Draped over a finger of rice at the sushi bar, peeking out from a bagel at the deli, starring center-plate at the hippest restaurant. Salmon’s bright-orange color, silky texture and distinctive but not-too-fishy flavor have made it a national favorite.
In fact, salmon is America’s best-selling fresh finfish, according to the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, bested in the seafood category only by shrimp and canned tuna.
It’s also one of the most confusing.
Customers have their pick of wild, farmed, Atlantic, Pacific, Chilean — and prices that range from $5 to $30 a pound.
The imminent start of wild salmon season in April is the perfect time for a crash course.
Farmed vs. wild salmon
According to the USDA, two-thirds of the salmon consumed in the United States is farmed and imported primarily from Norway, Chile and Canada. A small amount of salmon is farm-raised in Maine and Washington State. One-third of the salmon consumed here is caught in the wild by U.S. commercial fishermen who harvested between 600 million and 900 million pounds annually over the past decade.
Atlantic vs. Pacific salmon
Atlantic salmon all belong to one species, and except for a negligible amount of fish caught by recreational fishermen, all Atlantic salmon is now farmed. “The range of wild Atlantic salmon,” writes Diane Morgan in her new cookbook, “Salmon: Everything You Need to Know + 45 Recipes” (Chronicle, $19.95), “once extended from . . . the Hudson River all the way up the North Atlantic,” then arced around Scandinavia and back down to Portugal. But, she writes, industrialization, habitat loss, pollution and overfishing have effectively destroyed all wild Atlantic salmon fisheries.
There are seven species of Pacific salmon, six of which are native to North America: chinook (king), coho (silver), sockeye (red), pink (humpback), chum (keta or dog) and steelhead. They are all wild and are caught as they return from the sea to rivers on the West Coast, from California all the way north to Alaska.
Price and availability
For most consumers, the big advantage of farmed salmon is price. Wild salmon is rarely less than $22 a pound, whereas farmed prices can start at $7 — or even lower during supermarket sales. Another plus is availability. Farmed salmon is harvested all year long, while wild salmon has distinct seasons: The king begins running in April, sockeye (including the famous Copper River sockeye from Alaska) in May and coho in July. Out of season — from late summer to early spring — any wild salmon in the market was almost certainly frozen.
Just as with chickens or beef cattle, the price of farmed-raised salmon depends on many variables. “It’s like a four-dimensional chess game,” said Sebastian Belle, a Maine-based board member of the International Salmon Farmers’ Association. “Price will depend on the farming practices, the cost of transport, the cut of fish, the regulatory environment where it is grown.” Chilean salmon, for example, tends to be less expensive. The lower price reflects the lower cost of feed, since anchovies are abundant there, he said, and the salmon are usually shipped frozen.
The best farms try to replicate the salmon's natural environment, feeding them a diet comparable to what they would eat in the wild, and giving them plenty of space to swim around in. Densely populated sea pens can put the fish at risk for infection, which requires treatment with antibiotics.
Shopping for salmon
Frank Palermo, owner of Claws Seafood Markets in West Sayville and St. James and a former head fish buyer for Pathmark supermarkets, said farmed Chilean salmon can sell for as little as $4.99 a pound. Farmed salmon from Canada often retails for less than $11 a pound; Norwegian salmon (Palermo cited the Marine Harvest brand as a favorite) usually can be had for less than $14 a pound. At the top of the farmed range is salmon from Denmark’s Faroe Islands, between Iceland and Norwa — such as HiddenFjord, usually less than $18 a pound — and salmon from Scotland’s Shetland Islands, such as Black Pearl, usually less than $20.
While wild chum salmon can sell for well under $10 a pound, it is primarily a canning fish and not highly prized fresh by consumers. It’s chinook and sockeye salmon that are most highly prized and often identified by their river of origin, such as the Columbia River in Washington or the Copper River in Alaska. Wild salmon, Palermo said, is rarely priced less than $22 a pound and can go for more than $30.
With so many sources and species of salmon available, it's impossible to pinpoint a difference in taste between farmed and wild, although farmed tends to be fattier -- and moister -- than wild.
The USDA has not set standards for fish, only crops and land animals. Thus, there is no “certified organic” in the U.S. If you see salmon labeled organic, it may have been certified by the European Union. Or it may not have been. Ask your fishmonger who certified it organic. Look for salmon labeled “organic feed,” “no antibiotics,” “restricted pesticides,” “natural pigment.” Other nice-sounding labels that have no legal force include “all natural” and “sustainable.”
If you’re beginning to experience salmon-information overload, just take your questions to a good fishmonger, who knows all of this and more.
GREEN CURRY BRAISED SALMON
In her cookbook “Salmon” (Chronicle, $19.95), Diane Morgan recommends Thai Kitchen brand curry paste (widely available) or Mae Ploy brand, available in many Asian markets. She suggests serving this with steamed jasmine rice.
4 (6-ounce) salmon fillets
1 13.5-ounce can unsweetened coconut milk
¼ cup Thai green curry paste
1 tablespoon firmly packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon Asian fish sauce, preferably Vietnamese nuoc mam
2 cups snow peas, stem ends trimmed and strings removed
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
3 scallions, including green tops, thinly sliced
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro
1. Remove the salmon from the refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking to bring it to room temperature.
2. Open the can of coconut milk without first shaking it. Spoon out the thick cream that has separated and risen to the top. Set the cream aside in a small bowl. Pour off the remaining thin coconut milk and reserve it separately.
3. In a large saute pan, warm the coconut cream over medium-low heat. Add the curry paste and whisk until the mixture is smooth and comes to a simmer. Add the sugar and stir until dissolved. Add the thin coconut milk, 1 cup water and fish sauce, and bring to a simmer, stirring once or twice. Add the salmon fillets in a single layer, turn the heat to low, cover and simmer for 5 minutes. Flip the salmon, re-cover, and cook for 3 minutes longer. Scatter the snow peas around the salmon, submerging them in the liquid, re-cover the pan, and cook until the snow peas are bright green and the salmon is cooked through, about 2 minutes longer. Remove the pan from the heat.
4. Transfer the salmon to warmed dinner plates or shallow pasta bowls. Spoon the lime juice, scallions and snow peas around the fillets, dividing the sauce and peas evenly. Serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.
BEET-AND-HORSERADISH-CURED SALMON GRAVLAX
In this recipe from “Salmon” by Diane Morgan (Chronicle, $19.95), the horseradish subtly flavors the salmon, and the beets penetrate the top of the flesh, coloring the surface with a rosy glow.
½ cup coarse sea salt
½ cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 3- to 4-pound salmon fillet, skin on
8 ounces raw beets, peeled and grated
1 cup prepared extra-hot horseradish
¼ cup vodka
For serving: thinly sliced pumpernickel bread and finely snipped chives, thinly sliced scallions, capers, minced shallots, and/or thinly sliced cucumber
1. Select a rimmed baking sheet about the same length as the salmon fillet. Place a wire rack that is just slightly shorter inside the baking sheet. Cover the rack with a double layer of cheesecloth, allowing enough to overhang the sides and ends of the rack to fold over and cover the fish completely.
2. In a small bowl, stir together the salt and brown sugar. Spread half the mixture on the salmon’s skin side, packing it into place. Lay the salmon, skin-side down, on the cheesecloth. Gently rub the remaining salt mixture over the flesh side of the fillet.
3. In a medium bowl, combine the beets and horseradish and mix well. Spread the beet mixture over the top and sides of the salmon fillet. Slowly drizzle the vodka evenly over the top, being careful not to rinse off the beet-salt cure.
4. Bring up the sides of the cheesecloth and wrap them snugly around the fish. Fold the overhanging ends toward the center. Now seal the entire fillet in a large sheet of plastic wrap. Once tightly wrapped, arrange the fillet, flesh-side up, on the rack. Rest a slightly smaller rimmed baking sheet or other flat, rimmed vessel on top of the fish. Put something that weighs about 3 pounds on top of the baking sheet. (I use full beer bottles set on their sides.) Place the weighted salmon in the refrigerator for at least 2 days or up to 5 days. Flip the salmon once a day, being sure to return the weighted baking sheet to the top of the salmon after each turn.
5. Remove the weighted baking sheet. Remove the fillet from the wrappings and scrape the cure off the flesh side. Skin the fillet, then cut crosswise (against the grain) into thin slices. Arrange the slices on a platter or on individual plates and garnish as desired. Serve with the pumpernickel. Makes 12 appetizer servings.
SLOW-COOKED SALMON WITH SPRING VEGETABLES
“Do all your prep work in advance,” writes Diane Morgan in “Salmon” (Chronicle, $19.95), “and you’ll be ready to serve this main course in less than a half-hour.”
4 (6-ounce) center-cut salmon fillets
Extra-virgin olive oil for rubbing
Fine sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of cayenne pepper
2 cups dry white wine
20 petite carrots with tops, trimmed, leaving ½-inch green stem attached
1 leek, white and pale green parts, sliced ¼-inch thick
16 slender asparagus spears, tough bottoms discarded, cut into 2-inch lengths
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into chunks
½ cup fresh or frozen green peas, rinsed under hot water if frozen
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint, plus more for garnish
1. Remove salmon from the refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking to bring it to room temperature. Pat dry with paper towels.
2. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 250 degrees. Line a small rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Arrange the fillets on the baking sheet. Rub each fillet all over with the olive oil and season with salt and black pepper and cayenne.
3. Bake salmon until it is almost opaque throughout but still very moist, or an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center registers 115 to 120 degrees, 15 to 20 minutes. (When the salmon is cooked gently at such a low temperature, it looks underdone because the color is so vivid, but it is fully cooked.)
4. While the salmon is baking, set a 10-inch frying pan over medium-high heat, add the wine and ½ cup water, and bring to a boil. Add the carrots, leek and ½ teaspoon salt. Turn the heat to medium and simmer until the carrots are crisp-tender, 12 to 15 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, fill a small saucepan two-thirds full with lightly salted water and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the asparagus, adjust the heat to a simmer, and cook until the asparagus is crisp-tender and bright green, 3 to 4 minutes. Drain in a colander, rinse under cold running water, and blot dry.
6. When the carrots are tender, remove the pan from the heat. Using a heat-resistant rubber spatula, stir the butter, a hunk at a time, into the wine mixture until combined. Season with salt and black pepper. Return the pan to the heat and add the asparagus and peas. Warm until the asparagus and peas are just heated through. Stir in the mint.
7. Divide the vegetables and sauce evenly among warmed shallow pasta bowls. Place a salmon fillet on top and garnish with a little mint. Serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.