A Guide to Every Type of Salmon You Can Buy
Boost your salmon vocabulary and learn the difference between King, Sockeye, Coho, and more.
Salmon is by far the most popular fish in the United States. In 2017, it was the highest value commercial seafood species, equating to $688 million in revenues. But it would probably be safe to say the average consumer knows little about the pretty pink fish sitting atop their dinner plate.
To prepare you for this year’s wild salmon season, which just started ramping up in Washington and Oregon’s Columbia River, we spoke to three West Coast seafood specialists to put together a handy guide to every type of salmon one can find in the United States.
What to know: It's rich, high in fat, and big.
There’s a reason this species is at the top of the list and earned itself the royal moniker: King salmon is considered by many to be the best salmon money can buy. It’s rich, high in fat, and big. The average weight of a King salmon is 40 pounds, but they can weigh as much as 135-pounds or as little as 20-something. “They spend more time at sea growing and eating,” says Matt Stein, chief seafood officer at King’s Seafood Company. “They’re going to be a bit more loaded with Omega 3’s, which usually translates to fattiness and flavor.”
The flavorful meat and thick filets make it one of the most prized among chefs and home cooks. It holds up well on the grill and when pan-roasted in a nonstick skillet, creating a custardy center with a slightly nutty flavor when medium-rare. Like steak, it’s important to temper King salmon filets on the counter 30 minutes to an hour before cooking and allow it to rest when it comes off the heat.
King salmon has a far larger geographic range than most other species, stretching down into the Central Coast of California all the way up through Alaska and into Asia. The color of the flesh differs from river-to-river, as well depending on their diets before heading into freshwater to spawn. The hue of the filet can be as red as Sockeye, any shade of pink or orange and, even white or marbled. The latter tends to be found in fish caught in Northern British Columbia and Southeast Alaska.
That wide range does not equate to an abundance of King Salmon. It’s one of the rarest species—in 2016, a mere 11,862,243-pound of King salmon were caught in U.S. waters compared to 287,251,862-pound of Sockeye—which is why it’s so damn pricey. King salmon caught from prestige rivers like Copper or Columbia Rivers can easily fetch $50 a pound retail. Make sure to avoid these mistakes when you’re forking over that kind of money.
What to know: Super flavorful, bright red flesh, generally leaner.
Sockeye salmon are known for their bright red flesh and their bold, salmon-y scent. They’re the most flavorful (what some would consider fishy) of all the salmons and are commonly sold smoked, in high-end salmon burgers, and by the filet.
Significantly smaller than Kings, not as fatty and generally leaner, full-grown Sockeyes start around five or six pounds on up to 15.
Sockeye is also a heck of a lot cheaper, often retailing $15 to $20 per pound, possibly more depending on the river—Columbia and Copper tend to command more because of name recognition.
While those aforementioned runs get a lot of press, many chefs, like L.A.-based, James Beard Award-winner Michael Cimarusti (Providence and Connie & Ted’s), prefer some of the lesser-known areas. “One of my favorite runs is Quinault River,” says Cimarusti, who gets his pick direct from the Quinault Indian Nation. “Sometimes we get them less than 20 hours from the river. The quality of that fish is incredible.”
Cimarusti recommends cooking Sockeye fillets (or any salmon filets) on a hot, well-oiled grill, brushed on both sides with a whisper-thin layer of mayonnaise, seasoned with salt and pepper, starting with the skin side down first.
What to know: Medium-fat, subtle flavor, great for cooking whole.
Coho salmon doesn’t get the recognition that fatty King and bold Sockeye does, but it has a lot going for it. Its medium fat content gives it a mild, subtle flavor that is less in-your-face. While they can get up to 23 or 24 pounds in size, Cohos tend to be smaller, making them a great pick for cooking whole.
“The traditional Native American cooking technique for this area is to hang the fish by the collar on a cross and lean it over the fire to slow smoke it,” says Portland-based chef Doug Adams, of Bullard. “You can just stuff Cohos full of herbs and cook the whole thing on the grill.”