Choosing and Handling Salmon

Most people like salmon, even when they are not big fans of other fish varieties. It's meaty texture, rich color and flavor make it an appealing idea for a main course substitute for the old standbys. But, if you are not familiar with the varieties and choices in species and cuts, it can be a bit daunting when trying to determine what it is you want or need, as well as how your choice will determine how you cook it, or how it will taste. This article will hopefully clear up some of the confusion and help you to make a better, more educated choice when buying your next salmon.

A relative of the trout, the salmon comes in a variety of types, but the most common grounds for argument are the superiority of farm raised versus wild, and Pacific versus Atlantic. While there is not much difference between Pacific and Atlantic salmon other than their life spans, the difference between wild and farm-raised salmon is significant, at least in my humble opinion. The wild salmon has a firmer, more meaty, and deeply colored flesh when compared to the farm raised variety (I believe this difference in firmness is in part due to the handling of the salmon during processing and shipping).

Additionally, in the tradition of any game meat, the wild salmon has a stronger, more superior salmon flavor. If you ever have the opportunity to sample a salmon that comes from the wild, you will never see what the fishmonger at your grocery store has to offer the same way again. Most of what you would receive from him or any grocery is farm-raised Atlantic salmon, because of its great abundance. There are a big variety of other salmon available each with their own great characteristics:

Atlantic salmon – Found throughout the Atlantic Ocean , averaging 10 – 12 pounds in size. The average Atlantic salmon has a vivid pink tint and rich, oily flesh, which translates into lots of flavor.

Pacific salmon – five major species

Pink salmon – Range in size from three to five pounds and have a light pink and delicate flesh. Because of their abundance, Pink salmon accounts for the majority of salmon used in cans.

King or Chinook salmon – range from 15 to more than 100 pounds, averaging around 20 pounds. They vary in color from off-white to a deep red, with meat that is firm, and tender, with a deeply satisfying flavor.

Sockeye salmon – average around 5 – 7 pounds. Has a higher fat content than other varieties, which means a more richly flavored meat. Sockeye are most easily recognized by their deep red flesh.

Chum salmon – Average around 10 pounds. More mild and pale than the other varieties of salmon, with an extremely low fat content.

Silver salmon – Similar in size to the sockeye, and also having a relatively bright red flesh, Silver salmon do not have the same fat content as Sockeye or King salmon, offering a less rich meat.

When selecting your fish, there are a few items that you must look for, and if any of them is missing or questionable, look elsewhere because few things will make you quite as miserable as food poisoning from fish. Fish naturally begin to break down from the moment they are pulled from their water habitat, so proper handling and care is essential. The following are a few tips that you should keep in mind when purchasing or handling salmon:

1. Pick your cut – whole, steak or filet. A whole fish can not be beat when serving a large group, especially when it comes to economics. It offers the flexibility of being able to be served stuffed or decorated for presentation, or divided into individual servings such as filets or steaks. Taking a whole salmon and converting it into filets or steaks requires a bit of effort, but is quite simple, and usually far more cost effective than the prepared cuts from the store. The filet is the de-boned, and sometimes un-skinned, sides of the salmon. The steak is a vertical cut made through the salmon, usually around an inch in thickness

2. You are spending good money on this fish; so before you buy it, take the time to really examine it. A fish that is not fresh or has been poorly handled simply can not offer the same satisfying meal that a fresh fish would. Any monger worth his salt with nothing to hide will gladly let you take a sniff and look. Whether you are buying a filet, steak, or whole fish, ask your fishmonger to let you smell and hold it. Take a deep whiff and look for the smell of the ocean – salty sweet. If it smells like a fish, it indicates the fish is old and has not been kept at appropriate temperatures.

The flesh should be in good shape, intact (not look feathered), and firm. It should bounce back when pressed gently, not leaving an indentation. The skin should be clean and not slimy, with a nice shine and scales that do not readily fall off.

If you are looking at a whole fish, the color of the gills should be bright pink to a deep red, and the cavity clean and free from blood and fluids. Next, look the fish in the eyes. This is the easiest indicator of freshness and how well the fish has been handled. The eyes should be clear and well rounded. If they are cloudy, or have sunk into the eye socket, the fish is out of date or took a beating. Take a pass and move on to the next specimen. If you a seeing that a large part of a particular vendors inventory is not up to snuff, you may want to consider looking for a new supplier entirely.

3. The natural decomposition of the fish, and subsequent spoilage, is slowed by keeping the fish in cold environments, so follow these refrigeration and defrosting tips to make sure your fish is not, and does not, become unsafe:

a. Take a close look at the stores display case. Most local food codes require that the fish in the display case must be consistently refrigerated at 29 degrees F., so confirm this by looking for a thermometer somewhere around the case. The ice must be clean and fresh, with the fish not sitting in puddles of water or blood. Temperatures can vary as much as 25 degrees F. between the top fish and bottom pieces when stacked because of the lighting, air current, etc., so make sure to obtain a piece that is close to the ice, preferably directly on top of the ice.

b. Do not purchase salmon, or any fish or seafood for that matter, if you plan on making a number of additional stops before you get home. We can not emphasize enough that fish must be kept cold to prevent rapid spoilage. It does not do well even for short times in warm conditions, especially the temperatures your car will reach on a sunny day.

c. As soon as you get home, remove the fish from the wrapping from the store, rinse it with cold running water, and re-wrap in plastic wrap, followed by a layer of foil. Store it in your refrigerator in the coldest part, usually the bottom shelf towards the back. Food is unsafe at temperatures between 40F and 140F, and most people are unaware that their refrigerators operate in this unsafe region. Because most refrigerators do not provide an easy way of knowing the internal temperature of the cooling box (whose idea was that goofy knob anyway?), It is a good idea to hang a thermometer somewhere inside so you can ensure it is operating safely.

d. It is not advisable to keep fish unfrozen for longer than a day or so, and if possible, it is best not to purchase fish until the day you plan to use it. Should you come across a great deal on salmon, you can freeze it safely by wrapping tightly in a combination of plastic wrap, foil, and ziploc bags. It will store well in the freezer for about 6 months, and manage to maintain most of its texture and taste.

e. To defrost frozen fish, place it in your refrigerator approximately 24 – 30 hours prior to serving. Do not attempt to defrost it quickly by leaving it on the countertop or in a warm water bath. Food becomes most susceptible to bacterial growth and contamination between the temperatures of 40F and 140F, so it is imperative to take the time to defrost any frozen fish in the refrigerator and bring it out just prior to use to prevent any issues with food poisoning. Once defrosted, take a smell of it again. Make sure that it does not have that strong fishy smell. The best rule is simple – if in doubt, throw it out !!