Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Useful Salmon Facts for Fisherpeople, Cooks, and Restaurant-goers

(Laura welcomes your comments, signed or anonymous, in the comment field below any entry)

If you find yourself confused by the variety of names associated with salmon, you are not alone.  Some terms are used interchangeably to describe the same fish.  For example, Chinook, King, and Blackmouth all refer to the same species.  Others are identified by their location, like Copper River Salmon, without reference to the species at all!  Still others are referred to as salmon but actually aren’t.  Atlantic “salmon” sold as Steelhead, is actually a trout, and Danube salmon is something else entirely.  

Because salmon formed the basis of subsistence and commercial livelihoods for centuries of people with different languages in disconnected locations, and because it is important to the mythology and agriculture of those regions as well, it is not surprising that a traveler (or restaurant-goer) may encounter such a variety of terms.  Certainly, almost every region of Alaska is well associated with this wonderful fish. I think it is smart of Alaska Airlines to paint its newest planes with a salmon, instead of the scary looking Eskimo guy.

In Alaska, some salmon is reserved for dog food (but frankly, for most of us non-connoisseurs, unused to five types of salmon, it tastes fine), while other species are considered best suited to the grill or to freezing or smoking.  Next time you see an undesignated salmon in the seafood section of your supermarket, or consider your fishing limit for harvesting vs. “catch and release,” ask about the species!  It may help you make decisions.   

Note: The following date ranges for fish runs are general, but not specific to any particular tributary.   If you are thinking of coming to Alaska for some fishing, the state's Fish and Game Department offers excellent Internet accessible information with updated forecasts for dates and sizes of local fish runs that season.  This is WELL WORTH reading before you book a ticket, buy a fishing license (can do on line), and reserve a week at one fishing lodge or another.


Overall:  All salmon are anadromous, which means that they hatch in fresh water, then travel to the ocean where they live for 1-5 years (depending on species) before returning to fresh water as adults to spawn (drop and fertilize thousands of eggs) and die.  This cycle of life element is key to its mythological significance.  The five Pacific salmon species below are related to Atlantic salmon, char and trout. All are members of the salmoninae family (the root seems to mean leaping), but are of different subfamilies. Some confusion arises because the trout subfamily is called salmo, whereas the salmon subfamily is called oncorhynchus. All salmon look decidedly different when seen in salt water or fresh.  Most do not eat when migrating upstream and, in my opinion, degrade as they progress.  Salmon is a good source of omega 3 fatty acids (note variance per species, below) and vitamin B.

Copper River

Copper River salmon is considered special and is sold at a premium price.  Why? Is it hype or worthwhile?  It is to the tributaries of the Copper River that salmon returns earliest to spawn, in mid-May.  So this occasion deserves the same sort of attention as the season’s first berries or early sweet corn.   Among species, it is king salmon that tend to run earlier than others, so the earliest Copper River catches are likely to be kings, with their higher oil content conferring greater flavor (and ease of cooking) than leaner salmon.  However, the term “Copper River salmon” can embrace any salmon species, so after the joy of May-caught salmon, I’m not sure that the name is worth the price.  In early June the sockeyes (or reds) run in large numbers in Copper River (80,000 counted in one day) and millions elsewhere in Alaskan waters.  I suggest that next time you pay a premium for Copper River salmon, you order the same species from salt water or another tributary too, and compare.       

The Copper River reaches the sea near the small town of Cordova, which is famous not only for its fish, but also for its record snow falls (300 inches) and stunning location, in the South Central region of the state, near Prince William Sound.   

King or Chinook (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha)

The king is, as the name suggests, the largest of the salmon, at about 36 inches and 30 lbs, although records have been won at three times that weight.  This is because they can potentially live years longer than other salmon species (6-7).   Some regions refer to them as Blackmouth for the black color of the gum line (which contrasts with silver salmon, below).  Other names, in British Columbia and elsewhere, are spring salmon, tule, tyee and “chins” short for Chinook. In the ocean, male kings tend to have a bluish-green back and black spots on their tails.  When they are spawning in fresh water, they turn red (as do red salmon).  I imagine that the reason for the greater variety of names for this species than other may relate to the delight in the early migration, right after the rivers thaw, after a long, and perhaps hungry winter.  Haven’t you noticed that people tend to have the most nicknames for their favorite things? 

The king runs are usually May – July.   Kings have a high oil content, which confers a buttery flavor to its delicate, red meat.  By virtue of its early timing and quality flavor, it tends to be higher priced.

Silver or Coho (Oncorhynchus kisutch)

At 24-30 inches long and 8-12 pounds, silvers are obviously much lighter per inch than kings.  In salt water they are bright silver.  Their season in fresh water is August-October.  When spawning, they gain dark red backs and heads and can be distinguished from young kings by their white gums.  Cohos live 1-3 years in streams, then migrate to the sea, where they remain for a year or so before migrating upstream once again.  Cohos have less oil content than kings or reds, which contributes to a delicate texture, a light flavor and often a light color, although the range is broad, from pale beige/pink to dark reddish-orange. Because of its lower oil content, it doesn't freeze very well and can dry out for a novice cook.  I recommend poaching it rather than grilling it, and serving it with a butter sauce.  (see grilling hint below species descriptions).   

The salmon really are so close you could "walk over them"
Red or Sockeye (Oncorhynchus nerka)

Reds, also called sockeyes or bluebacks, measure 18-31 inches and 4-15 lbs and live 3-7 years.  In landlocked areas of the lower 48, they are sometimes referred to as kokanee.   In the sea, they are silver, almost iridescent, and might be mistaken for silvers except for their metallic bluish back.  When they swim upstream to spawn (in June/July), they shift to a most marvelous, bright red with a green head, like a parrot!  The young remain in fresh water for 1-3 years, the ocean for 1-3 more years, before returning to fresh water to spawn.   The Bristol Bay populations of red salmon are the largest in the world, and can number millions of fish in an annual run. These have the bright orange-red meat we tend to associate with salmon.  It appalls me when unscrupulous vendors dye the paler flesh of other salmon species!  Like kings, reds have a higher oil content than silver, but reds have a firmer flesh than kings, so they are better suited to smoked preparation. The Japanese apparently favor this species and are a large export market for Alaskan sockeyes.  Is the salmon sushi you enjoy, from Alaska?   

How they jump such falls is beyond me
Pink or Humpback familiarly known as Humpies (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha)

Pinks are among the thinnest, not surprisingly, because they live only two years.  However, they grow rapidly to 20-25 inches for their 3.5-5 lb.  These are the most prolific salmon (along with chum) and the ones you usually find in cans.  As the name suggests, the meat is a pale pink color, with a low to moderate oil content yielding a flaky texture.    Because they have such small scales, they seem inordinately smooth to the touch.  In the sea, they are silver, with a greenish-blue back.  In fresh water, they have a white belly, a black/brown back, and spots. When they return to fresh water, (late June – Sept), the males develop a distinctively large hump, hence their nickname, and hooked jaws.  The young leave fresh water during their first spring, remain in the ocean for about 18 months, and then return to fresh water to spawn and die.  Of all salmon, I like least the flavor and texture of humpies so I don’t keep them when I catch them.  

The chum look pretty gnarly by the time they reach us
Chum or Dog    (Oncorhynchus keta)

Chum (and humpies) are the most widely available and distributed species of salmon.  In size, chum (also called calico, silverbrite or Keta salmon) are generally 24-28 inches and 10- 13 lbs, but we have caught some much longer in the streams near our cabin.  With their vertical stripes and deeply forked tail, they are very distinctive looking.   In the sea, dog salmon are metallic blue-green with lots of dark speckles (like freckles, smaller than the spots on other species).  Once in fresh water, the males turn darker with red-purple vertical stripes and develop a hooked snout and canine like teeth (hence the nickname).  The females are similar but without the vertical lines. Chums have two runs, one in summer and one in the fall, and are traditionally dried as the winter food of subsistence fishermen and their mushing dogs.  Like pinks, the young migrate to the sea their very first spring, where they remain for 3-4 years before returning upstream to spawn and die.  Chums have the lowest oil content of all, hence a very mild flavor and a coarser texture.   Store bought lox is often prepared from chum.


Every Alaskan I know has a favorite preparation for various fish dishes.  So I don’t presume to know more than others, but since you are reading this blog, let me share my two cents on cooking salmon:

1)    DO NOT start by cooking it skin side down (in a pan or a grill).  I absolutely do not understand this suggestion in a number of cookbooks.  By cooking it meat side down with the skin on top, you can essentially seal the juices between the initial crusting of the meat and the skin, and then when you flip it over, you can test when it is done.  Aren't these points the two goals of any meat cooking person? 

2)    Poach silver/coho salmon or grill it in tin foil packets with veggies to moisten this lean fish.  People who don’t cook fish often are likely to overcook it and rue the cost/effort/disappointment.  This is a delicious, delicate fish.  Don’t screw it up.

3)    When you buy fish at the market, ask what species it is.  Knowing the oil content will enable you to cook it appropriately.
4)        Because Pinks and chum are lean and flaky, they will break up and lend themselves  best to preparations where a full fish is not a key point:  soups, stews, breaded, goopy salads, salmon puffs, etc.

5)    The effect of freezing fish:  Many Alaskan tourists come for the fishing, after which they have their guides flash freeze their catch so they can fly it home, for a dinner or two or three with their friends.  What is the effect of freezing?  The short story is that the muscle shrinks and the intra-cellular space increases.   The likely effect of this is that the fish will be drier and flakier than if you had cooked it fresh.  As a result, oilier fish (like kings and reds), freeze better than the less oily varieties of salmon (silvers, pinks, and chum).  The texture of any lean species, like pike or walleye, degrades when frozen.  You can certainly freeze and eat them with gusto, but you might alter your preparation.  As mentioned in #4, you might prepare them as delicious fish cakes or stew or a dip, rather than saute or grill them, in which case they might still be tasty but might fall apart.      

Enjoy your salmon!  

(Laura welcomes your comments, signed or anonymous, in the comment field below any entry)


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