Wild Salmon: In the Pink
This article first appeared in the Wine Spectator.
When May rolls around, people come into Jake's Fish Market in Manhattan and ask owner Bill Bowers, "Has the season started yet?" The "season" is the wild Pacific salmon season, a time that gets the fans of this fish salivating. But while salmon harvests in Alaska, which produces 90 percent of the domestic catch, have been very good in recent years, for many people there is no "season." That's because salmon has become the Chardonnay of fish--it's everywhere, all year long, at trendy bistros and hotel banquets alike, thanks to salmon farming, which has helped to double U.S. salmon consumption since 1990.
Using technology developed at the University of Washington, Norway established the salmon-farming industry in the late 1970s and has remained so dominant that farmed Atlantic salmon is often called Norwegian salmon, even when it comes from Chile, the United Kingdom or Canada, the next three largest producers. Most salmon farmed in the United States comes from Maine or Washington state.
Atlantic and Pacific salmon, both from the temperate or cold waters of the Northern Hemisphere, are the only true salmon species. While wild Pacific salmon is abundant, wild Atlantic salmon is so rare that you'll probably have to catch it yourself. Farmed Atlantic salmon--which has good oil content and moistness, and retains most of the color in its rich orange flesh when cooked--is the salmon most Americans see, especially from fall through spring. Pacific salmon is also farmed, but on a much smaller scale.
So when we speak of wild salmon, we're speaking of Pacific salmon. If this species has become the Chardonnay of fish, then king, or chinook, salmon is the Corton-Charlemagne. King salmon is high in fat, comparable to farmed Atlantic salmon (though fat content of the farmed fish varies a bit depending on its diet). The flesh is usually red, but there are rare white-fleshed kings that Bowers says are phenomenal. Wild salmon's fat content, which gives the fish much of its flavor--like a well-marbled steak--will depend on where the salmon spawns. Fish often travel great distances to lay their eggs, particularly up Alaskan rivers like the Copper and the Yukon. To make that journey, the salmon must have a reservoir of fat. The longer the journey, the more fat and the more flavor. (Of course, if the fish is caught at the end of its journey, it will have burned up its fat reserves.)
Though the length of salmon seasons and the amount of fish caught can be as reliable as Punxsutawney Phil the groundhog predicting spring, king salmon season in Alaska usually begins in mid- to late May with Copper River salmon. The Bristol Bay and Yukon River seasons begin in mid-June; both run through mid-September. Following immediately is the troll-caught winter king season, which runs through March. Troll-caught king salmon--nabbed by hook and line from a slow-moving boat in deep waters--is fish retailer Harry Yoshimura's favorite. "I like it early in the season, when the weather is cold and the fat content is very high, giving it a rich flavor," says the owner of Mutual Fish in Seattle.
The sockeye season runs from mid-May into September. Perhaps because this fish is somewhat leaner than king salmon, sockeye's hearty flavor has been underappreciated by Americans, who usually see sockeye only in cans. But the Japanese prize this salmon and take up to 60 percent of Alaska's harvest. "That should tell you something," says Mark Bittman, author of Fish, a buying and cooking guide, and a huge fan of sockeye. "If I had a choice of fresh farm-raised salmon and sockeye frozen from last year's harvest," he says, "I'd take the sockeye."
Coho, or silver, salmon is in between king and sockeye in size but leaner than both, though the fat content is still sufficiently high for good flavor. The color of the flesh is generally not as dark as that of king salmon, and the flesh of smaller, pan-size coho is an even lighter pale pink. The coho season runs from early July through mid-September.
Chum salmon is quite lean, offering about one-third the fat of king salmon, with firm meat and orange, pink or red flesh, depending on where it is caught. Pink salmon, the most abundant salmon, has pink flesh but is otherwise similar to chum salmon. While chums and pinks are often considered the poor cousins of kings, they can make fine eating. The chum season begins in June and ends in late September; pinks begin in early July and go through August. Many Americans will see these fish sold in late summer as part of supermarket specials. (The season for Canadian wild salmon, the second-largest production in North America, begins in July and runs as late as November, depending on the type.) "I like them early in the season [late May or early June], when trollers catch them with hook and line," Yoshimura says. Line-caught salmon is always preferable, he adds, because netted salmon can get bruised or can drown, making the flesh deteriorate.
As good as wild Pacific salmon is, however, the consistency of farmed Atlantic salmon has lulled consumers, retailers and chefs into a comfort zone, though somewhat less so on the West Coast than in the rest of the United States. "Chefs can call up anytime and say, 'I want 35 pounds of beautiful fish tomorrow,' and they'll get it. You can't do that with wild salmon," Bittman says. Though he's a "big fan" of farmed salmon, Ed Brown, chef of The Sea Grill restaurant in Manhattan, looks forward to the wild salmon season. But, he says, "most Americans aren't used to wild salmon's stronger flavor and might say, 'Whoa, where did that come from?'" Last summer, I tasted Copper River salmon and farmed Atlantic salmon from the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick, Canada, at Oceana Restaurant in Manhattan. Pan-seared Copper River salmon was clearly the winner. It had a richer flavor and a firmer texture than the Atlantic species, and retained a more appetizing color. When grilled, the Copper River salmon again showed better, though the differences weren't as dramatic. In a salmon carpaccio, however, I preferred the raw Bay of Fundy species, which seemed richer, if chewier.
While most farmed salmon is shipped and sold fresh, wild salmon is sometimes frozen. But freezing techniques have gotten so good that it hardly matters. The Japanese, for example, have no compunction about frozen fish--and who knows more about fish than they do?
How to Get It
Salmon, like all seafood, demands a reputable retailer. If your local fishmonger doesn't normally carry wild salmon, ask him or her to special-order it for you. Otherwise, here are some mail-order sources. Prices do not include shipping :
Seattle (800) 824-6389. Frozen king and coho sold year-round. Two one-pound
king fillets, $34.50; two pounds of steaks, $32.50. Whole fish on request.
Mutual Fish, Seattle (206) 322-4368. Wild coho and sockeye in season, king salmon all year long; all three varieties available fresh or frozen. Depending on type, prices for whole fish range from $2.99 to $7.99 a pound.
Pure Food Fish Market, Seattle (800) 392-3474. Fresh Copper River king salmon (steaks, $9.95 a pound; fillets, $10.95 a pound) and sockeye salmon ($6.99 a pound for whole fish) in season.
10th & M Seafoods, Anchorage, Alaska (907) 272-3474. All types of wild salmon sold fresh in season and frozen during the off-season. Frozen sockeye fillets, $5.95 a pound; steaks, $5.59 a pound. Frozen king salmon steaks, $5.25 a pound; fillets, $5.95 a pound.