The Complete Guide to Salmon: Salmon 101
We’ve put together a comprehensive guide on salmon to answer any question on America's most popular fish.
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This is part 1 in a series. Here is part 2: The Complete Guide to Salmon: Buying and Storing Salmon and part 3: The Complete Guide to Salmon: Preparing & Cooking Salmon.
Arguably the most popular fish in the U.S., salmon is loaded with nutrients, it's versatile, and it's easy to prepare. And though it has a lot of flavor, it’s not particularly “fishy,” which makes it a favorite even with the “I don’t like fish” crowd.
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Basic salmon questions, answered
Let’s start with some of the most common things that shoppers and cooks want to know.
Is salmon a fish?
Salmon begin and end their lives in freshwater rivers, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration explains, but spend the rest of their time in the ocean. This is known as being anadromous and has led to some confusion as to whether salmon should be classified as seafood or freshwater fish. The answer is: both!
How many types of salmon are there?
Depending on who you ask, there are either eight or nine species of salmon, starting with Atlantic salmon, which is just one species, plus seven types of Pacific salmon. Chinook/king, coho, chum, sockeye, and pink all swim in North American waters. Masu and amago salmon are found primarily off the coast of Japan. The outlier is the steelhead. Unlike other Pacific salmon, they can spawn several times and don’t die once they do, which leads many marine biologists to suggest that they be grouped with trout, instead.
What do salmon eat?
Wild salmon begin their life eating plankton and insects. As they mature and head out to sea, these predators eat other fish, plus krill, shrimp, and crawfish. (Another common question is do salmon eat shrimp, and the answer is yes, sometimes.) Farmed salmon eat commercial feed made with plant- and marine-based ingredients.
Why is salmon red or pink? Is salmon dyed?
They say you are what you eat and that’s particularly true if you’re a salmon. Salmon's color depends on whether it’s wild or farmed. Wild salmon eat a lot of pink food like krill, shrimp, and other crustaceans that are rich in astaxanthin, a carotenoid pigment that gives the shellfish, and the salmon, their rosy hue.
The food farmed salmon eat tends to be a lot less pink, so aqua-farmers sometimes supplement the feed with astaxanthin or even dye the fish pink. If the salmon you’re buying has been artificially colored it will say so on the package.
Guide to wild salmon
Wild-caught Pacific salmon is at home in waters off the coast of Alaska, California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia in Canada and the river systems going into the ocean. Two species of Pacific salmon are found in Asia, mostly off the coast of Japan.
Species of wild salmon
Here are the wild salmon species that you find in American markets.
• Chinook/king salmon. They crowned this guy king for a reason. The largest Pacific Ocean salmon, these weigh in at an average of 20 pounds, though some tip the scales at up to 100 pounds. Their flavor is arguably the best, with richly marbled fat, and a silky, almost melting texture. Sadly, Chinook is also overfished and typically fetches a higher price than other varieties of salmon. The harvest season typically begins in May and runs through August. Frozen king salmon is available year-round.
• Sockeye/red salmon. With less fat than king salmon, sockeye’s flavor is a little more full-on, which makes it a favorite of many chefs. Its texture is firm, and it's the reddest of all species of salmon. Sockeye hasn’t been affected by the overfishing that threatens king salmon stocks and is more widely available and affordable. Harvest season runs from May to September and fish average around six pounds, but sockeye is available frozen, in shelf-stable pouches, and canned year-round.
• Coho/silver salmon. Coho falls in the mid-range of fat content, below king and sockeye but above chum and pink salmon. A whole fish averages about eight pounds and its flavor is relatively mild. Coho season starts in late summer and runs through the fall, typically through November.
• Keta salmon. Also marketed as chum salmon, silverbrite, or dog salmon, keta salmon gets a bad rap. That’s too bad because a lot is of very high quality. Its mild flavor, firm texture, and low oil content make keta a good choice for drying and smoking. Most of it comes from the frigid waters of Alaska and the Yukon River. Fresh keta is available from June through September, but you can find it frozen all year round. Because it’s leaner than other salmon, it should be cooked at a low temperature to keep it from drying out.
• Pink salmon. In the hierarchy of salmon, pink, aka humpback or humpies, occupies the bottommost rung, but it has many fans who think that this salmon deserves more respect. It’s the most plentiful and also the smallest of the Pacific salmon, averaging just two to three pounds. It’s rare to find fresh pink salmon in the markets since most of it goes straight to canneries for preserving. Its light pink flesh, delicate flavor, and tender texture make pink salmon a good choice for fish cakes and salads. It may also be sold frozen and in shelf-stable cans and pouches.
When is wild salmon season?
The season for wild salmon typically runs from May through September, but the dates vary depending on the particular species and region. In Idaho, for instance, the Chinook season on the Salmon River doesn’t start until mid-August. Conservation goals, water flows, and other factors are also taken into consideration, along with input from tribal representatives, industry associations, and others.
Are wild salmon endangered?
Coho from the lower Columbia River may already be extinct and sockeye from the Snake River are seriously endangered, as are certain populations of Chinook and wild Atlantic salmon. But Alaskan salmon are healthy, as are many populations in the Pacific Northwest.
Salmon need clean, well-oxygenated cold water to thrive and they’re among the first to feel the effects when water quality is threatened. As climate change drives up the temperature of our rivers, streams, and oceans, salmon become more vulnerable to predators, parasites, and disease. Their stocks are also threatened by hydro-electric dams, habitat destruction, and over-fishing.
For more information on how to responsibly shop for wild salmon, check the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide. At the store, look for the MSC Blue Fish Label. It’s the assurance from The Marine Stewardship Council that the fish was wild-caught, sustainably sourced, and from a traceable supply chain.
Guide to farmed salmon
About two-thirds of the salmon consumed in the U.S. comes from aquaculture farms. But despite the fact that we eat a lot of it, public sentiment stubbornly maintains that all farmed fish is bad and wild fish is the only ethical option. The truth is a little more complicated than that.
Is farmed salmon really that bad?
First, we need to accept that there are not enough fish in the sea to satisfy our appetite for salmon. A National Geographic report predicts the total collapse of the global fishing industry by 2048. If we want to keep eating salmon, we need to make peace with salmon farming.
At its worst, salmon farming threatens sensitive ecosystems. When farmed salmon escape from their pens they compete for food and habitat, breed with wild salmon, and threaten the biodiversity of our oceans. Farmed fish can also develop infections and parasites that are sometimes treated with antibiotics that can be harmful to people.
Increasingly, salmon farmers are adopting more sustainable practices. According to the Global Salmon Initiative, which represents about 50 percent of salmon farms worldwide, the use of antibiotics has been cut in half since 2012. Today, aquaculture farms are becoming more efficient, humane, and sustainable, producing clean, healthy salmon, and helping to preserve wild populations.
The key to buying sustainably raised salmon is to make the same demands from aquaculture that we make on traditional, land-based agriculture. Start by educating yourself on where and how it was raised, looking at the current recommendations for farmed salmon from Seafood Watch.
Ask your fishmonger (or server, if you’re ordering salmon at a restaurant):
Is the salmon farmed or wild?
Where was it caught?
If farmed, does it have ASC certification (eco-certification from the Aquaculture Stewardship Council)?
What kind of salmon is farmed salmon?
The answer is, it depends. While Atlantic salmon is the most commonly farmed salmon, coho, Chinook, and sockeye are also raised in aquaculture.
What is Atlantic salmon?
Wild Atlantic salmon are protected by the Endangered Species Act, which prohibits fishing for them both commercially and recreationally. This means that anytime you see Atlantic salmon in the market or on a menu, you can be assured that it was farmed. Despite its name, Atlantic salmon is farmed in the Pacific, too. You may see it listed as Scottish salmon or Norwegian salmon, but those labels only refer to where the fish was raised. Atlantic salmon has been bred to grow quickly and consistently and is resistant to disease.
Farmed vs. wild salmon: What’s the difference?
Though it can be difficult to tell the difference between farmed and wild salmon just by looking at the fish, from an eating perspective, there are some important distinctions between the two.
Because wild salmon are migratory and can travel thousands of miles in their life cycle, they may be leaner than their fattier cousins who live out their lives in the comfy confines of a feeding pen. Wild salmon also have a far more diverse diet, which means that they may be more nutrient-dense than farmed salmon.
What do farmed salmon eat?
What farmed salmon eat depends on who’s doing the feeding. The worst offenders rely on commercial feeds made of wild fish (thus depleting already endangered stocks of wild seafood), GMO corn and soy, and even ground meat. Responsible aqua-farmers (there are many), adhere to strict limits to the amount of wild fish in proprietary feed blends that often include algae, vitamins, and oils rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
What are the health benefits of salmon?
An excellent source of protein and rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, salmon has many health benefits. It’s also a good source of potassium and B vitamins, which are good for energy, as well as selenium, which may ease thyroid problems.
Is salmon healthy to eat every day?
Salmon is healthy to eat every day but as with anything, you should eat salmon in moderation.
Can you eat too much salmon?
While it’s possible to eat too much salmon, it’s not easy to do. You would have to eat about two pounds in a day to see any negative effects. If you're on blood-thinning medication you may want to watch how much salmon you eat, as the omega-3 fatty acids help keep blood thin (which is generally a good thing).
Is raw salmon healthy?
Raw salmon has all of the health benefits of cooked salmon, but before you create sushi from that fillet you just brought home from the market, there are a few things you should know. The FDA recommends that all wild fish be frozen at -4°F for a minimum of seven days, or for 15 hours at -31°F in order to kill any parasites common in wild fish. So if you intend to eat wild salmon raw, ask to be sure it’s been frozen. Farmed salmon is exempt from this recommendation as long as it’s fed parasite-free food.
Can you eat salmon skin?
Yes, you can eat salmon skin. Many people consider it to be one of the most delicious parts of the fish. Skin-on salmon filets are easier to cook, as the skin helps keep the meat intact.
Is salmon skin healthy?
Salmon skin is loaded with good-for-you omega-3 fatty acids. It also offers a powerhouse supply of B vitamins, and collagen which is great for healthy skin. But wait, there’s more. Salmon skin is over 50 percent protein, which builds strong bones and muscles. It’s also a good source of vitamin D and potassium.
Is smoked salmon as healthy as fresh salmon?
Like fresh salmon, smoked salmon is an excellent source of protein, essential vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids. But unlike fresh salmon it’s very high in sodium, something to consider if you’re watching your salt intake.
How many calories are in salmon?
Generally speaking, salmon is considered a low-calorie protein. Calories in salmon vary a bit, though. Three ounces of wild sockeye salmon contains 143 calories and three ounces of farmed Atlantic salmon contain about 177 calories. As with fat content, how many calories are in salmon depends on its type and if it’s wild or farmed.
Which salmon has the most fat?
The fat content of salmon varies depending on the species. Also, because wild salmon migrate and work hard to find food and safe habitats, they tend to be leaner than farmed salmon that live a relative life of leisure. In general, Chinook (king) salmon and farmed Atlantic salmon have the most fat: 11 grams for 3 ounces of fish. For more information on the fat content of salmon see our Salmon Nutrition Chart, below.
How much protein is in salmon?
Salmon is an excellent source of protein but the amount of protein varies, depending on the type and whether it’s farmed or wild-caught. Three ounces of sockeye (wild) contains about 22 grams of protein. Three ounces of Atlantic salmon (farmed) contains about 17 grams of protein.
Does salmon have carbs?
Salmon contains no carbohydrates, making it excellent for people following low-carb diets like the keto diet.
Is salmon a good source of vitamin D?
Coho and sockeye salmon are both excellent sources of vitamin D.
Is salmon kosher?
Yes. Like all fish with fins and scales, salmon is kosher.
Does salmon have mercury?
Salmon contains very low levels of mercury and is considered one of the safer fish in terms of environmental toxins.
Salmon and heart health
When it comes to heart-healthy food, salmon is hard to beat. All those omega-3 fatty acids help prevent blood clots, stabilize dangerous heart rhythms, and improve blood pressure. Research shows that people who eat fish at least twice a week are less likely to experience heart attacks and die from heart disease than people who avoid eating fish.
Salmon and joint health
As an excellent source of lean protein, salmon helps build strong bones and muscles. It’s also a top anti-inflammatory food, thanks again to those omega-3 fatty acids. The Arthritis Foundation reports that people who regularly eat fish high in omega-3s are less likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis and for those who already have the disease, marine omega-3s may help reduce joint swelling and pain.
Salmon and brain health
Salmon is one of the best sources for DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid that’s vital for brain function. DHA deficiencies are linked to serious cognitive problems including a greater risk of Alzheimer's disease.
Salmon and nutrition (a chart)
Here’s how different kinds of salmon stack up in terms of their nutrients.
Salmon and the environment
Both wild and farmed salmon have a huge impact on our ecosystem. Environmentalists estimate that more than 135 other fish and wildlife populations benefit from the presence of wild salmon, and point specifically to the decline in Chinook salmon in the Pacific Northwest as one of the primary threats to the rapidly decreasing number of orca whales in that region.
The benefits of nutrient-rich wild salmon extend well beyond the animals (and people) who eat them. Bears and eagles bring salmon into the forest, distributing the fish nutrients there. According to David Montgomery, author of King of Fish: The Thousand-Year Run of Salmon, one-third of the nitrogen in old-growth trees can be traced back to fish.
If wild salmon and the environment are important to you, look for the MSC Blue Fish Label when you shop. It’s the assurance from The Marine Stewardship Council that the fish was wild-caught, sustainably sourced, and from a traceable supply chain.
Salmon farms also have a big effect on the environment. From the use of antibiotics and pesticides, to the spread of diseases and parasites and escapes that threaten the biodiversity of the oceans, aquaculture has the potential to cause enormous environmental harm. As awareness of these issues grows, the industry is increasingly adopting strict requirements from organizations such as the Aquaculture Stewardship Foundation to become more environmentally sustainable and socially responsible. Look for ASC certification when you shop for farm-raised fish.
The best salmon for different types of cooking
Now that you’ve learned all about salmon, it’s time to get to the best part, the eating! But first, here’s a handy chart for reference so you know which salmon works best for various kinds of cooking. Once you sort out your cooking method, you can move on to what flavors to include and what kind of salmon to buy. What is the best type of salmon to eat? It depends on what you’re in the mood for.
With just four ingredients, this recipe is about as easy as it gets. It takes just a minute to make the miso marinade, and it will last for weeks in your refrigerator. Go ahead and double that part of the recipe so you always have some on hand.
Ginger, soy sauce, and toasted sesame oil are a flavor combination that’s good on so many things but really stands out when paired with salmon. Cooking this under the broiler helps set the glaze, but it does equally well in a hot oven or on the grill.
Lemon is a classic seasoning for fish and it lends its bright flavor notes to this salmon, but don’t let the fish sit in the marinade for more than 30 minutes or the acids will start to ‘cook’ the fish and alter its texture.
Keep a jar of the simple-to-make seasoning blend on hand and get dinner on the table in just minutes. Rubbing the hot grill grates with an oil-soaked paper towel before you start cooking can help keep the fish from sticking.
This five-ingredient recipe is easy enough for a weeknight and elegant enough for a special-occasion dinner. Just be sure to plan ahead so the fish can marinate for a few hours before cooking.
Next time you have a little bit of leftover grilled or roasted salmon, use it to make this elegant pasta. Be sure to keep the heat low after adding the salmon to the sauce so that the fish doesn’t overcook.
A little bit sweet and a little spicy with lots of fresh herbs and lime, this salmon dish has all the flavors. You can roast this versatile recipe in the oven or fire up the grill.
When you want to get dinner on the table fast, nothing beats a sheet pan supper. Here fresh asparagus and baby potatoes cook alongside salmon filets so you can have the whole meal ready in just 30 minutes. The fish gets extra flavor from a hoisin glaze and the vegetables get tossed with an easy herb butter.
Grill, sauté, or roast your salmon for these easy tacos. Here, they’re paired with a rich avocado cream for an added dose of heart-healthy omega-3s.
If you happen to find a slab of fresh king salmon at the peak of its summer season, bring it home and treat it to this extra-special cooking technique. The low heat slowly renders the fat and the fish comes out silky, tender, and full of flavor.
Salmon in an extravagant cream, white wine, and garlic sauce might not be a dish you’ll make everyday, but when you’re in the mood to splurge, you’ll be ready with this recipe. The sauce makes plenty to serve over pasta such as angel hair, too.
Roasting salmon wrapped in parchment paper is a classic technique for keeping the fish moist. Here it’s seasoned with briny Castelvetrano olives and capers, sweet golden raisins and rum, and tangy lemon juice.
Learn more about salmon
To get maximum enjoyment out of every luscious bite of salmon, explore more details about buying, storing, and cooking salmon in these additional articles in our salmon series.