For most Alaskans, summer means experiencing 24 hours of daylight each day and time for spotting bears. For many folks in the rest of the United States, Alaskan summers mean the return of wild salmon. Fattened for their trip up their birth rivers to spawn after roughly one to five years in the ocean, these oily, nutrient-rich fish are a delicacy in the Lower 48, often costing well over $10 per pound.
Smoked, grilled, baked or canned, Alaska’s wild salmon have a strong, distinct flavor. Those people who claim they can’t tell the difference from farmed salmon have probably been fed an inferior species — commonly, salmon marketed as Atlantic salmon is farmed.
When you’re purchasing your salmon, you should know what you’re getting. The following is a primer on the five types of Pacific salmon. The first three — king, red and silver — are considered the best and are therefore the most expensive. Many Alaskans view pink and chum, while certainly edible, as inferior to the former three, but that is generally because of the abundance of the former three, rather than a lack of quality of the latter two.
King (Chinook): These are the granddaddies of salmon and one of the most prized catches. The largest of the Pacific wild salmon, kings are valued for their rich flavor and firm texture as well as their massive size (they usually do not weight less than 30 pounds; the record weight is 97 pounds). Kings from the Yukon are particularly prized because they are rumored to be fattier, thanks to cold temperatures and a long migration. Kings are excellent smoked, but also taste great grilled, baked, poached or any other way you can think to cook them up.
Red (Sockeye): Another highly valued Pacific salmon, reds are not as large as kings but have a rich, deep color and a high oil content. Flavorful and beautiful, red salmon present well on the plate and their density makes them a favorite for sushi. This fish also pairs well with other strong flavors.
Silver (Coho): Silver salmon are another favored wild salmon. Aggressive and fast, these smaller fish (averaging 10 pounds) congregate at the mouths of rivers to wait for appropriate weather or high tide. They are popular with sport fishermen, and their meat is also prized. Silver salmon’s flesh is more orange than red, and it has a mild flavor, with the firm flesh that is typical of the top three types of Alaska wild salmon. It is a favorite for grilling and canning.
Pink (Humpy): Pale in color and light in texture, the pink salmon has a low fat content compared to kings, reds and silvers. It is the smallest of the five Pacific salmon, averaging 3 to 5 pounds, and the most abundant, so it is easily caught and processed. Pinks are usually canned and sold in Europe and the South, and big blocks of the meat are also shipped to China. (Alaskans are notoriously snobby about their salmon and tend to stick to the three more popular varieties.) Pinks are an excellent source of protein.
Chum (Dog): The least desirable of the five Pacific salmon, chum have the lowest market value and are often sold to foreign markets. Though they are not as firm and rich as king, red or silver salmon, chum are nonetheless an excellent source of protein and have enough oil to be versatile in cooking.
In fact, many believe that chum have a bad rap. At the least, chum are clearly better than farmed salmon. If caught in the ocean and processed well, chum can make a tasty, lightly-flavored dish. Chum’s roe (eggs) are also the most valuable of all the Pacific salmon, and they are often caught for the roe alone. These fish are also marketed as “silverbright.”