Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Salmon

Our big cross-country move to Seattle six years ago has undoubtedly resulted in many joyful moments and discoveries. One of the most outstanding has been getting to know wild salmon. On the east coast, where we lived, wild salmon was something of a rarefied luxury, available in upscale supermarket fish counters for limited times only. But now, I can watch salmon leap in the Puget Sound in late summer on an ordinary afternoon, or watch a bunch of codgers cast poles over a pier at a city park and wait for the drama of pulling in a silver-skinned prize.

Or buy wild salmon direct from a family-owned fishery at my neighborhood farmers' market - for a fair price. So fair that we can afford to eat wild salmon on a weekly basis. I now understand why salmon has long been referred to as the king of the waters. It is resilient, athletic and equally gloriously delicious and nutritious. (It's brain food, I really get it now.) Its migratory nature and genetic predisposition to end life where it began - and lay eggs before it's all over - is both heartening and inspiring. The salmon is one hard-working creature.

There is perhaps no fish more prized, beloved, revered, fought over - or exploited - than salmon. In this special two-part series, we take a deeper look at what makes salmon tick, its current state of affairs and the future, with an emphasis on environmental highs and lows - and unknowns.

Brief History

"We know that salmonids are among the oldest families of fishes and have graced the waters of the Earth for many millions of years." That bold assertion comes from Robert Behnke, the late biologist and renowned salmonid authority in his 2002 book, Trout and Salmon of North America. According to Behnke, the earliest known salmonid fossil is 40 to 50 million years old; remains of the eosalmo driftwoodensis were found in present-day British Columbia, Canada and Washington state. By the end of the Miocene epoch (24 to 5 million years ago), says Behnke, various branches of the salmonid family (assumingly the Onchorynchus) were taking root.

There is a federal ban on commercial fishing for all wild Atlantic salmon in US waters. Translation: If you've been buying "Atlantic salmon" at the fish counter, you've been buying farmed salmon.

As for the origins of Atlantic salmon, journalist Paul Greenberg points to Spain - it was "the first salmon," he writes in his book Four Fish, "the strain that birthed the entire Atlantic salmon genome, which millions of years earlier had radiated out across the Atlantic."

So with salmon, we're talking PRE- pre-historic.

And over the ages, salmon kept showing up: Archeologists uncovered Paleolithic cave paintings of prehistoric salmon along the Vezere River in southwest France. First century Roman scholar Pliny the Elder noted Atlantic salmon in Naturalis Historia. The Picts, a cave dwelling society in medieval Scotland, depicted salmon in rock carvings. When pre-colonial English explorers arrived in North America, they were blown away by the salmon bounty enjoyed by Native Americans for at least several thousand years. Captain John Smith noted the "abundance of fish, lying so thicke with their heads above the water, as for want of nets...we attempted to catch them with frying pans."

The nineteenth century was like a salmon rush on both coasts; by 1805, Lewis and Clark had made note of the Pacific Northwest bounty. The Atlantic coast salmon industry rolled out the first of many salmon canneries in 1840 ; by 1866, the Columbia River basin (bordering Oregon and Washington) had its first cannery. By 1883, there were over 50 on the Columbia. The white man's lust for salmon in Washington's pre-state era prompted concerns for the subsistence diet of neighboring Indian tribes, resulting in government-mandated protections. In 1855, territorial governor Isaac Stevens signed the The Treaty of Point No Point, a declaration of native rights to fish and process salmon:

The right of taking fish at usual and accustomed grounds and stations is further secured to said Indians, in common with all citizens of the United States; and of erecting temporary houses for the purposes of curing; together with the privilege of hunting on open and unclaimed lands.

In its first year of statehood in 1889, Washington closed six rivers to salmon fishing, all of which fed native Americans. News of the salmon frenzy reached the other Washington; in his 1908 state of the union address, President Theodore Roosevelt mentioned the decline of salmon fisheries along the Columbia River.

One hundred years later, the tensions between white settlers and native tribes in Washington resurfaced. In 1959, Washington state authorities evicted tribal fisherman from fishing sites protected in the 1855 treaty. The next decade would become known as the Fish Wars, a tense time of "Fish-ins," resulting arrests and ultimately, the federal government taking the state of Washington to court. In 1974, US District Court judge George Boldt upheld the native treaty-protected fishing rights, entitling Washington tribes to 50 percent of annual catch in state waters. Famously known as the Boldt Decision, US V. Washington was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1979.

In recent years, native fishing communities in western Alaska have joined the commercial marketplace. In 2002, a cooperative of six Yup'ik Eskimo villages along the Yukon River Delta founded Kwik'pak Fisheries, a sustainable fishery that would directly benefit its community. In 2005, it became the first Fair Trade fishery in the world.

Factual Nibbles

  • The salmon is an important figure in Celtic mythology, long considered a symbol of wisdom.
  • For Pacific Northwest Indian tribes, salmon is an integral part of life. They honor the annual return of the salmon with a feast. "Without salmon returning to our rivers and streams, according to the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, "we would cease to be Indian people." In Native American mythology, the salmon is a spirit animal with superhuman powers and a symbol of renewal. It figures into countless legends as well as totem art.
  • In the Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens' first novel published in 1836, the character Sam Weller remarked that "poverty and oysters always seems to go together." To which Mr. Pickwick replied: "And it's just the same with pickled salmon," a reference to the glut of salmon in rivers both in Europe and colonial America.
  • In 1962, Alaska recognized the king salmon as the official state fish.
  • Just 30-some years ago, nobody in the lower 48 knew about Copper River king salmon, which was either frozen and sent to Japan or processed into cans. These days, the Copper River - located in south-central Alaska - is arguably the most widely recognized terroir among wild salmon lovers. The Copper River king's claim to fame is the handiwork of Jon Rowley, a Seattle-based marketing genius and former fisherman who introduced the fish to chefs in 1983. It was love at first bite, and the rest was trend-setting culinary history, eventually building a cult-like following willing to pay top dollar. Opening day - every May 15 - is a highly anticipated and publicized event.


The salmon is a finfish within the Salmonidae family, which includes trout, char, grayling and whitefish. It is an anadramous creature, which means it's born in fresh water, migrates to the ocean, then returns to its natal fresh water to spawn (reproduce) - and die.

The salmonids pertinent to this discussion belong to two major groupings: Salmo and Onchorynchus. What we know as wild Atlantic salmon (which is an endangered species, a topic we'll cover in Part Two) is known in taxonomic circles as Salmo salar, a native of north Atlantic waters extending from North America to northern Europe and the Baltic region. Salmo is a derivative of a Latin word that means "to leap," a fitting reference to the salmon's iconic leaping movements from sea back to fresh water. Typically, a salmon spends from one to five years in the ocean where it prepares for its final stage of life, an upstream journey that ranges from 300 to more than 2,000 miles. Unlike its Onchorynchus brethren, the Atlantic salmon is iteroparous, which means it does not die upon returning to fresh water and can spawn multiple times.

And what we know as wild Pacific salmon includes five species from the Onchorynchus group, a native of Pacific waters that span the western US and into British Columbia, Alaska and eastern Russia. They are:

  • O. Tshawytscha : Also known as king salmon, chinook or tyee
  • O. Nerka : Also known as sockeye
  • O. Kisutch : Also known as coho or silver
  • O. Keta : Also known as keta, chum or dog salmon
  • O. Gorbuschka : Also known as pink salmon

The word onchorynchus is derived from Greek words onkos (which means hook) and rynchos (which means nose), referring to the toothy jaw that the male develops.

Also related is steelhead, known as O. Mykiss, the subject of a long debate - is it a salmon, a trout or its own unique mash up? As a member of the O. Group, the steelhead is also anadramous and approach fresh water during winter. 

Pacific wild salmon are caught one of three ways: Gill netting, which uses vast nets in a curtain fashion, either on the seafloor or floating on the surface, which the fish swim into; purse seine, a circular net, in which the bottom of the netting is closed, like a drawstring purse, to capture the fish; and trolling, a type of hook-and-line method in which multiple hooks are towed behind a boat.

The Atlantic salmon, once abundant in nearly every river north of the Hudson, has been disappearing from North American waters. In 2000, the salmon population in the Gulf of Maine was listed as an endangered species. There is a federal ban on commercial fishing for all wild Atlantic salmon in US waters. Translation: If you've been buying "Atlantic salmon" at the fish counter, you've been buying farmed salmon. Aquaculture has become the default method of raising "Atlantic salmon" both in this country and abroad; 70 percent of the world's salmon harvest is now farmed.

Norway, Chile and Scotland are the three leading farmed salmon producing countries, with Norway representing more than 60 percent of the global market share. Norway is also home to Marine Harvest, the world's largest farmed salmon producer, supplying about 20 percent of the global market. The company projects its 2014 harvest to exceed 400,000 metric tons. Since its start in the early 1970s, Norway's farmed salmon industry quickly exploded: In 1972, there were just five salmon farms growing 46 metric tons of salmon. By 1980, there were 173 salmon farms growing more than 4,300 metric tons, and by 2011, the Norwegian haul amounted to more than 1.1 million metric tons. (In non-metric terms, that translates to 2.4 billion pounds.)

Similar to industrial pork and beef, a small number of companies control the global farmed salmon market. Just 15 salmon farm companies, all members of the newly formed Global Salmon Initiative, represent 70 percent of global farmed salmon production. (Next week's discussion will include the environmental impact of farmed salmon.)

In Chile, AquaChile, that country's largest farmed salmon producer, is growing a farmed salmon that feeds on genetically modified yeast in place of fish oil. In collaboration with agro-chemical company DuPont, AquaChile has developed Verlasso, a proprietary brand billed as "harmoniously raised salmon." Since the brand launch in 2011, Verlasso has expanded into the US, where it is available through online retailers such as Peapod and Fresh Direct, as well as brick-and-mortar stores (The Fresh Market) as well as several Costco stores in California. Last year, it received a "good alternative" rating from Seafood Watch, the sustainable seafood report card of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The newest wave of salmon farming comes from this side of the Atlantic, with a genetically modified twist. For the past two decades, AquaBounty Technologies, based in Massachusetts, has been developing its AquaAdvantage salmon, genetically modified with a Chinook growth gene that would accelerate growth in a fraction of the time. In 2010, the company applied for approval from the FDA. In 2012, the agency announced its preliminary findings of "no significant impact" of introducing a GMO salmon to the marketplace. Public comment (which amassed more than 1.8 million signatures in opposition) ended in April 2013, but the agency has yet to make a decision. If approved, it would be the first genetically modified animal to enter the food supply.


The wild Pacific salmon harvest spans from mid-May to early November, depending on the species. For king and sockeye, the season is May to September; for coho, it's June until October, and for chum and pink, June until November. July and August are boon months for wild salmon lovers, particularly in the Northwest.


Generally speaking, the mighty salmon has a silver skin, sometimes with olive shading, and its flesh comes in varying shades of red, pink and orange, depending on the species (and how the fish metabolizes the carotenoids from its pigment-rich diet of krill and other teensy shellfish).

King is the largest of all Pacific species, as well as the fattiest (and the priciest). It has a very rich mouthfeel, almost like goose liver, with a silky texture. A small percentage of kings - about one percent - has white or ivory-hued flesh. The lack of pigment is a genetic anomaly that prevents the fish from metabolizing the earlier mentioned carotenoids. Rarer still is marbled king, which occurs only in the rivers of Washington and British Columbia. Average weight is fifteen to twenty pounds, but a king can weigh up to 100 pounds.

Sockeye is the second most fatty (and second most costly) of Pacific salmon yet unlike king, its flesh is firmer and more steak-like (some might say game-y). It has the iconic intensely red flesh that most people associate with wild salmon. It has few, if any teeth and prominent glassy eyes. Average weight is six to nine pounds.

Coho is considerably leaner than the king but still plenty rich. Its flesh is slightly less red than that of the sockeye but the difference, in this salmon lover's opinion, is negligible (and the lower price tangible). I find the flavor profiles pretty similar too - it would be hard to tell the difference in a blind taste test! Average weight is six to 12 pounds.

Keta is considerably leaner and also drier in mouthfeel. If sockeye is steak, then keta is poultry (which makes it wonderfully versatile in the kitchen). Its flesh is more pink than red. The male develops canine-like teeth during spawning. It is known for its glow-in-the-dark orange pearls of roe, also known as ikura. Average weight is six to 20 pounds. Reasonably priced, particularly for seafood lovers in the Pacific Northwest.

Pink has a distinctly rosey hue and is characterized by a humped back that develops on males. It is the leanest and mildest of this list, which is why it's a great in canned form. Average weight is three to six pounds. Plentiful and affordable.


The nutritional heft of wild salmon as a lean protein is tough to beat. A three-ounce serving of cooked wild coho contains 23 grams of protein for 156 calories. But where the salmon really shines is in the Omega-3 department, those heart-healthy fatty acids with anti-inflammatory and cardiovascular supportive powers. Omega-3 fatty acids may also play a role in lowering the risk of macular degeneration as well as dry eye syndrome. The carotenoid-rich flesh of all wild salmon is loaded with disease-fighting antioxidants. Salmon is also rich in vitamins B-12 and D (both exceed daily recommended values), which target several issues, from bone density to heart health and depression.