A king among culinary fish, salmon has a beautiful, flavorful flesh rich in heart-beneficial omega-3 oils. Salmon is often included on lists of the most healthful foods, as it is also high in protein and A and B-complex vitamins. But it is favored by cooks and diners above all for its taste, appearance and texture.
As a firm, meaty, oily fish, salmon is a good choice for poaching, baking, pan roasting, panfrying, steaming, broiling and grilling. It is used fresh or canned as an ingredient in chowders and other stews; in casseroles, gratins and creamed dishes; and to make salmon cakes. Fresh salmon's deep color and sweet, full flavor are complemented by assertive and colorful sauces and salsas, such as tapenade, aioli and pesto. Smoked salmon is always a delicacy, no matter what smoking method is used.
Salmon is native to both North American coasts. Atlantic Coast salmon stocks have declined greatly due to pollution in the United States, although Canada still provides Atlantic salmon. The majority of salmon comes from the Pacific Coast in Alaska. Salmon is now farmed in Norway, Chile and the United States, but the farmed fish have a blander flavor and softer texture.
Of the different species of salmon, the large Chinook, or king, salmon is the most prized for cooking. The silver, or coho, salmon is smaller, looks a lot like a trout, and has slightly leaner flesh. The sockeye, or red, salmon and the pink, or humpback, salmon are often used for canning. The chum, or dog, salmon is a lean fish with a pale color.
Farm-raised salmon are sold year-round. Wild Atlantic salmon is in season from summer to early winter, and wild Pacific salmon is available from spring through fall. The smallest Chinook salmon weighs around 6 pounds, and it is available whole or cut into chunks, steaks or fillets. Like all fish, fresh salmon should smell sweet and clean, and have clear eyes and firm flesh.
Plan to cook fresh salmon the day it is purchased or within 24 hours, at the most. Wrap large fish in plastic wrap and place smaller fish in a zippered bag, then refrigerate. Place the fish on a bed of ice cubes or crushed ice in the refrigerator if storing for more than a few hours.
Whole and chunk salmon are easily skinned and boned after cooking. Salmon fillets, however, must be checked carefully before cooking for pinbones, which are often buried vertically in the thickest part of the flesh. To find the bones, press the flesh gently with your fingers, then remove the bones using sturdy tweezers or needle-nosed pliers.
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Companion: The A to Z Guide to Everyday Cooking, Equipment and Ingredients (Time-Life Books, 2000)