8-10 minutes or until lightly browned. Check the progress closely to avoid dry, overcooked or blackened flesh.