Salmon-lovers are spoiled nowadays. Between farmed and frozen salmon, you can enjoy this flavorful, heart-healthy fish all year round. But for a brief window in spring and early summer, things go to a new culinary height. That's when wild Pacific salmon is in season. The flavor and texture of the fresh, "free-range" fish will truly wow you.
A Wild Story
Wild Pacific salmon are born in fresh water streams, for the most part in Alaska, but migrate out to sea to live until they are grown. In a move that awes scientists, once they are mature, the fish swim back to the river where they were born to spawn. Fishermen like to catch them at the mouth of the river when they are still pretty hefty. Salmon don't eat during the journey upstream.
For fans, the fish are head and shoulders above the farm-raised kind in terms of texture and taste.
"Wild salmon have a much better texture because they swim free rather than being penned," says acclaimed Northwest chef Tom Douglas, owner of three popular restaurants in Seattle: Dahlia Lounge, Etta's Seafood and the Palace Kitchen. He says because farmed salmon is more fattened, it can taste mushy after a couple of bites, while wild salmon continues to have its texture "all through your eating experience."
The chef also raves about the taste. "I look to wild salmon for a good, fresh flavor. Sometimes farmed salmon because of the high fat content, tastes fishy right off the bat. It doesn't have the real fresh fish flavor."
Chinook or Sockeye?
In Seattle, Douglas says, aficionados take it few extra steps when it comes to choosing salmon. They judge a fish by its river. "The longer the river, the fattier the fish because the salmon store a lot of fat for the trip upstream to spawn ," he explains.
For average salmon lover, here are the five different kinds of wild Pacific salmon:
- King or Chinook salmon. A coveted, rare, large, high-fat, high-flavor fish.
- Sockeye or Red salmon. A sought-after fish known for its deep red color and firm flesh.
- Silver or Coho salmon. Similar to King but milder in flavor. (It is now farm-raised in Chile.
- Chum salmon. A mild fish with creamy pink or orange flesh.
- Pink salmon. The smallest salmon, it often ends up canned or frozen.
Wildly Good For You
Health experts recommend eating at least two servings of baked or grilled fish each week. Salmon is popular because it is rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
Wild salmon gets extra points because recent research found that it contains significantly lower levels of cancer-causing PCBs and other pollutants than farmed- raised salmon. PCBs are in the fishmeal and fish oil fed to farmed salmon. Meanwhile, wild salmon feed from the sea and their diet affects how they look. The sockeye, for example, owes its intensely red flesh to the large amount of crustaceans that it eats.
Worth the Splurge
Wild salmon is usually labeled as such or called "Alaskan." When in doubt, ask your fishmonger. Prices vary but when it's in season it's well worth the splurge (and some would argue even frozen it has better flavor than the farm-raised kind.)