Sorting Out Salmon

Salmon seems to be in the news a lot these days, but it is sometimes difficult to determine whether the news is good or bad. To help cut through the confusion, we’ll examine the major issues surrounding this fascinating and versatile fish. If you enjoy the taste of salmon, as so many of us do, please read on. You will learn how to purchase and cook this fish without fear and in fact with great enthusiasm for its health benefits and the many options it offers the adventurous cook.

One of the main sources of confusion about salmon is that it gets categorized in so many different ways. The main classification is by species. Also common is labeling by geographic origin, and certain prepared salmon also gets labeled according to method of processing. Lastly, and probably least straightforward, salmon is classified as wild or farmed.

Species of Salmon

It is helpful for the briefest of moments to recall a bit of high school biology, and remember that a part of the hierarchy of animal classification (the relevant part), is: family, genus, species, in that order.

The salmon family (we’re foregoing Latin names here), includes Trout, Char, Atlantic Salmon and Pacific Salmon, each of which falls into a different genus.

The genus Atlantic Salmon, includes only one species. Once plentiful across wide ranges of the North Atlantic, wild Atlantic Salmon is now an endangered species as a result of pollution and over-fishing. The only Atlantic Salmon you will find at your fish market is farmed.

Atlantic Salmon is the fattiest of salmon, with beautiful bright pink flesh. (Fattier types of salmon are most prized by salmon lovers because of their rich buttery texture and flavor.) Farmed Atlantic Salmon, while generally available year-round at reasonable prices, unfortunately does not have the same visual or taste appeal as its wild counterpart.

The genus Pacific Salmon includes seven species. In order of their desirability, at least according to some salmon aficionados:

  • Chinook, or King Salmon - The largest variety, with a high fat content and flesh color that ranges from off white to bright pink. The rarer white-fleshed King Salmon is sometimes sold as White Salmon or Ivory Salmon. Rarely farmed, most King Salmon on the market is wild.
  • Sockeye, or Red Salmon – Bright red, and close to Chinook in quality. Wild Sockeye is abundant in Alaska and British Columbia, and is the premium variety used for canning. It is the only species that remains bright red after cooking.
  • Coho, or Silver Salmon – Leaner and pink or red-orange colored, with a milder flavor and more delicate texture than other salmon. Wild Coho is still available but is an endangered species in some states and is popular for farming.
  • Pink, or Humpback Salmon – The smallest and most numerous of the salmon types, rarely farmed. Most wild Pink Salmon ends up in a can. If sold fresh it is usually whole and at very economical prices.
  • Chum, or Dog Salmon – The least consistent in flavor, color and texture. Not farmed, and not seen in markets very often.
  • Steelhead Salmon and Rainbow Trout – These two fishes are very similar and are both classified as Pacific Salmon. They are popular sport fish with varying flavor, color and texture. Most fish labeled Steelhead in markets is farmed Rainbow Trout.
  • Masu Salmon – Found only off the coast of Japan. Never seen in the United States.

Char and Trout are also considered members of the same family as salmon. Char, sometimes called Arctic Char or Salmon Trout, is barely distinguishable from salmon and is almost always farmed. Many varieties of Trout can be substituted for Salmon in most recipes.

Geographic Origin and Processing

Some salmon is labeled according to where it is from, but this does not have any bearing on the species. For example, Norwegian Salmon will be labeled as such, but it is in fact farmed Atlantic Salmon that happens to be farmed in waters off the coast of Norway. Other common examples of this type of labeling are Scottish Salmon, New Zealand Salmon or Chilean Salmon, all of which are farmed Atlantic Salmon.

Sometimes salmon is labeled according to the river it comes from. Most salmon are anadromous, which means that they are born in fresh water rivers, migrate to salt water to feed, then return to the river of their birth to spawn. The longer the river, the longer their return journey will be. Therefore, the more the fish will eat to prepare for the journey, and the fatter they will be when caught just as they are about to return from the sea. That is why salmon are named after their birth rivers – the longer the river, the more sought-after the fish. Copper River Salmon, for example, is wild King Salmon from the Copper River, and is among the most prized.

The terms Lox, Nova or Nova Lox refer to curing processes and are usually made from King Salmon or farmed Atlantic Salmon.

Wild versus Farmed Salmon

In January of 2004, a study published in the journal Science indicated that farmed salmon contained significantly higher levels of toxins, in particular PCBs, than wild salmon. This report set off a great deal of controversy over the safety of farmed salmon.

PCBs are industrial contaminants that were banned by the US in the 1970s, but are still in use in other countries and, unfortunately, still present throughout our environment. Almost all foods, particularly foods of animal origin, contain some amounts of PCBs, but farmed salmon have been found in some studies to contain up to 16 times the level of PCBs of that of wild salmon. The reasons for this higher concentration are twofold:

  1. fish meal fed to farmed fish contains higher concentrations of PCBs than fish that salmon eat in the wild and
  2. farmed fish are bred to be larger than wild salmon and contain more fat, which is where toxins are stored.

Aside from the PCB issue, there are some other problems with farmed salmon. Farmed fish are densely crowded into pens which prevent their waste from being naturally absorbed into the environment, thus contaminating their feed. Fish farms often use pesticides, antibiotics, growth-promoters, colorants and other chemicals on their fish. There are also many negative environmental consequences of large industrialized fish farming, a topic that is beyond the scope of this article.

To begin to address these concerns, a number of fish farms have begun producing salmon that is labeled “organic”. If you are concerned about farmed salmon, it is important to understand what this term means. The USDA sets standards which must be met in order for produce and land animal products to be labeled with the term “certified organic.” However no such regulatory standards exist for seafood. A fish farm can use the term “organic” based its own determination that its practices and procedures merit the term, without government regulation.

Some good news is that the European community is a few steps ahead of the US in moving towards organic, ethical and sustainable fish farming. Recently, some European countries have begun imposing standards that give the “organic” label more meaning. The regulating bodies are diverse and inconsistent, but they all trend toward fish raised without chemicals in lower-density pens. Scotland and France are leaders in these innovations and are marketing organic salmon under various brands including Black Pearl Natural Choice and Label Rouge. Look for these brands if you choose to purchase farmed salmon.

The USDA also maintains that the overall level of PCB contamination in US foods has decreased dramatically in recent decades and that annual salmon surveys do not indicate a PCB problem. According to the FDA, removing the skin prior to cooking significantly reduces any contaminants.

So what is the bottom line? All indications are that wild salmon is far preferable both for health and environmental reasons. Unfortunately, wild salmon isn’t available all year round, so in the off season a good choice is canned Pink or Sockeye, which are almost always wild, or occasional farmed fresh Atlantic Salmon from Scotland and France. (Different varieties of wild salmon are in season from May through October, with the peak being in August and September.)

What about Mercury?

Another recent hot topic is mercury in fish, and here is some great news for salmon lovers. Salmon has been found to have mercury levels among the lowest in the sea, often non-detectable levels according to annual FDA studies. Cross that one off your list!

What about Nutrition?

Now that we have covered the risk issues, and hopefully demonstrated that the risks can be avoided or greatly mitigated, let’s talk about the benefits. Salmon, all varieties, are loaded with that other much talked about and often confusing stuff called Omega-3s. These are essential fatty acids that the body cannot manufacture; they must be consumed.

Scientific studies from around the world indicate numerous potential benefits of consuming high quantities of Omega-3’s, including lowering risk of heart disease and high blood pressure, lowering triglyceride and cholesterol, reducing risk of certain types of cancer, and usefulness in treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, diabetes, kidney disease, peptic ulcers and migraines, to name just a few.

The American Heart Association recommends eating at least two servings of fatty fish per week to decrease risk of arrhythmias, decrease triglyceride levels, decrease growth rate of atherosclerotic plaque, and lower blood pressure.

Salmon is also a source of vitamins A, D, B6, B12 and E, as well as niaicin, riboflavin and potassium.

Ok, So Let’s Cook Some!

I hope that you are now much more familiar with the wonderful salmon and your mind is at ease about its health properties. So let’s put all that technical stuff aside and talk about eating it. Salmon is delicious almost any way you cook it, and there are so many ways. First let’s talk about how to purchase it.

I avoid prepackaged salmon mostly because the packages rarely contain enough information to make an educated purchase. The exception is canned salmon, which almost always indicates the species and those are usually non-farmed species. I highly recommend purchasing fresh fish only from a reputable fish market. If the labels are unclear, ask. Sometimes you’ll just see salmon labeled “salmon.” Price will give you a good idea of whether it is wild or farmed. Wild salmon can cost up to twice as much as farmed. Recently, some markets have started to identify their farmed product with the labels “farmed” or “color added” or “organic.” But the market staff should be able to tell you what type of salmon it is and where it came from. If they can’t, find another market.

Fresh salmon can be found in three cuts – filets, steaks, and whole. I advocate filets as easiest to work with, and all recipes in this article will use filets. You will sometimes see filets labeled as either tail cut or center cut. This labeling means what it sounds like, the tail cut is closer to the tail and generally considered less desirable. When cooking and serving whole filets, the center cut cooks more evenly because it is a more uniform thickness, and it looks nicer on a plate. But in recipes where these are not issues, the tail cut can be less expensive and I find almost no difference in taste.

If you do purchase tail cut filets and are concerned about uniform cooking, just pin the thinner belly flaps to the thicker part of the fish with a skewer or string to create more even thickness during cooking.

Salmon is not a bony fish, but even the best filets often come with a few pin bones. These are easily found by running your finger up and down the center of the filet, and they are easily removed with tweezers or pliers. Some cooking supply purveyors even sell special fish bone tweezers which are fun to use but not at all necessary.

Salmon filets always come with the skin on. If you are preparing a recipe that calls for skinless salmon, the easiest way to handle this is to ask your fishmonger to remove the skin for you. If not, it is easy to remove with a sharp knife. Just start at the edge of the filet, just under the skin, and peel the skin back as you go.

Since salmon is such a popular fish, there are thousands of recipes that can be found in books, magazines, and on the internet. Extremely popular are recipes for poaching and grilling and other methods that treat the salmon as the protein centerpiece of a meal, and understandably highlight its magnificent flavor and texture. I’d like to offer some recipes with some other factors in mind. Wild salmon can be expensive, so recipes like Salmon Wontons in Shitake Mushroom Broth, and Salmon Casserole can stretch smaller amounts of salmon into more servings. Salmon Burgers and Mustard Encrusted Salmon are interesting approaches, as well as possible ways of introducing salmon to fish skeptics who think that only beef or chicken will do.

Salmon is a great fish for experimenting with new recipes. Like steak, it can be cooked to a variety of degrees of doneness, making it very difficult to completely ruin. Leftover salmon works great in salads, sandwiches, and casseroles like the one below. Along with swordfish and tuna, it is one of the firm, toothsome, truly satisfying fishes that are a boon to those looking to cut back on meat. So enjoy these recipes and any others that pique your interest. Salmon is indeed a treasure from the sea.

The Recipes

Salmon Burgers with Avocado Mayonnaise

No one will miss the beef. For the Burgers:
  • 1 lb salmon filets, skin and pin bones removed, rinsed and patted dry
  • 1 bunch (8 to 10) scallions, white and light green parts
  • 1 generous handful of parsley
  • 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 to 3 tbsp Canola or other mild flavored oil

Place parsley in a food processor and chop fine. Add scallions and chop fine. Add salmon filets one at a time and process until consistency of hamburger. Add Worcestershire and process for a second or two to mix. Form into four patties about an inch thick.

Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat. When hot, add salmon burgers and cook until medium golden on both sides. This will take anywhere from about 3 to 6 minutes per side. Alternatively these can be cooked on an indoor or outdoor grill.

For the Avocado Mayonnaise:
  • 1 ripe avocado
  • Juice of one lime
  • Canola or other mild flavored oil
  • Salt and Tabasco sauce to taste

Peel and pit the avocado and place flesh in a small mixing bowl. Mash with a potato masher or the back of a wooden spoon until you have a thick paste. Add the lime juice and mix thoroughly. Add about a teaspoon of the oil and mix. At this point the mixture should be thick but you should be able to begin whisking it. Whisk adding oil a teaspoon at a time until you reach the consistency of mayonnaise. This could take as little as two teaspoons of oil or as many as six or so, depending on the size and ripeness of your avocado and how thick you like your mayonnaise. Don’t worry if there are lumps in it, they add nice texture. If you prefer a perfectly smooth sauce you can whisk for a much longer time or you can do the whole thing in a food processor, but be careful not to over-process. When you have your consistency, add the salt and Tabasco to taste. Leftover mayonnaise will keep in the refrigerator for about three days.

You can serve these any way you like to serve burgers. Our favorite is to serve them on toasted English muffins with a slice of tomato and a tuft of alfalfa sprouts.

  • Yields: 4 servings

Salmon Wontons in Shitake Mushroom Broth

This looks like more work than it is. It is made in stages but each is quite easy. The only time consuming part is folding the wontons, and you can shorten this by using a simple half fold as opposed to the traditional little hat shape. The result is well worth it. For the Base Broth:
  • 2 Tbsp Peanut Oil
  • 1 lb Shitake Mushrooms, sliced, 4 large caps reserved
  • 1 piece fresh ginger about 2” long by ½ inch wide, sliced thick
  • 3 medium yellow onions, sliced
  • 2 cups water
  • ¼ cup sake
For the Wontons:
  • 1 salmon filet, about 6 oz, skin and bones removed
  • 1 bunch scallions (about 8), white and light green parts, sliced thin – dark green parts of two scallions reserved
  • 2 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 Tbsp sesame oil
  • Wonton skins
For the Final Broth:
  • 1 Tbsp Peanut Oil
  • The 4 reserved mushroom caps, sliced thin
  • 1 small carrot, julienned
  • The base broth
  • 1 cup vegetable stock
  • 2 Tbsp soy sauce
For the Garnish:
  • Green parts of 2 scallions, chopped
  • Chile Oil
  • Additional soy sauce

To make the base broth:

  1. Heat 2 tbsp peanut oil in a stock pot.
  2. Add mushrooms, ginger and onions and sauté over medium heat until soft, about 5 minutes.
  3. Add two cups of water, bring to low simmer, cover and simmer 30 minutes.
  4. Add sake, return to simmer, cover and simmer 15 more minutes.
  5. Strain and discard solids, reserving liquid.

To make the wontons (while base broth is simmering):

  1. Process salmon in food processor about 30 seconds until consistency of ground meat.
  2. With hands, mix in other ingredients.
  3. Place about 1 teaspoon of salmon mix in each wonton skin, fold as preferred and set aside.

To finish the dish:

  1. Heat 1 tbsp peanut oil in a clean stock pot.
  2. Add reserved sliced mushroom caps and carrot, and sauté over medium heat until soft, about 5 minutes.
  3. Add the base broth and vegetable stock, bring to low simmer, cover and simmer 10 minutes.
  4. Add wontons, return to low simmer, cover and simmer 5 minutes.
  5. Add soy sauce, taste and adjust if necessary.
  6. Fill bowls with desired number of wontons and broth to submerge wontons about half way.
  7. Sprinkle each bowl with chopped scallion.
  8. Serve, passing chili oil and soy sauce at the table.
  • Yields: about 24 wontons, or 4 appetizer portions

Mustard Encrusted Salmon

This is something of a variation on the traditional chicken fried steak recipes of the south. The mustard flavoring is very mild, and your salmon will be crispy on the outside and moist and tender inside. Add more cayenne if you like a little more spice, or even some wasabi powder. Delicious served with a side of cooked greens or over a bed of lightly dressed salad greens.
  • 4 salmon filets (6 to 8 oz each), skin and pin bones removed, rinsed and patted dry
  • ¼ cup flour mixed with ¾ cup water to make a very thin paste
  • ½ cup flour mixed with 3 tbsp dry mustard, 1 tsp cayenne pepper and ¼ tsp salt
  • 2 to 3 tbsp olive oil

Dip filets in flour/water mixture, then dredge in flour/mustard mixture to coat. Heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet until hot. Add salmon and cook until lightly browned, about 3 minutes per side.

  • Yields: 4 servings

Salmon Casserole

This is a great way to use leftover salmon. Any leftover salmon will work as long as it’s not in a heavy potent sauce. Poached work best. Canned will also work nicely.
  • 8 oz farfalle or other short, smallish pasta
  • 8 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 medium onion chopped fine
  • 4 level tsp flour
  • 1 cup vegetable stock
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 10 to 16 oz cooked salmon filets, skin and pin bones removed
  • 1 9 oz package frozen cut green beans
  • salt and white pepper

Preheat oven to 350.

Cook noodles until slightly underdone, about two minutes less than package instructions. Drain and put into a large mixing bowl.

Flake salmon with a fork and add to noodles.

Microwave green beans for one minute to defrost and soften. Add to noodle mixture.

Heat the oil over medium heat in a heavy saucepan until a piece of chopped onion sizzles when tossed in. Add rest of onion and sauté until soft and translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the flour and stir to make a roux. Continue over medium heat until the flour is cooked, stirring frequently, about 10 minutes. Add white wine a little at a time, whisking constantly, until all wine has been added and sauce comes back to a simmer. Add salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat and add to noodle mixture.

Toss mixture until evenly coated with sauce. Transfer to a casserole and bake uncovered for 45 minutes, or until top is bubbly and brown.

  • Yields: 6 servings