Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Salmon, Part 2

As mentioned in the first part of this series, the salmon is an ancient creature with tens of millions of years on its resume, sustaining civilizations throughout the ages. But in just the past hundred-plus years, this majestic elder of the sea has been taken for granted, then exploited, depleted and endangered. It's been forced out of the wild and thrust into manmade feedlot-size pens, genetically modified and dammed from traveling upstream. But the most incredible thing is that even when it's been pushed to the most unthinkable limits, the salmon continues to show up. Actually, it needs very little from humans -- just a cold, clean place to live, commute and make babies. If we could resume our end of the bargain, the salmon -- because it is remarkably resilient and full of grace -- would reward us tenfold, with a bounty that this generation has never seen.

Last week, we covered the history, biology and socio-cultural and nutritional relevance of salmon. This week, we resume our discussion with the myriad environmental issues, followed by practical tips for shopping, prepping and cooking up this versatile fish.

Environmental Impact: Farmed Salmon

A few things that bear repeating from Part One: 70 percent of the world's salmon harvest is farmed. We're talking about 3 billion pounds of farmed fish coming primarily from Norway, Chile and Scotland. Over the past four decades, the Norwegian farmed salmon industry has ballooned into a global behemoth producing a commodity on an industrial scale not unlike the Tysons, the Smithfields and the Cargills of the livestock world.

As the farmed salmon industry grew, so did its share of problems. Crammed into feedlot-like conditions in open net pens, tens of thousands of fish feed on pellets made of fish oil and fishmeal, a formula described by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as "similar in many ways to dry dog food." According to the World Wildlife Fund, fish caught for fishmeal and fish oil to feed other fish represent one-third of the global fish harvest.

An epidemic of Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) all but wiped out farmed salmon in Chile in 2007. The industry has since rebounded and has kept the virus at bay, but we'd argue that it's no coincidence that in 2013, Chilean salmon farms used nearly 1 million pounds of antibiotics. The US is Chile's number one farmed salmon customer.

Norway's industry has similar problems. In a damning report published in 2011, Norwegian NGO Green Warriors takes the farmed salmon industry to task: "It is an irrefutable fact that the current Norwegian aquaculture industry represents a massive threat to the environment." Citing significant population escapes into the wild (up to 40 percent), sewage and waste ("equals the sewage from more than twice the Norwegian population") and sea lice infestations are among several factors contributing to the decline of wild salmon and the surrounding natural habitat. Declaring farmed salmon unsafe to eat, Green Warriors is calling on the industry to phase out open net pens and transition to closed containment systems.

As we mentioned last week, genetic engineering is a fledgling but distinct possibility for the future of farmed salmon. Already in the US retail market is a salmon that feeds on genetically modified yeast in place of fish oil, as a way to reduce the burden on small fish stocks. Developed by agro-chemical company DuPont and AquaChile, the largest farmed salmon producer in Chile, the Verlasso, salmon received a "good alternative" rating from Seafood Watch, the sustainable seafood report card of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

This begs the question: Should GMO labeling become a reality, would Verlasso be required to disclose its GE yeast?

Then there's AquaBounty, the genetically engineered salmon that has been waiting for FDA approval since April 2013, when the public comment period ended. If the agency gives the go-ahead, it would be historic - the first genetically modified animal to enter the food supply. When the Senate appropriations committee passed the 2015 Agriculture Appropriations Bill in June, it included a pre-emptive amendment from Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who has been known to refer to GE fish as "Frankenfish." When and if AquaBounty enters the marketplace, the amendment would mandate labeling stating that it's genetically engineered.

With a global market for salmon, which only exists in certain areas of the world, one can understand an appetite for farmed salmon, if not condone its environmental impact. But here's the head scratcher: America, a very minor producer of farmed fish (just .8 percent of global farmed harvest in 2011) and a very major producer of wild Alaskan salmon (average annual catch of Bristol Bay sockeye alone is 27.5 million fish) -- eats more imported farmed salmon than its own wild stuff. In his new book, American Catch, journalist Paul Greenberg serves up this zinger: Two-thirds of the salmon that Americans eat is imported farmed salmon. But wait, there's more: 79 percent of all Alaskan salmon? It's exported.

"Quite simply," Greenberg writes, "Americans are risking their wild salmon because Americans do not eat enough of their wild salmon." Even with the great many problems facing American wild salmon stocks (which follows), Greenberg contends that salmon imports are excessive and unnecessary. "We still have a lot of wild seafood, and -- if we were not trading it away -- we could greatly reduce our imports."

Environmental Impact: Wild Salmon

There was a time when overfishing was the culprit for declining salmon populations. As mentioned in Part One, there was an explosion of salmon canneries along the Columbia River in the 19th century, a trend that continued in Alaska into the first half of the 1900s. Salmon runs were so low in Alaska that in 1953, President Eisenhower declared Alaska a federal disaster area.

Since the turn of this century, declining salmon populations on both coasts can be be attributed to a variety of factors -- pollution, drought and rising water temperatures resulting from climate change and dam obstruction, to name a few. As previously discussed, Atlantic salmon in the Gulf of Maine has been on the endangered species list since 2000. Commercial salmon fishing has been off limits since then.

Salmon runs in California, Oregon and Washington, and along some river basins in Alaska, have been largely inconsistent and unreliable. In 2008, king salmon stocks in the Sacramento River basin mysteriously disappeared, forcing California and Oregon officials to take the unprecedented move of cancelling the season that year and the following. Along the Yukon River delta in western Alaska, king salmon have been steadily declining for the past decade. The season was cancelled this year due to a projected low run, as well as in 2008 and 2009. Meanwhile, officials in Washington State were optimistic for expected robust coho and king runs along the Columbia River this year.

The Dam Issue

According to the National Directory of Dams, there are more than 75,000 listed dams in the United States. In recent years, there has been a concerted effort to rethink dams, many of which are obsolete and inoperable -- and impeding the natural flow of water that sustains fish and wildlife. In 2013 alone 51 dams in 18 states were removed, according to the nonprofit group American Rivers. Dam removal is the subject of a powerful new documentary, DamNation. The filmmakers take us on a tour of some of this country's notable obsolete dams that historically have been linked to decreased salmon populations.

Some of them include:

  • The Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams in Washington State. Home to five species of salmon and the Klallam Indian tribe, the Elwha River was dammed in the early 1900s, effectively blocking passage of salmon for 81 miles. Elwha Dam was demolished in 2012, and since then, 70 miles of the Elwha river is now flowing freely and protected within Olympic National Park. (And the salmon are coming back.) Glines Canyon demolition is expected to be complete this year.
  • In Maine, there are more than 800 dams, according to the filmmakers. The Penobscot River is the main watershed that leads into the Gulf of Maine, historic home to the largest run for the endangered Atlantic salmon. In 2010, the Penobscot River Restoration Trust raised $25 million and purchased three dams from the local power company for the sole purpose of taking them out of operation. Two of the three dams -- Great Works and Veazie -- have since been removed. According to the Atlantic Salmon Federation, the Penobscot project "may be the best chance to save the [Atlantic salmon] species from extinction in the US."

In the pipeline there are two major dam-related developments, one a massive tear down, the other a potential erection. The tear down in question concern four dams along the Klamath River Basin that flows for 255 miles from Oregon to California. A federally protected river, the Klamath is home to the historically third largest salmon run in the lower 48 as well as several native tribes. A massive effort to restore this river basin -- notoriously known for toxic algae resulting from stagnant water in dam reservoirs -- has been in motion for more than 10 years involving dozens of stakeholders. In 2010, two agreements -- the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement and the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (commonly known as the Klamath Agreements) - were formally recognized by the US Department of Interior. In April of 2013, the agency issued its Final Environmental Impact Statement, supporting removal of the four dams tentatively slated for 2020. The Klamath Agreements now await congressional approval. In May of this year, Senator Ron Wyden introduced a bill (S.2379) in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that would put the Klamath Agreements into law. A subcommittee hearing was held on June 3, said Keith Chu, a press secretary in Wyden's office. The senator is hoping the bill will advance to the committee markup stage before Congress goes on summer break, with the goal of getting it passed this year, said Chu.

But in Alaska, a future dam on the Susitna River remains under serious discussion. In 2011, Governor Sean Parnell green-lighted a proposal for the country's second tallest dam, at 735 feet, approving $66 million for developer Alaska Energy Authority to study the site. Home to all five species of Pacific salmon, the Susitna River is 313 miles long, running from the Denali range down to Anchorage. The dam would be within view of the renowned tourist destination Denali National Park.

There's one more note from the man-made intrusion department: Pebble Mine. That's the name of a massive copper and gold mine project that would house a mine pit "nearly as deep as the Grand Canyon" according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Bristol Bay is a massive and pristine watershed in southwestern Alaska -- and home to more than 50 percent of the world's sockeye population. In January, the EPA published its second watershed assessment, warning of the irreversible threats to the region. In February, the agency, in a rare move under the Clean Water Act, barred the US Army Corp of Engineers from approving permits for the mine. In July, it formally proposed mining restrictions that have been described as "first steps toward possibly restricting or even prohibiting development of the mine." A public comment period on this proposed rule is now in effect until September 19.

What to Look for/Salmon Shopping

You're looking for luster. Salmon steaks and fillets, regardless of species, should be shiny and glistening. Whole salmon should have clear eyes and firm flesh, nothing squishy. Flesh should bounce back when pressed with a finger. It should smell like nothing or like a stream. Pass on anything that smells like ammonia.

Be a proactive customer! This is especially important at retail seafood counters. In addition to finding out about the fish's origins, ask questions like "When did the fish arrive, and when was it thawed?" (Much of the seafood at retail seafood counters has been flash frozen at sea.) And remember: Anything labeled as Norwegian, Scottish or Atlantic salmon is farmed.

A fishmonger will scale, gill and gut a whole salmon if you ask.

Salmon lovers living far from Pacific salmon territory (California, Pacific Northwest and Alaska) with few wild salmon options may want to explore online retailers. Here are two worth a look:

Vital Choice: Carries king, sockeye and coho. Spendier than what you've been paying for farmed, but it's fairly priced, and shipping is free for orders over $100.

Seattle-based Loki Fish Co. (my local wild salmon source) also does online sales, offering keta, pink, coho and king, both whole and portioned, depending on what's available.

Bristol Bay sockeye is available at supermarket chains Wegmans and Harris Teeter, as well as Walmart stores in select states.


Salmon is extremely perishable. Use fresh salmon within two days of purchase, and keep it as cold as possible without freezing. Since most home refrigerators run somewhere between 36 and 40 degrees, that means a layer of ice is key.

Pack whole fish under flaked or crushed ice (less damaging to the flesh than cubes) just like it's done at the fish counter. If space is an issue, surround or sandwich the fish with a layer of reusable soft ice packs. Wrap fillets or steaks in a zip-style plastic bag. Place in a colander. Find a bowl or dish that the colander neatly fits into, and place colander on top. Surround the wrapped fish with ice; as it melts, the bottom vessel will catch residual water. Add more ice as needed for up to 48 hours.

Thaw frozen fish in the refrigerator.

What to Do with It

No matter how you prepare salmon, food safety is the first order of business. Wash your hands before handling raw salmon (or any kind of raw seafood) and use a nonporous cutting board (plastic, rubber, acrylic) which is easier to clean and sanitize than one made from wood. It's also a good idea to have a separate cutting board for handling seafood. Wash all work surfaces, knives, other utensils -- and your hands! -- immediately after handling raw salmon to minimize cross-contamination. Maybe it's obvious, but worth repeating: Never serve cooked salmon on the same plate that just moments ago held the raw stuff.

Speaking of raw salmon: To eat or not? Sushi, crudo and cured salmon lovers, take note: Unless the fish has been previously frozen, eating raw salmon carries the risk of contracting Diphyllobothrium latum, an invasive tapeworm that can grow up to more than 30 feet long. That's the advice of seafood expert Jon Rowley (mentioned in Part 1 for bringing Copper River salmon to the lower 48). The resulting infection is known as diphyllobothriasis. Freezing the fish for 15 hours or more, according to Rowley, effectively kills the tapeworm larvae.

So how can you tell when the salmon is cooked, anyway? Setting your timer is a good starting point, but not a fool-proof guarantee of doneness. You'll need a ruler or tape measure for a more accurate read: For salmon fillets and steaks, estimate about 8 minutes of cooking per inch of thickness; for whole fish, estimate at least 10 minutes per inch. But before you set that timer, make sure you've measured the thickest part.

A few rules of thumb:

  • As a member of the fatty fish club, salmon, by and large, takes longer to cook than lean fish like flounder. Salmon steaks take longer than fillets due to the bones. 
  • In its raw state, salmon is translucent (think nude pantyhose). As it cooks, it becomes opaque (think colored tights). Ideally, we're looking for mostly opaque, with just a hint of translucence. 
  • Don't be afraid to poke at the middle (or thickest part) of the fish with a paring knife. Does it resist a little bit and easily flake? These are good indicators of doneness.
  • Whole fish will spring back and will be firm to the touch on the outside when done.
  • You may also see white curd-like stuff coagulating on top; that's a protein called albumin. It's totally harmless, but if there's a lot on top, it may be a sign of overcooked fish. 
  • To minimize the white stuff, consider checking the fish at the halfway point for a visual cue. When the fish is about 25 percent translucent, take it off the heat, and let it rest. The fish will continue to cook. Estimate 5 minutes resting/passive cooking time per inch of thickness. 
  • Still unsure? Check out this fish doneness video tutorial from Massachusetts-based cooking instructor Helen Rennie.

Cooking Tips

Here's what we know: Salmon is fatty and rich, even when it's pink and lean. As such, it can handle assertive flavors like curry, smoked paprika, even barbecue sauce. It likes astringent and acidic partners, too -- ginger, mustard, capers and tomatoes all are great contenders. There's a lot of room to get creative and expand beyond salmon with a little herb butter on top (not that there's anything wrong with that). To wit: In her book, Good Fish, Seattle-based chef Becky Selengut cooks up a Jerk-spiced salmon with coconut pot liquor, which is now on my to-do list. Her salmon spice rub is a heady combination of black and red chile pepper, cinnamon, cumin and allspice. She pan-sears and roasts the salmon, then teams it up with a black bean-kale combo swimming in coconut milk. Doesn't that sound fun?

As for technique, there are all kinds of ways to do your salmon. Personally, poached is not among my favorites, as I think the watery broth dilutes the true essence of the fish and makes me think of bad banquet food. Here are some of my favorite ways to prepare salmon:

Grilled on an alder or cedar plank: An easy method for beginners, planked salmon is really hard to screw up. Soak plank in water for an hour. Meanwhile, you can do a spice rub or simply olive oil, salt and pepper and fresh herbs. I like this tip from Dave Joachim and Andy Schloss, co-authors of Fire It Up: "Place soaked plank over fire until plank is charred on one side, at least 5 minutes. Turn the plank so that the charred side is facing up, and place the prepared fish, skin-side down, on top. Cover and cook until fish is opaque, about 130 degrees on an instant-read thermometer.

Cured, as in gravlax, for Sunday morning bagels and snack plates at all times of the day: Making your own gravlax is easier than you think. This is for the kitchen project person, as the fish needs to cure for about five days. Check out this step-by-step tutorial from the Kitchn. P.S.: As mentioned earlier, cured salmon is a raw preparation and as such, we recommend that using frozen (and thawed) fillets to minimize risk of tapeworm.

Whole, on the grill: The most festive -- among the most gratifiying-- ways to eat salmon, in my opinion. As veteran fishmonger Paul Johnson writes in his book, Fish Forever, "Serving whole fish at the table slows down the pace of the beckons us to share and to eat with our hands." (I couldn't agree more.) When grilled whole, he writes, the "skin becomes crisp, like that of a well-roasted chicken," and the "fins, crisped from the heat, break apart into crunchy bits that taste like a cross between dried nori and bacon scraped from the bottom of a cast-iron pan." Ah, yes.

For our Fourth of July supper, I bought a four-pound keta salmon at our neighborhood farmers market. I removed the head (which contains the very succulent collar and cheeks), then marinated in a little orange juice, sesame oil and fresh oregano and cooked separately. A most delicious cook's treat.

For the rest of the fish, I made an Orange and Rosemary Grill Salt from Barton Seaver's book, For Cod and Country:

  • 1 sprig fresh rosemary, needles removed and finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons sea salt
  • Grated zest of 1 orange 
  • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar

I mixed the salt rub with a tablespoon of olive oil and rubbed it all over the fish, inside and out. I stuffed the cavity with a few slices of the orange from which I had zested, then put the whole thing on a hot grill, and cooked it on the first side for two-thirds of the total cooking time, which was about 25 minutes. Two of us gently turned it on the second side and as we approached minute 40, we tested for doneness, as explained earlier.

It was possibly one of the tastiest salmon experiences of my life, and one I plan to replicate before the summer is over. The next day, I whipped up a batch of salmon cakes, which transport well in a lunch box.

Recipe details follow, along with my favorite way to pan-sear and roast a fillet.


A few of Kim O'Donnel's favorite ways to cook wild salmon

Pan-seared and roasted salmon fillets

Certainly you can use the same spice rub for salmon steaks, but instead of pan-searing, try grilling or roasting. This is just one way to rub up your salmon; feel free to play with other spice combinations and see what appeals.

Ingredients :
1.25 pounds of fish, make a spice rub:
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
12 teaspoon ground coriander
14 teaspoon brown sugar
Optional but nice: 14 teaspoon ground coffee
Sesame oil, for brushing
Neutral oil, for cooking (Grapeseed, safflower and sunflower are some examples)

Method :

  1. Place the salt, smoked paprika, coriander, brown sugar and if using, the ground coffee in a small bowl and stir until blended. Pat on top and the sides of the fillets. With a silicone brush, gently dab sesame oil on top.
  2. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  3. Place a shallow, oven-proof skillet (I'm a fan of cast iron) over high heat and swirl a small amount (maybe a teaspoon or so) of the neutral oil onto the surface of the skillet. Once the skillet is good and hot (but not smoking), add the salmon, skin side down, and cook about 3 minutes, allowing the skin to crisp up. Transfer the skillet to the oven to finish cooking, and check after two minutes for doneness.
  4. Allow to rest for five minutes per inch of thickness before serving.

Pan-fried salmon cakes

Recently, I had a bunch of leftover keta salmon after grilling it whole. The next day I made a mess of patties. Here's what I did. You can also use equal amounts canned salmon.

Ingredients :
1 pound leftover cooked salmon or canned salmon
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 large egg, beaten
18 cup chopped leafy herbs (any combination of basil, parsley, cilantro or mint)
14-12 cup breadcrumbs
Neutral oil for pan frying

Method :

  1. Pull apart the salmon into smaller flake-like pieces, keeping a look-out for bones and place in a mixing bowl. Add the mustard, beaten egg and herbs, and gently stir with a rubber spatula or with clean hands, until the mixture is glossy and well combined. Add the breadcrumbs gradually, continuing to gently mix. The mixture should be able to hold together well; if not, add more breadcrumbs. Why no salt and pepper? You'll get a fair amount of salt from the mustard and breadcrumbs, plus I'm assuming your cooked salmon is well seasoned. If not, add a small amount.
  2. Shape into patties using 1/4-cup measure and refrigerate for about 15 minutes to set up.
  3. Place an eight or 10-inch skillet over high heat and swirl in enough neutral oil to coat the surface of the pan. When it's good and hot (but not smoking), reduce the heat to medium and add the salmon cakes, allowing a few inches of space in between. Cook for about 3 minutes on the first side, or until it develops a golden crust. Gently turn onto the second side for an additional 2 to 3 minutes, to finish cooking.
  4. Serve hot or at room temperature, with or without a bun.

Makes 4 to 5 patties.