Under the sea.

From K., 28 September 2010, salmon – what are the differences?

Q: Silver salmon. Red salmon. King salmon. Differences between each and recommendations for preparation … ready, set go!

A: Thanks for your excellent question.

Your question illustrates some of the problems with naming in the fish industry. What you call “silver salmon” others call “coho”; what you call “red salmon” others call “sockeye”; what you call “king” others call “chinook.” And that’s not by far the most confusing situation – the celebrated striped bass also goes by rockfish, which sometimes is confused with red snapper (the mislabeling may be intentional and takes advantage of people who don’t realize that the two fish look and taste completely different). Most people can tell beef from pork by looking at the package, but not that many can identify fish by appearance, especially once it’s been cut up.

So this is a problem – if you can’t tell a piece of coho from a piece of sockeye by looking, you probably can’t be certain that your market labeled the fish correctly. Apart from the taste and culinary quality of the fish, you may be concerned that you’re eating a threatened species, or one raised or caught under problematic or unsustainable conditions. For example, Atlantic salmon are almost exclusively the product of aquaculture, and most (about 80%) of all Pacific salmon are wild-caught; because of the higher cost of Pacific salmon and the demand for wild-caught salmon among foodical types, farmed Atlantic salmon often is sold as wild Pacific salmon. Seafood renaming and mislabeling is a serious issue, and the federal government’s National Seafood Inspection Laboratory reports that over one-third of the seafood sold in the United States is mislabeled.

Now, going back to your three kinds of salmon. I mention the naming issues to point out that the label on a package of salmon may not reflect its true nature, especially if you’re buying a fillet rather than a whole fish. So instead of thinking too much about the name, look at the fish, and smell it, and press it with your fingertips to get a sense of its texture and fat content. What you observe is more important than the label, and the quality of fish can vary even within species. Is the fish deep orange to red, or is it a paler hue? Does it have a translucent quality, or is it dense? Are the muscle striations broad and white, or indistinguishable except as a pattern in the flesh? Farmed Atlantic salmon tends to be a light pinkish-orange, smooth and fatty, with broad white striations, and an almost translucent quality. Pacific salmon tends to be darker and denser, with finer striations and little white matter distributed through the raw product, and this should be true of each of the types you mentioned. Differences in taste are not terribly significant when tasting the raw product, but cooked Pacific salmon has a richer, more “salmon-y” taste and breaks into finer flakes than farmed Atlantic salmon, which may feel soft and somewhat fatty in the mouth and cleaves to large flakes along the lines of those white striations. Farmed salmon, once cooked, tastes blander – it does possess some of that “salmon-y” quality, but it’s not as intense.

I’m not a major fan of salmon, honestly, and the only way we eat it with any frequency at home is raw – usually with smoked salt and lemon. That said, we do eat it from time to time. I enjoy it most when prepared with strong flavors – Indian spices really suit salmon, I think. I also don’t like it cooked all the way through – instead, I prefer it cooked to about medium rare, so it’s not cooked in the center, or even just cooked on one side (unilaterally, usually by poaching it in a shallow broth), leaving the other side slightly warm but essentially rare. Using either of these methods, the skin will not be crisp, so I don’t serve it with the salmon. Instead, I remove the skin before cooking and broil it separately for a snack, brushed with miso and mirin.

Undercooking the salmon has another advantage in addition to better flavor. You may have noticed that, when you cook salmon all the way through, a white, coagulated-looking substance appears. That, my friend, is albumen, the same protein as in egg whites (or one of the proteins found in egg white). It’s not fat, as many people believe. Around 62C/144F, proteins denature, unfolding and linking together, firming the flesh and squeezing moisture from the fish along with albumen. The appearance of albumen – besides being unsightly and texturally unpleasant – is a sign that you have overcooked your salmon.

To check whether the fish you want to eat is a good choice from an environmental or health standpoint, check out the excellent Seafood Recommendations utility from Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. If you’ve got an iPhone, they’ve got a free app.

Masala-rubbed roast salmon with yoghurt sauce

I nearly won the James Beard Twitter Recipe contest with this recipe last year. Some cocktail (bah) beat this salmon by half a point – HALF A POINT! – when the James Beard kitchen prepared and tasted it with Anita Lo of Anissa (and of Top Chef Masters fame). Well, whatever.

This recipe serves three. Multiply as needed. Because you are not cooking the fish all the way through, be sure to keep everything cold until you are ready to cook. If you want to season the fillets ahead of time, they will keep overnight, tightly covered, in the refrigerator.

1 lb Pacific salmon fillet, skin removed, evenly divided into three portions
2 tsp each garam masala, ground coriander, cumin
½ tsp black pepper
Vegetable oil

½ c Greek yoghurt (full fat if available; otherwise 2%)
2 tbsp sour cream (full fat)

Salt and pepperAbout 6 leaves each mint and basil

450F/230C oven.

Combine the yoghurt, sour cream, and a little salt and pepper to taste. Set aside. Roll the mint and basil leaves into tight cigars and slice as thinly as possible (chiffonade).

Line a sheet pan with a Silpat or grease well with oil. Place the salmon fillets on the sheet pan and season with salt. Combine the spices and coat the top surface of each fillet evenly. If you like, you can make more of this spice mix, but don’t go too crazy when coating the fish. Drizzle evenly with vegetable oil.

Place the fish on a rack in the middle of the oven. Roast about 5 minutes (when the fish starts to turn opaque about 1/3 of the way through from the top and the bottom), and then remove from the oven. Don’t walk away from the oven. Keep an eye on the fish and pull it earlier if it starts to cook more quickly, or leave it in a minute longer if it isn’t cooking quickly enough. Plate and spoon some yoghurt sauce over the top; garnish with mint chiffonade. Serve with black lentils.

Unilateral salmon, leeks, soy beurre fondue

Unilaterally cooked salmon usually is prepared by searing one side of the fish (generally the skin side) so the skin is crisp and the salmon is cooked on that side. Shallow poaching in hot oil is an easier technique for most people.

You will need a thermometer for this dish to avoid plunging the salmon into too-hot oil and releasing albumen. The salmon will not be cooked through, but will be cooked on the bottom and rare on top. If you can’t stand the idea of partially cooked fish, you can poach it all the way through, but you will need to increase the heat slightly about halfway through cooking to account for the temperature drop when you add the cold salmon.

1 lb center-cut Pacific salmon fillet about 1 inch thick, skin removed, evenly divided into three portions.
vegetable oil
2 inch chunk ginger, peeled and sliced ¼”
2 scallions, washed well and sliced on the diagonal 1”

2 leeks, sliced thinly (white and light green only)
2 tbsp unsalted butter
2 tbsp dry white wine
¼ c chicken stock
Salt and white pepper

2-3 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp light soy sauce (usukuchi) or white soy
4 tbsp cold unsalted butter, divided

Place a medium sauté pan over medium heat and, when hot, add the butter. When melted and just beginning to bubble, add the leeks, stir well to coat, and add the wine and chicken stock. Cover and bring to a gentle simmer; reduce heat. Cook until the liquid has reduced to a glaze and the leeks are tender. If the leeks are not tender before the liquid reduces entirely, add a little more chicken stock. Season with salt and white pepper.

Season the salmon fillets lightly with salt. Place a large sauté pan over low heat and fill about 1/3” (~1 cm) deep with oil. Add the ginger and scallions, and bring to a simmer. Simmer for about 10 minutes to infuse and then turn off the heat. Take the temperature of the oil; once it reaches about 190F/82C, add the salmon fillets. Shallow poach in the oil until the salmon has just turned opaque where submerged in the oil. If the fish doesn’t appear to be cooking, raise the temperature slightly and then turn it off again. The entire process should take about 10 minutes at the most.

Place a small saucepan over medium heat and add the lemon juice and soy sauce. Reduce by half and remove from heat. Add the butter chunks and shake the pan (or stir gently and occasionally with a whisk) until the butter has incorporated and you have a smooth sauce. If the sauce breaks, add a drop or two of warm water and stir or shake the pan again to emulsify.

Spoon some of the leek onto the plate, and top with the salmon fillet (I like to slice it on the bias before plating, but that’s just me). Drizzle with the soy butter sauce.

5 thoughts on “Under the sea.

  1. kristen harbeson says:

    Thanks, Wendy! That’s all very helpful, and I’ll definitely try your recipes. Interesting that there isn’t significant difference in taste between the three kinds of wild Pacific salmon – but the fat content is clearly one of the differences, and I’ll think on it accordingly.

    I can be certain of the authenticity of the different kinds of salmon in my freezer, since they come not from the store but from a friend in Alaska who sent me fish directly from Kodiak – and as someone who has spent time catching and sorting the fish, I trust him to know the difference.

  2. Wendy,

    Great post, but the issues of nomenclature in food extend well beyond salmon – even fish. I have a real issue with meat labeling too, and have blogged about it as recently as the past week. There really needs to be more standardization in food labeling. Going through the Waloo/Escolar/Hawaiian Butterfish dilemma with friends is annoying (and they all got the Klingon Quickstep). What part of the cow does “London Broil” come from? How can a market sell something as a Pork Loin Roast that’s clearly sirloin?

    But, most people don’t care – as long as it’s cheap!

    • Scotty- absolutely right. To keep this from getting too long I only went into a little detail, but mislabeling is a serious problem, and so is lack of standardization. More than once I’ve been at, say, wholefoods, pointed to the halibut, asked if it’s halibut, and been assured that it is. Then the package comes to me with a weight label reading ” ling cod.” It’s irritating to say the least.

      The meat thing is equally problematic, although I think it stems more from a lack of consistent naming practices (or regulations) than a desire to deceive, except when ground beef is the meat in question. What I call tri-tip others call bottom sirloin; hanger steak might be called hanging tender; London broil means top round to some and flank to others, though those are very different cuts.

      Australian law requires fish to be sold under the names set forth in the Australian Fish Names Standard, which avoids confusion. I would love to see such standards for meat and fish in the US. I’m sure there’s some fear of treading on historical names or regional tradition, but maybe both names could be listed.

      • What kills me is that we come at this from a similar background. A writ is a writ. A motion is a motion. A subpoena is a subpoena. London Broil seems to be a method of prep, not a cut. You can also do it with cuts of chuck.

        Having said that, the problem is that we have lost the butchers – we just have cutters. 😦

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