Nutritionists tout salmon for its health benefits. But what else is there to know about this popular protein? There are several different types, cuts, and ways to cook it.
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Salmon is mild and mostly neutral in flavor, but it packs heavy punches in the health department. Swap out red meat for salmon a few nights a week and you’ll be wracking up omega 3s, B vitamins, antioxidants, potassium, and even selenium which benefits your bone health. Plus, it doesn’t take long to cook, whether you bake, grill, or pan-fry it.
The first thing to know about the different types of salmon is that they come from both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and salmon can be farm-raised or wild-caught. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, salmon is mostly wild-caught in Alaska, Washington, and Oregon from the Pacific ocean. But because Atlantic salmon is endangered, it’s almost predominantly farmed-raised. So beyond that, what are the different types?
Also known as king salmon, it’s the largest type of salmon from the pacific [source]. It comes primarily from Alaska. While it’s becoming more scarce, fishermen also harvest king salmon from California’s coast [source]. The flesh color varies from white to red. Because it’s high in fat, it’s considered top-shelf and rich in flavor (often described as nutty). In other words, it’s the good stuff.
Also called silver salmon because of the skin color. Silver as it may be, the flesh is bright red. It may not be quite as sturdy and hearty as king salmon, more delicate in texture, but it’s still delicious. Because it has a little less fat than king salmon, it also has a more mild fish flavor.
Also known as red salmon because of it’s bright red-orange flesh, sockeye salmon has the fishiest scent and flavor of all the types of salmon. It’s usually leaner than both king salmon and silver salmon. And it costs less, too.
Pink salmon is also referred to as humpback salmon (that’s right, the name isn’t just for whales). It’s much lighter than other types of salmon, more of a pale pink than bright red. It’s mostly used to produce canned salmon products, but it can be eaten as filets as well. It’s lean and has a mild flavor.
Salmo salmon is also known as Atlantic salmon, but fishermen are no longer allowed to commercially fish for it. Everything you see in stores or restaurants with the label “Atlantic salmon” is farm-raised. While the practice has been criticized as unsustainable in the past, it just depends on where it comes from. Salmon farmers have been working to reduce the environmental impact and become more sustainable.
Chum salmon, also known as keto or silverbite, is underrated in the salmon world. It’s a smaller breed with less fat. They’re a lighter, pale color so it may not look as appealing in the case as say, sockeye salmon. For that reason, it’s often canned as well. But it’s best known for the roe, which is fish eggs found in the salmon’s belly. More fishermen are also starting to process chum filets, but it’s not as common.
This is farm-raised Atlantic salmon. With high-fat content, it has a rich flavor and buttery texture. It may taste delicious, but it’s not always sustainable. Read labels and track down where exactly it comes from to make sure it was sustainably farmed.
Wild Alaskan salmon
This isn’t actually a type of salmon; it can include any breed of salmon that was wild-caught, rather than farm-raised, in Alaska. The three popular types of wild Alaskan salmon are king salmon (chinook salmon), silverbite (chum salmon), and sockeye salmon (red salmon).
Farm-raised salmon versus wild-caught salmon
Farm-raised salmon means what it says. It wasn’t raised in the wild and caught but rather through an aquatic farming operation. Wild-caught salmon means that fishermen had to physically go out on boats to fish for your catch of the day in its natural habitat.
The latter tends to result in healthier, happier fish with more nutrients. However, once again, that just depends on the individual farming operation and their practices. Unsustainable practices may involve pesticides, antibiotics, crowded environments, and other chemicals. But not all salmon farming operations operate that way.
Meanwhile, not all wild-caught salmon are treated equally either. Troll-caught salmon is considered the best of the best. It means the fisherman caught each salmon individually with a traditional hook and line method and then immediately put it on ice to preserve freshness.
When it comes to farm-raised salmon, there was likely color added. Producers feed farm-raised salmon pigmenting agents (most often the natural carotenoid astaxanthin) to give it the same pink color that wild-caught salmon acquire in the wild through their diet [source]. It’s a common practice — sometimes the additive is still natural, other times it’s not. Again, ask questions. Do your research.
Fresh salmon versus frozen salmon
When you see fresh salmon in the case at your supermarket, it can be misleading. Truly fresh salmon means it was never frozen. But salmon that was flash-frozen right after it was caught to preserve freshness, and then shipped to a store to be defrosted and sold, is also sometimes marketed as fresh salmon. It’s not a lie; it’s just not the whole truth.
There’s also sushi-grade salmon which is flash-frozen in order to prevent harmful bacteria and kill parasites so that it’s safe to consume raw. All in all, if you can get truly fresh fish from a local market or fisherman, it’s a great way to support the small guys and ensure the best quality. Otherwise, there’s a good chance your salmon was frozen in some capacity.
At large chain stores, some people will argue it’s actually safer to buy the frozen salmon than what you see in the case because you can control when you defrost it — it’s less vulnerable to bacteria, assuming you properly defrost it at home. There’s also an argument for sustainably farmed salmon that’s been frozen over unsustainably farmed salmon in the case. It comes down to asking questions and reading labels.
According to the FDA, if you do buy fresh salmon, you can store it in the refrigerator for up to two days at 40 degrees [source]. After that, get it in the freezer if you don’t plan to cook it. Once frozen, the safest way to thaw salmon is in the refrigerator overnight. To thaw quicker, seal it in a plastic bag, and place it in cold water.
Cuts of salmon
- The whole filet: This will include the top loin, loin, belly, second cut, and sometimes the tail. The whole filet is also called “the side.”
- Salmon filets: These are cut from the whole filet and are smaller, rectangular slices from the whole side.
- Salmon steaks: This is when the two sides of salmon are still intact as one (resembles the original shape of the fish), and then it’s sliced into steaks. It results in more of a u-shape than a rectangular filet.
Can you eat salmon skin?
Yes, it has a lot of the same nutrients (proteins and omega fatty acids) that the flesh does. It actually has the highest concentration of omega-3s of any part of the fish, according to Healthline [source]. It will crisp up nicely when you pan-roast, pan-fry or grill your salmon.
Ways to cook salmon
Like most other animal proteins, you can grill salmon or bake salmon. Those tend to be the most popular choices. But you can also broil it to get it a little crispy and carmelized (which is great for any sauces or marinades you may be using). Lastly, salmon can also be roasted or pan-fried.