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Salmon Primer

By Cook's Illustrated Published March 2008

What are the different kinds of salmon, and how do they differ?

In season, we’ve always preferred the more pronounced flavor of wild-caught salmon to farmed Atlantic salmon, which has traditionally been the main farm-raised variety for sale in this country. But with more species of wild and farmed salmon available these days, we decided to see what distinguishes one from the next. We tasted three kinds of wild Pacific salmon alongside two farmed kinds; they ranged in price from $9 to $20 per pound. While we loved the generally stronger flavor of the wild-caught fish, our tasting confirmed: If you’re going to spend the extra money on wild salmon, make sure it looks and smells fresh, and realize that high quality is available only from late spring through the end of summer.

Farmed Species

Atlantic: Price: $9/lb Season: Year-round The sedentary, farm-bound lifestyle of this fish gave it a “buttery” texture enjoyed by some tasters, but its farm diet may account for the “bland,” “vegetal” flavors noted by others. Tasters were divided on texture: Some praised its “supple” consistency, but others called it “squishy” or “mushy.”

King: Price: $12/lb Season: Year-round Tasters loved this variety’s “custardy” texture and “rich” yet “mild” flavor that “tasted of the sea.” But this farmed species is not as widely available as its Atlantic counterpart and may require a trip to a specialty store.

Wild Species

Coho:

Price: $12/lb

Season: July through September

This species of wild salmon has never enjoyed the popularity of king or sockeye, perhaps due to its far leaner constitution. Many of our tasters found it to be “mealy,” comparing its texture to that of canned fish. Coho was praised, however, for a flavor that was “just right”—neither too fishy nor too mild.

King:

Price: $20/lb

Season: May through September

This prized variety winds up on the menus of many top restaurants, which pushes the retail price to about $20 per pound. Wild king has to travel farther than coho salmon to reach its spawning grounds, and thus boasts far fattier flesh. Tasters found the fish to have a strong flavor and a “meaty” texture. However, the firmness of this fish’s flesh was considered by some to be overly “rubbery.”

Sockeye:

Price: $13/lb

Season: May through September

In great demand in Japan, the sockeye (its name is a corruption of an American Indian word and has nothing to do with the fish’s eyes) was distinguished by its “clean, briny” notes and deep reddish color—the darkest of all the species. Some found the “big flavor” off-putting, but others praised the same assertiveness. Tasters also liked the “smooth,” “firm” texture that gave the sockeye a “good bite.”