Love salmon? Me too! Here’s everything you need to know to make the most of it, from buying and storing to cuts and cooking.
Salmon is good and good for you. And if you love it, you’re not alone. According to the National Fisheries Institute, it’s the second-most popular type of seafood in the U.S. (shrimp is number one).
But enjoying salmon can be confusing. Should you buy Pacific or Atlantic? Wild or farmed? How to best store it once you get home? And perhaps most importantly, how to best cook it?
For answers to all that and more, let’s dig into salmon—the better to enjoy eating it!
Types Of Salmon
Even though you’ll see a lot of different names and labels, there are basically two types of salmon—Pacific and Atlantic.
Pacific is wild and so, perhaps obviously, from the Pacific Ocean and coasts. It includes five species—chinook or king, sockeye or red, coho or silver, keta or chum, and pink. Some types are firmer-textured, while others are more delicately flavored. Some have higher or lower fat contents. Here’s a good article in Fine Cooking magazine by my friend Ivy Manning that goes over their main differences (but before you worry too much about that, read on).
There’s only one species of Atlantic salmon and it’s mainly farmed. And while that might have been a bad thing ten or twenty years ago, these days there are plenty of sustainable salmon farms according to Seafood Watch and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, two highly respected sources for guidance on making conscientious seafood choices.
Which means that, when standing at the seafood counter, there are six possible species to choose from. Which one is right for you?
First and foremost, I want sustainable salmon—so you and I can enjoy healthy oceans and tasty salmon for years to come. So I either shop where I know that’s all they carry or I look for stores that distinguish it with the Seafood Watch-, Aquaculture Stewardship Council-, or Marine Stewardship Council-approved label. (The Marine Stewardship Council is to wild seafood what the Aquaculture Stewardship Council is to farmed—both work to support a sustainable, responsibly-managed seafood supply.)
Once I have that narrowed down, I don’t worry about remembering which species has the texture, flavor, fat content, or whatever that I like—I simply shop where the staff is knowledgeable about all that. I tell them what I like or ask about what they have and use their advice to make my choice. (A good fishmonger may cost a little more, but part of what you’re paying for is that valuable advice.)
About ninety percent of the time, I ask for whatever type of sustainable salmon is the fattiest. Why? Because fat means the salmon will be both tasty and less likely to dry out or stick during cooking. But that’s just me.
Cuts Of Salmon
In addition to a myriad of types of salmon at the fish counter, you also might see different cuts.
Most of the time, it’ll be sides of salmon and/or salmon fillets. The side is a lengthwise half of the whole fish, cleaned and boned (the largest cut in the image above). You can cook it any way you like, but I like it best for roasting because it’s challenging to turn over on a grill or stovetop. It makes for a grand presentation if you’re serving a crowd. But it’s not always available, so if you want a side it’s a good idea to call ahead.
Salmon fillets (the three rectangular pieces in the image) are sides of salmon broken down into pieces. Great for roasting, grilling, broiling, poaching, pan-searing, you name it.
Salmon steaks (the horseshoe-shaped pieces in the image) are cross-section cuts from the fish, with a bit of spiny bone in the middle. Also great for roasting, grilling, broiling, poaching, pan-searing, et al. Steaks aren’t very popular these days so, again, I’d call in advance. But know that a steak will cook pretty much like a fillet, provided they’re about the same thickness—so they’re relatively interchangeable in recipes.
The salmon belly is the thin flap of meat that’s typically trimmed from the side of salmon (the long, thin strip in the image above). With a high proportion of skin to flesh, it’s best for preparations that will feature that skin nicely crisped—salmon skin sushi rolls, for example, or crispy salmon belly teriyaki. Sometimes a side of salmon will come with the belly meat and sometimes not—if you want just the belly, yet again, call in advance. If they don’t have it on hand, your store can likely trim up a side or two to make some for you.
Bring It Home And Cook It Up.
Hooray! You’ve made your salmon selection(s) and have brought them home. Now store them in the coldest part of the refrigerator for up to two days. If you won’t be using them by then, store them in the freezer and, for the best flavor and texture, use them within about three months.
Then, 30 to 45 minutes before you’re ready to cook, take the salmon out of the refrigerator to bring it to room temperature.
Now, cooking. Even though salmon tends to be fattier than other fishes, it’s still relatively lean as proteins go. So that means it’ll cook quickly and the window between perfectly cooked and dry is relatively slim. And that means—check for doneness early and often.
What’s done? Salmon that’s 3/4- to 1-inch thick should feel barely firm to the touch. (For more on how to tell when meat is done without cutting into it, see this post on my website.)
How to avoid overcooking? One way is to use a high heat and a short cook—for example, using a hot skillet, oven, or grill. That will help your salmon get crisp on the outside while keeping it juicy and tender inside. Salmon recipes in this series using this strategy include Grilled Salmon, Air Fryer Salmon, Asian-Marinated Salmon, and Stuffed Salmon.
Another way to go low and slow—for example, steaming, poaching, or slow-roasting your salmon. When cooking happens more gently, there’s more wiggle room between done and dry. Poached Salmon with Lemon-Dill Sauce, How to Cook a Side of Salmon, and How to Bake Salmon Perfectly all take this approach. On the off chance that you have leftovers, here are some ideas for enjoying them.
And of course, you can always skip cooking altogether and enjoy a Salmon Poke Bowl. 🙂