Get schooled on this heart-healthy fish
Know that the fish is wild and it is harvested from a sustainable, highly regulated fishery.— Liz Chase of BEACH’M Fishery, a family-owned salmon harvesting operation
Beautiful to look at and even better to eat, salmon is a health-foodie’s dream. This fish has spawned fans across the globe, both because of its heart-healthy benefits — thanks to its omega-3 oil content — and its versatility in the kitchen or out on the grill. If you feel as though you’re swimming upstream when you stand at the seafood counter at the grocery store or scan the menu at your favourite restaurant, don’t worry. With a little schooling, you, too, will become hooked on salmon.
Out in the wild
Many salmon lovers and experts prefer salmon labeled “wild-caught,” which comes from the waters of the Pacific Northwest.
Author and journalist Maria Finn, former commercial fisherwoman and technician for the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, notes that there are five species of Pacific Northwest salmon, and which one you choose depends both on the health benefits and the flavors you are looking for, as well as how you intend to prepare it.
Pink salmon, also called humpy salmon, grow to about 3 to 5 pounds and have soft, pale flesh. “They are very good fresh,” said Finn, “but are most frequently canned.” Finn uses this salmon in chowders and for salmon burgers. Pink salmon, with its mild flavor, is the "hamburger" of salmon.
Red — or sockeye — salmon have firm, bright-red flesh. “They are very high in omega-3 oil and flake easily,” said Finn. “The first big market for these was Japan, where they are coveted for their size. At 5 to 8 pounds, they are often cooked and served whole. Foodies in the United States now eagerly anticipate sockeye salmon season.”
“The sockeye is great raw, grilled, fried, baked, poached or steamed,” said Liz Chase of BEACH’M Fishery, a family-owned Alaskan salmon harvesting operation.
Dog salmon, also known as chum, weigh about 10 to 15 pounds and have pale flesh, with low oil content. Finn recommends them for stews and casseroles.
An autumn fish, the Coho — or silver — salmon weighs 6 to 12 pounds, says Finn, and although they are not as dark or oily as sockeye, they are nonetheless excellent for grilling, baking and smoking.
King salmon, also called Chinook, are a favorite with many salmon lovers, says Finn. “They are large, usually 10 to 15 pounds, but can get up to 100 pounds,” she said. “They have high oil content — particularly Yukon Kings, which have to make a 12,000-mile journey up the Yukon without feeding. They have a 1/4-inch layer of fat that makes them oily, delicious and nutritious. This is also the case with Kings in the Copper River.”
A sixth type of Pacific fish, the steelhead, is also considered a species of salmon, but according to the website Salmon Nation, steelhead often live for four years in a freshwater habitat without migrating to the sea, and those steelhead that remain in fresh water and never migrate are known as rainbow trout.
Although each variety has its own strengths on the stove, Finn says there’s really no wrong way to cook salmon. “My favorite is to make a teriyaki sauce and brine them for an hour before grilling,” she said.
Salmon is generally done when it is moist and flaky. One recommendation is to cook the fish 10 minutes for every inch of thickness. Follow packaging instructions if they differ, or ask your seafood seller.
Down on the farm
Atlantic salmon, on the other hand, is synonymous with farmed salmon, says Finn.
“I don't eat farmed salmon, as it has a totally different taste and texture from wild salmon,” she said, “and many of these farmed fish present a threat to wild salmon stocks. If they escape, they can introduce disease into wild salmon runs and compete with them for food.”
Finn explains that farmed salmon are crowded into tight cages and generate enormous amounts of excrement, which is bad for the surrounding environment. In addition, they are fed fishmeal, which is an unnatural food for salmon and can contain genetically modified ingredients.
“Farm salmon's flesh would be beige/gray, except that red dye is used to make it look more like wild salmon,” Finn said. Wild salmon get their striking pink or red color naturally from the foods they eat.
Chase notes that there are no farmed salmon in Alaska. “In Alaska, fish farming is illegal by state constitution,” she said, “so if you do get a fish from Alaska, know that it is wild and it is harvested from a sustainable, highly regulated fishery.”
“Wild salmon has distinct seasons,” said Finn. “King may show up in early spring, and Coho in late fall, but sockeye will be during the summer peak. If salmon is processed, flash-frozen and sold, like at Trader Joe's or Costco, it's perfectly good throughout the year.”
So there’s really no barrier to buying salmon year round. Besides its heart-healthy benefits, wild Pacific salmon is very low in mercury and other toxins, while toxins in a farmed salmon steak are nearly 10 times higher, Finn says, citing Salmon Nation — a community of caretakers with a focus on protecting the environment of Pacific salmon.
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