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What Is Salmon?
Salmon refers to several species of oily, pink-fleshed fish from the 100-million-year-old Salmonidae family. Salmon are carnivores that spend most of their lives in the ocean, but return to the streams where they were born when it’s time to spawn (deposit eggs). The best salmon are caught as they reach the mouth of their home river, before they start a difficult upstream migration that depletes their fat stores.
Why Is Salmon Pink?
Salmon get their pink color (and distinctive aroma) from a pink pigment called astaxanthin that comes from the crustaceans and algae they eat in the wild. (Farmed salmon, which account for about 70 percent of the global market, have astaxanthin color added to their feed, which results in various shades of pink.)
The 4 Most Common Varieties of Salmon
You’ll probably find several different types of fresh salmon at your grocery store or fishmonger’s: Atlantic salmon, and several varieties of Pacific salmon.
- Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) are found on both sides of the Atlantic ocean and average about 10 pounds in weight, about 14 percent of which is fat. The last wild Atlantic salmon in the US—once abundant in the Northeast—are found in Maine, where they have protected status. That means all commercially available American Atlantic salmon is farmed.
- Sockeye, aka red salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) is a variety of Pacific salmon found from the northern Bering Sea and Japan to the Pacific Northwest's Columbia River. It gets its name from the Native American Coast Salish word sukkai (“red fish”). Wild Sockeye weigh an average of four to seven pounds and make up about one-sixth of commercial fishery. Their flesh is the reddest of any salmon variety and contains about 10 percent fat, including lots of omega-3 fatty acids.
- Coho, aka silver salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) is a type of Pacific salmon found from the Bering Sea to Japan and in the Salinas River in California. It's considered a medium-sized fish, weighing an average of seven to 10 pounds, with lighter flesh and less fat (7 percent)—and therefore milder flavor—than sockeye.
- King, aka spring or Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) is a species of Pacific salmon found in the Yukon River in Alaska and Canada to China and the Sacramento River in California. At 23 pounds, it’s the largest species of salmon. Its flesh is about 12 percent fat, which gives King salmon a rich flavor.
How to Break Down Salmon in 7 Steps
To break down a whole salmon into smaller fillets:
- Remove the scales under very cold running water, starting from the tail and moving up towards the head. Chef Gordon Ramsay’s tip: Check that there are no scales left. Brush the skin back from head to tail with the edge of your knife. This will make the knife strokes cleaner.
- Use a sharp knife or scissors to remove the fins and head. Chef Gordon Ramsay’s tip: Every time you cut into the salmon, wipe off your knife. A clean knife makes a clean cut.
- Remove the collar by cutting behind the gill plate, snapping off the part of the spine attached to the collar.
- Find the end of the spine, and then remove the tail.
- Cut the tail fin away from the meaty part of the tail, then fillet the tail by slicing the meat away from the vertebrae.
- Press your knife against the spine to glide from the head end of the fish toward the tail end, cutting through the ribs with a knife or scissors, to separate the belly (thin, pale, more fat) from the loin (thicker, brighter, less fat).
- Cut the belly and loin into fillets by firmly slicing through the meat and skin lengthwise from the head end to the tail end. Chef Gordon Ramsay’s tip: When making your filet portions, the higher you move up into the belly of the salmon, the thinner you slice.
8 Ways to Cook Salmon
With its relatively high fat content, salmon is more forgiving than other fish varieties and well suited to grilling, pan-roasting, and other easy recipes, making it a favorite for weeknight meals. No matter how you cook your salmon, aim for an internal temperature of around 120°F for medium-rare, and no higher than 140°F. You can use an instant-read thermometer, or cut into the flesh: Medium-rare salmon should be mostly opaque but still juicy, while salmon over 125°F will be flakier and start to form white clumps.
Before cooking, wash salmon, blot dry with paper towels, and bring to room temperature before getting started.
- Grill: Choose a fattier variety of salmon for grilling. Make sure to lightly oil both the grill grate and the salmon itself, whose delicate flesh tends to stick to everything. To get crispy skin, start skin-side down and then flip when the salmon is mostly cooked—you’ll know it’s ready because the salmon will start to become more opaque and release easily from the grill. Try grilled salmon with a marinade, rub, or a simple squeeze of lemon.
- Poach: Poach salmon by heating equal parts white wine and water in a large nonstick pan, then adding the salmon and cooking at a simmer.
- Sous vide: Since salmon filets tend to be uneven in thickness, they’re a great choice for cooking sous vide, which avoids the problem of the thin part being overcooked while the thickest part remains undercooked. Season skin-on salmon fillets with salt and black pepper and place salmon in a freezer bag with a little extra-virgin olive oil to prevent sticking. Submerge bag in a 122°F water bath with an immersion circulator and let cook 20 to 60 minutes, depending on thickness. Gently remove from the bag and transfer salmon skin-side-down to an oiled nonstick pan to get that skin crispy.
- Cure: Cure salmon by rubbing with kosher salt, sugar, herbs, and spices. Then seal tightly in foil or plastic wrap, weigh down with a baking sheet, and refrigerate for several days. You can smoke or grill cured salmon, or slice thinly to top bagels.
- Broil: Try broiling salmon on an aromatic cedar or applewood plank for a smoky flavor. It will only take about 5 minutes under the broiler for the top of the fillets to brown, leaving the centers slightly undercooked. (Turn off the broiler and leave the salmon in a warm oven to finish cooking if you prefer your salmon well done.)
- Roast: Roast salmon fillets in a hot oven (about 450°F) for about 8 minutes, depending on the size of the fillets. For easy salmon clean-up, roast skin-side-down on an aluminum foil–lined sheet pan or baking dish lightly coated with cooking spray, melted butter, or olive oil. This cooking method is ideal for glazed salmon. If you have a bit more time, slow-roasting salmon in a moderate oven (around 300°F) for about 20 to 30 minutes lessens your chances of accidentally overcooking it.
- Sear: If you love the crispy skin that comes from stovetop salmon, briefly sear fillets skin side down in a cast-iron pan over medium-high heat coated with olive oil or butter (or an olive oil–butter mixture), then transfer to a 400°F oven to finish cooking, about 8 minutes. You can add aromatics such as whole smashed garlic cloves or fresh thyme. Serve skin side up to keep it crispy.
- Bake: For reliably juicy salmon, try baking your fillets en papillote (French for “in paper”), a technique that involves wrapping fish in a packet of parchment paper (or aluminum foil). It works by trapping steam, gently cooking the tender fish. Wrapping the fish in paper or foil also means you won’t have to pry the delicate skin off a pan, plus it's a fun presentation for a main course.
20 Salmon Recipe Ideas
- Gordon Ramsay’s salmon with shellfish minestrone
- Fish stock made from leftover salmon carcasses
- Gordon Ramsay’s famous lobster ravioli
- Grilled salmon on a cedar plank with mustard and brown sugar
- Salmon en croute with fresh herb butter and whole-grain mustard
- Oven-baked salmon en papillote with fresh parsley and lemon slices
- Salmon ceviche with cucumber and avocado
- Salmon burgers with homemade herb mayonnaise
- Miso-glazed broiled salmon with braised Asian greens
- Salmon-salad sandwiches
- Beet-cured salmon with black peppercorns
- Salmon and farro grain bowl
- Oven-baked salmon with sorrel pesto
- Grilled salmon collars with garlic butter
- Salmon niçoise salad with green beans and new potatoes
- Slow-roasted salmon with honey mustard and garlic
- Crispy-skinned pan-seared salmon with parsnip puree
- Poached salmon with white wine, lemon juice, and butter sauce
- Salmon, potato, and leek soup with fresh dill
- Salmon avocado maki rolls with soy sauce
Salmon Nutritional Facts
The nutritional profile of salmon depends on a variety of factors, including the species, whether it was farmed or wild caught, and the location of your fillet. Center-cut fillets can have twice as much fat as a fillet from the tail, and farmed salmon tends to have more omega-3 fatty acids than wild, but also more saturated fat and sodium. Wild Chinook has almost twice as much saturated fat as farmed Coho salmon. In general, farmed salmon contains 4,504 milligrams omega-3 fatty acids per six-ounce serving (wild salmon contains 1,774), one of the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids of any food.
Salmon is also a good source of protein and fat: one six-ounce serving of Atlantic salmon (enough for a main course for one) contains 22 grams total fat (about 32 percent of the recommended daily value) and 34 grams protein (about 68 percent of the recommended daily value). Salmon is also rich in vitamins, especially B vitamins. One six-ounce serving of Atlantic salmon contains about 90 percent of the recommended daily value of vitamin B12, in addition to significant amounts of vitamin B6, vitamin B1 (thiamin), vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin B3 (niacin), and vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid). Salmon is suitable for low-calorie and gluten-free diets.
What Are the Health Benefits of Salmon?
Salmon is one of the best food sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which support heart and brain health. Salmon skin in particular contains a higher concentration of omega-3 fatty acids than the meat, as well as protein, B and D vitamins, and phosphorus. (Frying the skin, however, may reduce some of the health benefits.)
In addition to all its B vitamins, salmon also contains minerals, such as potassium (more than a banana!) and selenium, a mineral only needed in trace amounts that may support bone health. Salmon, especially sockeye, is a good source of the antioxidant astaxanthin, which may promote skin health and support the immune system.
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