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Why You Can’t Cook Wild Salmon the Same as Farmed Salmon

By Cook's Illustrated Published

Wild salmon is far leaner than farmed salmon and with firmer flesh—and that has implications for how you cook it.

Even relatively fatty fish like salmon can go from tender and moist to chalky and dry in a flash. In the test kitchen, we use an instant-read digital thermometer to tell when salmon is done, and we prefer it cooked to 125 degrees for flesh that has the ideal balance of firm and silky.  The majority of the salmon we cook in the test kitchen is farmed Atlantic, but as we’ve cooked more wild varieties, such as king, coho, sockeye, and chum, we started to wonder if this catchall temperature was appropriate across the board. We set up the following test to find out.

Experiment

We cooked samples of four wild Pacific salmon species—king (Chinook), sockeye (red), coho (silver), and chum—along with farmed Atlantic salmon to both 120 degrees and 125 degrees in temperature-controlled water baths. We asked tasters to pick which sample offered the ideal texture for each type of salmon.

Results

Tasters unanimously preferred the coho, sockeye, and chum samples cooked to 120 degrees and the farmed Atlantic cooked to 125 degrees. While a few tasters preferred the king sample (the fattiest wild variety) at 125 degrees, the majority preferred it at 120 degrees.

Fat Differences Between Wild and Farmed Salmon

All wild salmon leaner is than the farmed kind, but certain species like wild coho and chum have dramatically less fat.  

 

Species Wild vs. Farmed Fat (Grams per 100g Flesh) Ideal Internal Temp (°F)
Atlantic Farmed 13.42 125
King (Chinook) Wild 11.73 120
Sockeye (Red) Wild 7.28 120
Coho (Silver) Wild 5.57 120
Chum Wild 3.67 120

Takeaway

Farmed Atlantic salmon differs significantly from the half-dozen commercial wild varieties caught in the Pacific ocean. Here’s why:

The collagen protein in farmed Atlantic salmon contains fewer chemical cross-links than in wild varieties, which translates into softer flesh.

Farmed Atlantic salmon contains more fat than any wild variety (up to four times as much fat as the leanest wild variety), providing the perception of juiciness when cooked. 

With naturally firmer flesh, and less fat to provide lubrication, wild salmon can have the texture of overcooked fish even at 125 degrees. By cooking the wild varieties to just 120 degrees, their muscle fibers contract less and therefore retain more moisture.

Our Favorite Salmon Recipes

Recipe Miso-Marinated Salmon

Miso is one of the best ways to flavor salmon—inside and out.

Recipe Sesame-Crusted Salmon with Lemon and Ginger

For a rich, full-flavored coating, we looked to Japan—and the Middle East.

Recipe Poached Salmon with Herb and Caper Vinaigrette

Poaching rarely lives up to its promise to produce silken, delicately flavored fish. We set out to eliminate chalky, tasteless poached salmon for good.

Recipe Roasted Whole Side of Salmon

When it comes to serving a crowd, most cooks turn to a large roast or bird. But wouldn't it be nice to serve fish?

Recipe Pan-Seared Salmon

For a crisp crust and a juicy interior, the key is doing less, not more.

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JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.