Ideal Doneness Temperature for Wild Salmon

By Cook's Illustrated Published May 2016

Why does cooking wild salmon to 125 degrees result in dry flesh?

We have always preferred salmon cooked to 125 degrees for the ideal balance of firm yet silky flesh. But the majority of the salmon we cook in the test kitchen has been farmed Atlantic salmon. As we’ve started cooking more wild varieties, we noticed that they seemed dry when cooked to 125 degrees.

To find out why, we cooked multiple samples of four species of wild Pacific salmon—king (Chinook), sockeye (red), coho (silver), and chum—along with farmed Atlantic salmon to both a 120-degree and a 125-degree internal temperature using a digital thermometer in temperature-controlled water baths. The majority of tasters preferred the wild salmon samples cooked to 120 degrees, while they confirmed our preference for cooking farmed Atlantic salmon to 125 degrees.

Why? Wild salmon has more collagen (and thus connective tissue) and, more important, a significantly greater number of chemical cross-links between collagen molecules. When the wild varieties are cooked to just 120 degrees, the muscle fibers contract less and therefore retain more moisture. The leanest wild salmon also contains less fat, about half as much as farmed salmon, so there is less fat to provide lubrication and the perception of juiciness when cooked.

We’ll continue to cook farmed salmon to 125 degrees, but from now on, when we cook wild salmon, we will make sure to cook it to just 120 degrees.

When wild salmon is cooked to just 120 degrees, the muscle fibers retain more moisture.
Farmed salmon contains more fat than wild salmon, so it can be cooked a few degrees longer without drying out.