Salmon specialties

What you need to know about the 5 species in the Pacific

A small king salmon caught off the coast of Noyes Island in southeast Alaska.

If you’re planning to make a trip to Alaska when Covid calms down, or you’ve never been to the 49th state but think about it every time you pass the seafood in the grocery store, here’s some things you should know about salmon.

1. The Pacific salmon basics
There is no “Pacific salmon.” There are five species of salmon that live in the Pacific, but no salmon called the Pacific salmon. If you see salmon advertised as such, it’s likely pink salmon which is the most plentiful. As far as those five go, the desirability rankings are highly debated but tend to look something like this:

1. King (Chinook, black mouth, Tyee)
2. Sockeye (red)
3. Coho (silver)
4. Chum (dog, Keta)
5. Pink (humpy)

Note: The sockeye and chum salmon are important subsistence fish. Sockeye has a rich, oily flavor and is often canned or smoked in large quantities for winter use. My favorite work lunch is a jar of sockeye, onion and chive cream cheese and crackers. Chum is a mild-flavored salmon but the gothic rainbow coloration when it nears spawning can be off-putting. The eggs from chum is often more valuable than the filets for commercial fishermen.

2. Fresh fish comes during summer, unless it’s winter king
The commercial salmon industry fishes in summer as the fish complete their ocean cycle and approach spawning rivers, so the freshest fish will come in the summer and early fall. If it’s March, and you’re looking at Alaska sockeye salmon in your in the seafood department, know that it’s seasoned. If you want to buy it and cook it anyway, go for it, but know the best stuff is a few months away.

3. The 3 (or 4) kings
While a king salmon has different nick-names there are a few different “types.” The standard king salmon is the king salmon you see at the store which is typically caught May-July. The ceremonial first king salmon from the Copper River is passed from an Alaska Airlines pilot to a chef or market owner in Seattle every May. It’s like the first pitch of the salmon season. The Copper River king is said to taste a little different than the rest of the king salmon, perhaps because of the glacial “milk” or particular nutrients the fish feeds on in its infancy. Maybe it tastes different, maybe it doesn’t, but some believe it does, and some might even charge a little more for a Copper River king. Speaking of added expense, the winter king is a typical troll-caught king hooked during the winter, a considerably slower season that many commercial fishermen don’t fish because it isn’t always worth the expense. However, those who do can make good money since it’s the only fresh salmon available during the winter. While prices vary depending on demand, the going price currently (late March) is $23 at the fish market here in Ketchikan. The further it travels from the docks here to the grocery stores there the price could be $30 or higher per pound.

The white king is not typically available for sale, but locally, it’s the favorite. For some reason, roughly 1 in 20 king salmon have white meat. It’s a richer meat and kinda like hitting the king salmon lottery. This is not the salmon to be smoked. This is the type you want to take extra care when cooking to make the most of it even though it isn’t incredibly rare.

4. Fresh frozen is good…for a long time
Last week I ate half a filet from over a year ago. It was vacuum packed within hours of being caught and was every bit as tasty. Unlike game meat, fish doesn’t age well outside of the freezer, so “never frozen” just means that the fish has been slowly degrading since it was caught and if that’s been a while, that’s when you get that fishy smell. The year-old chunk I took from the freezer smelled like cold salt water when thawed, not like fish. If there is clear freezer burn, or the piece smells especially strong when thawed, it might not be good. Otherwise, don’t assume old is bad.

5. Find a recipe you like
Few things are more tragic than thousands of pounds of salmon leaving the state in fish boxes, only to become freezer burned and unused after the angler returns home. If you don’t like the taste of fish, bury it. Don’t throw a piece of lemon on it, cook the life out of it and say it sucks. Cook it until the first sign of fat oozes between the flakes. If it looks like it is smothered in mozzarella, you’ve cooked it too much. Salmon is far more versatile than people might think. Roll chunks in batter, drop it in the deep fryer. Cook it in tinfoil on the grill smothered in teriyaki, BBQ, or coated in your favorite rub. Make salmon patties out of a cooked filet mixed with crushed Ritz crackers, chopped onion, jalapeno pepper, and couple eggs. Do some research and enjoy the healthy omegas.

Raised in rural Alaska, now a teacher and freelance writer in Ketchikan, Alaska.

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