Real Food Encyclopedia | Salmon

There is perhaps no fish more prized, beloved, revered, fought over — or exploited — than salmon. Salmon is an ancient creature with tens of millions of years on its resume, sustaining civilizations throughout the ages. But in just the past hundred-plus years, this majestic elder of the sea has been taken for granted, then exploited, depleted and endangered. It’s been forced out of the wild and thrust into manmade feedlot-size pens, genetically modified and dammed from traveling upstream. But the most incredible thing is that even when it’s been pushed to the most unthinkable limits, the salmon continues to show up. Actually, it needs very little from humans — just a cold, clean place to live, commute and make babies.

Pacific wild salmon are caught one of three ways: Gill netting, which uses vast nets in a curtain fashion, either on the seafloor or floating on the surface, which the fish swim into; purse seine, a circular net, in which the bottom of the netting is closed, like a drawstring purse, to capture the fish; and trolling, a type of hook-and-line method in which multiple hooks are towed behind a boat.

The Atlantic salmon, once abundant in nearly every river north of the Hudson, has been disappearing from North American waters. In 2000, the salmon population in the Gulf of Maine was listed as an endangered species. There is a federal ban on commercial fishing for all wild Atlantic salmon in US waters. Translation: If you’ve been buying “Atlantic salmon” at the fish counter, you’ve been buying farmed salmon. Aquaculture has become the default method of raising “Atlantic salmon” both in this country and abroad; 70 percent of the world’s salmon harvest is now farmed.

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Fun Facts about Salmon:

  • In 1962, Alaska recognized the king salmon as the official state fish.
  • Just 30-some years ago, nobody in the lower 48 knew about Copper River king salmon, which was either frozen and sent to Japan or processed into cans. These days, the Copper River — located in south-central Alaska — is arguably the most widely recognized terroir among wild salmon lovers. The Copper River king’s claim to fame is the handiwork of Jon Rowley, a Seattle-based marketing genius and former fisherman who introduced the fish to chefs in 1983. It was love at first bite, and the rest was trend-setting culinary history, eventually building a cult-like following willing to pay top dollar. Opening day — every May 15 — is a highly anticipated and publicized event.

What to Look for When Buying Salmon

You’re looking for luster. Salmon steaks and fillets, regardless of species, should be shiny and glistening. Whole salmon should have clear eyes and firm flesh, nothing squishy. Flesh should bounce back when pressed with a finger. It should smell like nothing or like a stream. Pass on anything that smells like ammonia.

Be a proactive customer! This is especially important at retail seafood counters. In addition to finding out about the fish’s origins, ask questions like “When did the fish arrive, and when was it thawed?” (Much of the seafood at retail seafood counters has been flash frozen at sea.) And remember: Anything labeled as Norwegian, Scottish or Atlantic salmon is farmed.

Salmon lovers living far from Pacific salmon territory (California, Pacific Northwest and Alaska) with few wild salmon options may want to explore online retailers. Here are some worth a look:

  • Vital Choice carries king, sockeye and coho. Spendier than what you’ve been paying for farmed, but it’s fairly priced, and shipping is free for orders over $100.
  • Seattle-based Loki Fish Co. also does online sales, offering keta, pink, coho and king, both whole and portioned, depending on what’s available.
  • Bristol Bay sockeye is available at supermarket chains Wegmans and Harris Teeter, as well as Walmart stores in select states.

Generally speaking, the mighty salmon has a silver skin, sometimes with olive shading, and its flesh comes in varying shades of red, pink and orange, depending on the species (and how the fish metabolizes the carotenoids from its pigment-rich diet of krill and other teensy shellfish).

Sustainability of Salmon

Environmental Impact of Salmon

There was a time when overfishing was the culprit for declining salmon populations. There was an explosion of salmon canneries along the Columbia River in the 19th century, a trend that continued in Alaska into the first half of the 1900s. Salmon runs were so low in Alaska that in 1953, President Eisenhower declared Alaska a federal disaster area.

Since the turn of this century, declining salmon populations on both coasts can be attributed to a variety of factors — pollution, drought and rising water temperatures resulting from climate change and dam obstruction, to name a few. As previously discussed, Atlantic salmon in the Gulf of Maine has been on the endangered species list since 2000. Commercial salmon fishing has been off limits since then.

Salmon runs in California, Oregon and Washington, and along some river basins in Alaska, have been largely inconsistent and unreliable. In 2008, king salmon stocks in the Sacramento River basin mysteriously disappeared, forcing California and Oregon officials to take the unprecedented move of cancelling the season that year and the following. Along the Yukon River delta in western Alaska, king salmon have been steadily declining for the past decade.

Salmon Farming

70 percent of the world’s salmon harvest is farmed. We’re talking about 3 billion pounds of farmed fish coming primarily from Norway, Chile and Scotland. Over the past four decades, the Norwegian farmed salmon industry has ballooned into a global behemoth producing a commodity on an industrial scale not unlike the Tysons, the Smithfields and the Cargills of the livestock world.

As the farmed salmon industry grew, so did its share of problems. Crammed into feedlot-like conditions in open net pens, tens of thousands of fish feed on pellets made of fish oil and fishmeal, a formula described by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as “similar in many ways to dry dog food.” According to the World Wildlife Fund, fish caught for fishmeal and fish oil to feed other fish represent one-third of the global fish harvest.

An epidemic of Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) all but wiped out farmed salmon in Chile in 2007. The industry has since rebounded and has kept the virus at bay, but we’d argue that it’s no coincidence that in 2013, Chilean salmon farms used nearly 1 million pounds of antibiotics. The US is Chile’s number one farmed salmon customer.

Norway’s industry has similar problems. In a damning report published in 2011, Norwegian NGO Green Warriors took the farmed salmon industry to task: “It is an irrefutable fact that the current Norwegian aquaculture industry represents a massive threat to the environment.” Citing significant population escapes into the wild (up to 40 percent), sewage and waste (“equals the sewage from more than twice the Norwegian population”) and sea lice infestations are among several factors contributing to the decline of wild salmon and the surrounding natural habitat.

With a global market for salmon, which only exists in certain areas of the world, one can understand an appetite for farmed salmon, if not condone its environmental impact. But here’s the head scratcher: America, a very minor producer of farmed fish (just 0.8 percent of global farmed harvest in 2011) and a very major producer of wild Alaskan salmon (average annual catch of Bristol Bay sockeye alone is 27.5 million fish) — eats more imported farmed salmon than its own wild stuff. In his book, American Catch, journalist Paul Greenberg serves up this zinger: Two-thirds of the salmon that Americans eat is imported farmed salmon. But wait, there’s more: 79 percent of all Alaskan salmon? It’s exported.

Greenberg contends that salmon imports are excessive and unnecessary. “We still have a lot of wild seafood, and — if we were not trading it away — we could greatly reduce our imports.”

GMOs and Salmon

In Chile, AquaChile, that country’s largest farmed salmon producer, is growing a farmed salmon that feeds on genetically modified yeast in place of fish oil. In collaboration with agro-chemical company DuPont, AquaChile has developed Verlasso, a proprietary brand billed as “harmoniously raised salmon.” Since the brand launch in 2011, Verlasso has expanded into the US, and is currently considered a “good alternative” by Seafood Watch, the sustainable seafood report card of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The newest wave of salmon farming comes from this side of the Atlantic, with a genetically modified twist. For the past two decades, AquaBounty Technologies, based in Massachusetts, has been developing its AquaAdvantage salmon, genetically modified with a Chinook growth gene that would accelerate growth in a fraction of the time. In 2010, the company applied for approval from the FDA. In 2012, the agency announced its preliminary findings of “no significant impact” of introducing a GMO salmon to the marketplace. Public comment (which amassed more than 1.8 million signatures in opposition) ended in April 2013, and after a long drawn out process with passionate feelings expressed on both sides, it was approved in 2015.

Salmon Seasonality

The wild Pacific salmon harvest spans from mid-May to early November, depending on the species. For king and sockeye, the season is May to September; for coho, it’s June until October, and for chum and pink, June until November. July and August are boon months for wild salmon lovers, particularly in the Northwest.

Food Sovereignty and Salmon

The nineteenth century was like a salmon rush on both coasts; by 1805, Lewis and Clark had made note of the Pacific Northwest bounty. The white man’s lust for salmon in Washington’s pre-state era prompted concerns for the subsistence diet of neighboring Indian tribes, resulting in government-mandated protections. In 1855, territorial governor Isaac Stevens signed the The Treaty of Point No Point, a declaration of native rights to fish and process salmon.

In its first year of statehood in 1889, Washington closed six rivers to salmon fishing, all of which fed native Americans. News of the salmon frenzy reached the other Washington; in his 1908 state of the union address, President Theodore Roosevelt mentioned the decline of salmon fisheries along the Columbia River.

One hundred years later, the tensions between white settlers and native tribes in Washington resurfaced. In 1959, Washington state authorities evicted tribal fisherman from fishing sites protected in the 1855 treaty. The next decade would become known as the Fish Wars, a tense time of “Fish-ins,” resulting arrests and ultimately, the federal government taking the state of Washington to court. In 1974, US District Court judge George Boldt upheld the native treaty-protected fishing rights, entitling Washington tribes to 50 percent of annual catch in state waters. Famously known as the Boldt Decision, US v. Washington was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1979.

In recent years, native fishing communities in western Alaska have joined the commercial marketplace. In 2002, a cooperative of six Yup’ik Eskimo villages along the Yukon River Delta founded Kwik’pak Fisheries, a sustainable fishery that would directly benefit its community. In 2005, it became the first Fair Trade fishery in the world.

Eating Salmon

Storing Salmon

Salmon is extremely perishable. Use fresh salmon within two days of purchase, and keep it as cold as possible without freezing. Since most home refrigerators run somewhere between 36 and 40 degrees, that means a layer of ice is key.

Pack whole fish under flaked or crushed ice (less damaging to the flesh than cubes) just like it’s done at the fish counter. If space is an issue, surround or sandwich the fish with a layer of reusable soft ice packs. Wrap fillets or steaks in a zip-style plastic bag. Place in a colander. Find a bowl or dish that the colander neatly fits into, and place colander on top. Surround the wrapped fish with ice; as it melts, the bottom vessel will catch residual water. Add more ice as needed for up to 48 hours.

Thaw frozen fish in the refrigerator.

Cooking with Salmon

No matter how you prepare salmon, food safety is the first order of business. Wash your hands before handling raw salmon (or any kind of raw seafood) and use a nonporous cutting board (plastic, rubber, acrylic) which is easier to clean and sanitize than one made from wood. It’s also a good idea to have a separate cutting board for handling seafood. Wash all work surfaces, knives, other utensils — and your hands! — immediately after handling raw salmon to minimize cross-contamination. Maybe it’s obvious, but worth repeating: Never serve cooked salmon on the same plate that just moments ago held the raw stuff.

Speaking of raw salmon: Sushi, crudo and cured salmon lovers, take note: Unless the fish has been previously frozen, eating raw salmon carries the risk of contracting Diphyllobothrium latum, an invasive tapeworm that can grow up to more than 30 feet long. The resulting infection is known as diphyllobothriasis. Freezing the fish for 15 hours or more, according to Rowley, effectively kills the tapeworm larvae.

So how can you tell when the salmon is cooked, anyway? Setting your timer is a good starting point, but not a fool-proof guarantee of doneness. You’ll need a ruler or tape measure for a more accurate read: For salmon fillets and steaks, estimate about 8 minutes of cooking per inch of thickness; for whole fish, estimate at least 10 minutes per inch. Make sure you’ve measured the thickest part.

A few rules of thumb:

  • As a member of the fatty fish club, salmon, by and large, takes longer to cook than lean fish like flounder. Salmon steaks take longer than fillets due to the bones.
  • In its raw state, salmon is translucent. As it cooks, it becomes opaque. Ideally, we’re looking for mostly opaque, with just a hint of translucence.
  • Don’t be afraid to poke at the middle (or thickest part) of the fish with a paring knife. Does it resist a little bit and easily flake? These are good indicators of doneness.
  • Whole fish will spring back and will be firm to the touch on the outside when done.
  • You may also see white curd-like stuff coagulating on top; that’s a protein called albumin. It’s totally harmless, but if there’s a lot on top, it may be a sign of overcooked fish.

Salmon is fatty and rich, even when it’s pink and lean. As such, it can handle assertive flavors like curry, smoked paprika, even barbecue sauce. It likes astringent and acidic partners, too — ginger, mustard, capers and tomatoes all are great contenders. There’s a lot of room to get creative and expand beyond salmon with a little herb butter on top (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Grilled on an alder or cedar plank: An easy method for beginners, planked salmon is really hard to screw up. Soak plank in water for an hour. Meanwhile, you can do a spice rub or simply olive oil, salt and pepper and fresh herbs. Use this tip from Dave Joachim and Andy Schloss, co-authors of Fire It Up: “Place soaked plank over fire until plank is charred on one side, at least 5 minutes. Turn the plank so that the charred side is facing up, and place the prepared fish, skin-side down, on top. Cover and cook until the fish is opaque, about 130 degrees on an instant-read thermometer.

Whole, on the grill: As veteran fishmonger Paul Johnson writes in his book, Fish Forever, “Serving whole fish at the table slows down the pace of the meal…the skin becomes crisp, like that of a well-roasted chicken,” and the “fins, crisped from the heat, break apart into crunchy bits that taste like a cross between dried nori and bacon scraped from the bottom of a cast-iron pan.”

Preserving Salmon

Cured, as in gravlax, for Sunday morning bagels and snack plates at all times of the day: Making your own gravlax is easier than you think. This is for the kitchen project person, as the fish needs to cure for about five days. Check out this step-by-step tutorial from the Kitchn. P.S.: As mentioned earlier, cured salmon is a raw preparation and as such, we recommend that using frozen (and thawed) fillets to minimize risk of tapeworm.

Salmon Nutrition

The nutritional heft of wild salmon as a lean protein is tough to beat. A three-ounce serving of cooked wild coho contains 23 grams of protein for 156 calories. But where the salmon really shines is in the omega-3 department, those heart-healthy fatty acids with anti-inflammatory and cardiovascular supportive powers. Omega-3 fatty acids may also play a role in lowering the risk of macular degeneration as well as dry eye syndrome. The carotenoid-rich flesh of all wild salmon is loaded with disease-fighting antioxidants. Salmon is also rich in vitamins B12 and D (both exceed daily recommended values), which target several issues, from bone density to heart health and depression.