Ahhh, salmon!

Ahhhh, salmon! The most popular eating fish in America! In the Northwest, we are blessed with an abundance of salmon, and since it is so readily available, let’s get a bit more comfortable with the choice and preparation for our tables.

Choosing Salmon

Fresh fish smell like the sea — NO FISHY ODOR! A good fish market has quick turnover and, like good fish itself, shouldn’t smell fishy either. Lots of clean white ice. And the fish should glisten, giving you the “Take me home, I’m delicious” look.

When purchasing fresh whole fish, look for bright, bulgy, transparent eyes. Gills should be dark pink inside, never brown or blue; flesh should be firm and resist pressure. The tail should be moist, not dried out or curled up at the end.

When choosing fillets, the flesh should have a moist sheen, but not look filmy or slimy. And it should look slightly translucent – if it looks opaque it may have been frozen. Ask the fish monger if you may touch the fillet – it should spring back and be firm to the touch.

“Fresh” is not always an indicator of quality.  “Fresh” simply means is that the fish has never been frozen, and must be less than 9 days old. I would recommend some varieties of frozen fish over questionable ‘fresh’ fish. Don’t hesitate to ask your fish monger when the fish was harvested.

Species of salmon

Chinook is the largest of the Pacific salmon, often called King. The meat is excellent, firm and dark pink, rich in oil, flaking into large chunks. They run from February through November. With the highest oil content, the spring Copper and Yukon River Chinooks are the most expensive.

Coho salmon, commonly known as Silvers or Silversides are smaller, averaging 8 to 10 pounds. Cohoes are tasty and firm-fleshed, lighter in color, but excellent texture, flaking into large chunks. They run from late September through early November.

Pink salmon, commonly known as Humpback, range from 5 to 6 pounds. With a delicate pink color, they tend to break into smaller pieces, and contain less oil than sockeye or Chinook. They are caught almost exclusively in odd numbered years, running from late July through mid-September.

Chum salmon are known locally as dog salmon or fall salmon, ranging 10 to 12 pounds at maturity. With pale white to pink flesh, these separate into large chunks with a low oil content. The taste of the meat is considered slightly inferior to the Chinook or Coho. They run from July through October. Chum and Pink salmon are lower in oil and therefore more mildly flavored. These are good choices for pan-frying, baking in flavorful sauces, or in salads with light dressing. 

Sockeye is the most prized of all salmon. Its rich, red, firm-textured flesh with a high oil content is excellent for canning. Mature sockeye ranges from 5 to 7 pounds. 

Atlantics are almost as large as Chinooks. Their orange flesh has a high fat content and great flavor. They are the easiest to farm-raise, accounting for 80% of farmed salmon. Atlantic salmon is not commonly found in the Pacific, except in a farmed environment. Atlantic salmon is the most sustainable variety.


Store your fish in the coldest part of your refrigerator, usually the bottom shelf, and use within a day for best quality and flavor.

Don’t cross contaminate. Handle raw and cooked salmon separately; keep your work space clean; keep raw and cooked seafoods from coming in contact with each other. This includes cleaning the knives, containers and cutting boards used in preparation.

To find tiny bones in fillets, run your fingers along the surface. Pull bones out with a tweezer or needle nose pliers.

Cook your salmon thoroughly. Fish is cooked when it begins to flake and reaches an internal temperature of 145°F.


When cooking fish, because of its lean, delicate quality, you will most often get the best result by using a bit lower temperature than with most other proteins. And, bear in mind that these qualities make fish cook quickly. Mind it carefully to prevent overcooking.

For grilling, broiling or smoking, choose species with higher fat content; Chinook, Coho, Sockeye, or Atlantic.

Cook salmon with the skin on. It is easy to remove it after cooking, and helps to hold the delicate fish together while turning. To prevent fish from sticking, preheat the grill or pan thoroughly, oil lightly, then set the fish down and do not move it until ready to turn. When the fish has seared it will release from the pan or grill easily.

To prevent overcooking of thinner tail sections of fillets, fold the tail end under itself, creating a thickness equal to the rest of the fillet. No matter the cooking method, fish should always be served on a heated plate, as it cools very quickly.


How to tell if your fish is done? I like mine at an internal temperature of 145-150°F. Besides internal temperature, there are some visual signs of doneness:

  1. Flesh no longer looks translucent, but is opaque.
  2. Flesh begins to flake. Don’t take it too far here, or your fish will be overdone.
  3. Collagen may appear on the flesh (that’s the whitish substance that comes to the surface).

When cooking large pieces of fish, remember to allow for ‘carry-over’ cooking, and a rise in internal temperature of about 5°F. For smaller pieces of fish, carry-over cooking is not an issue, as fish cools very quickly. Be prepared to serve it right away.

My favorite, quick way to prepare salmon begins with a brine, and then sear-roasting, to achieve perfect salmon every time. If you are short on time, you may eliminate the brining step.

I am captivated by the effects of brining on protein-rich foods. The salt in the brine solution causes the proteins in the meat to unwind a bit, or denature, trapping extra water and flavors from the brine. The result — juicy, succulent, flavorful fish.  And, SO easy!

Quick & easy ideas for salmon fillets & steaks

  • In paper — Top fish with shredded fresh root ginger and lemon zest, julienned vegetables, a small pat of butter and chopped fresh parsley or coriander. Wrap inparchment paper or foil and bake in the oven, 450°F, 10 minutes.
  • Quick poached — In shallow pan, add 2 cups water, 1 cup dry white wine, 1 sliced onion, 1 tablespoon salt, ¼ teaspoon white pepper, a bay leaf and a parsley sprig. Bring to a boil. Add tow or three 4 to 5 ounce fish fillets or steaks. Cover and return to boil. Immediately turn off heat. Allow to stand 10-15 minutes, until fish is opaque.


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