Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Pacific Salmon - Five Species

I recently learned that there are five species of salmon in the Pacific Ocean. One of my goals on our recent trip to Alaska was to learn as much as I could about the different species and to eat some of each. I sought out restaurants that served salmon and intentionally ate it every time I could. 
Capilano Creek near Vancouver, British Columbia, site of a fish hatchery and salmon run we visited.
Salmon, seen through glass windows, at the fish run on Capilano Creek.
Spawning salmon in Anan Creek, Alaska. This was a popular site for bears.
Pink and sockeye salmon being filleted in Homer, AK.
Left to right: chinook, coho and sockeye smoked salmon. 
After we got home I ordered a selection of salmon from Alaska and we invited some friends over to our home for a salmon taste testing. Top left is white chinook; to its right is some Copper River chinook; to its right and underneath it is some Yukon River chum; top right is some coho and bottom right are four pink salmon filets. We also had sockeye, not shown in the picture. 
Chinook or King:

Chinook salmon, also known as king salmon, are the least plentiful and most expensive of the salmon species. In 2010, chinook were just .2% of the number of salmon and .6% of the weight of salmon caught in Alaska. They are considered by many to be the most delicious, largely because they have the highest fat content, from 15% to 35%. They are also the largest of the five species, averaging 2 to 3 feet long and 10 to 50 pounds. Some chinook migrate to salt water in the first year and others feed for a year before migrating. The reason they are larger is they spend more time in the ocean before spawning, up to 8 years, but an average of 3 or 4 years. The more northerly populations tend to live longer. Some mature early and spawn after a year or 2. They are known as “jack” salmon (which can also include coho) and they are less than 2 feet long.  Part of the reason chinook need longer to mature is they spawn in larger and deeper waters than the other species and they often have longer migrations. 
They feed very little once they start their river migration, and when they do feed it is primarily salmon eggs, so longer migrations require extra fat stores. For this reason, the prize chinook salmon come from the Yukon River, the longest river in Alaska, which has a freshwater migration of over 1,900 miles from its mouth in the Bering Sea of western Alaska to the spawning grounds upstream of Whitehorse, Yukon, east of Alaska. A chinook from the Copper River will have only 53% to 66% of the fat content of a chinook from the Yukon River. In 2010, Yukon River chinook were only 2.65% of the number of chinooks caught in Alaska. The Yukon chinook run lasts about two weeks, from late June to early July. The chinook flesh color can vary from white to red, depending upon their genetic ability to metabolize pigments (carotenoids) in their food that come from shrimp, krill and crab. Those that don’t have the genetic ability to break down their food and store the red-orange carotene in their muscle cells have white flesh, or some variation of white, which is about 1 in 20 chinook.
Smoked chinook salmon
Chinook at Denali Salmon Bake in Denali NP. It was way over-cooked. 
Copper River chinook ordered from Alaska. Note the white fat exuding from it. It was my favorite as we taste-tested salmon at home.
Chinook salmon cooked rare at 229 Parks in Denali NP. Absolutely wonderful. Ate it the day after we'd had chinook salmon at Alaska Salmon Bake in Denali NP and they ruined it by over-cooking. 
Chinook salmon at Annabelle's in Ketchikan, AK. 
Columbia River chinook, cooked rare, from King's Fish House in Rancho Cucamonga.
White chinook filet, with salt and pepper on it, shipped from Alaska.
The white chinook after cooking. I did not like the white chinook as much as the regular chinook. 
Sockeye or Red:

Sockeye salmon, also known as red salmon, have a lesser fat content of 10% to 22%. Sockeye and coho are generally considered the next best tasting of the salmon. They can get as long as 2.75 feet and weigh from 5 to 15 pounds. In 2010, sockeye were 23.83% by number and 28.27% by weight of the salmon caught in Alaska. They spend from 1 to 3 years in freshwater before migrating to sea, then spend 2 to 3 years in the ocean before spawning up river. 
What the sockeye looks like at sea (top), then as it spawns (bottom). 
This chart and the chart below, relate to sockeye in the Portage Valley west of Whittier, Alaska. 

These salmon were caught near Homer. I believe the two on the left are pinks and the one on the right is a sockeye. 
An exception is the kokanee salmon which does not migrate to the ocean at all, but spends its entire life in fresh water and rarely gets over 14 inches long. Sockeye eat less fish and more krill and phytoplankton than other salmon types, which gives them more carotenoids and a thus a deeper orange or red hue than the other species. The largest sockeye harvest is Bristol Bay, in southwestern Alaska, which generally provides about 50% of the overall sockeye harvest, but in 2010 it provided 70%. However, the most prized sockeye come from the Copper River which is 287 miles long and empties into Prince William Sound, in south-central Alaska. The Copper River headwaters are in the Wrangell and Chugach Mountains and the river has a steep descent from there with lots of rapids. Because of the difficult spawn, Copper River salmon typically have a higher fat content than sockeye from other areas. The sockeye are the first salmon to start spawning. They start in the Copper River in May. A Bristol Bay sockeye will only have 50% of the fat content of a Copper River sockeye. In 2010, only 1.56% of the sockeye caught in Alaska were from the Copper River. There were no commercial sockeye caught in the Yukon River that year.
Smoked sockeye
Copper River sockeye at the Rustic Goat in Anchorage. Cooked rare with rice, nuts and arugula. I learned that salmon is wonderful paired with rice. This was one of my favorite salmon dinners.
Sockeye at Fat Olives in Homer, cooked rare and with black rice. I was leery of sockeye because of bad experiences with it in the states (I found it mushy and strong tasting in a bad way). The sockeye I had in Alaska was wonderful. 
Sockeye purchased at Albertson's in Redlands after we got home. 
The Albertson's sockeye baked at home. It was good, but a tad bit overcooked.
Various types of smoked sockeye salmon from Granville Public Market in Vancouver, B.C. It included maple smoked, salt and pepper, among others. Some of the best smoked salmon I've ever had. Much better than the bottled smoked salmon we bought in Alaska.
A different smoked sockeye salmon from Granville Public Market. Very moist and absolutely incredible. 
Coho or Silver.

The coho salmon, also known as the silver salmon, have a fat content of 5% to 15%. Coho spawn in tributaries, much less of a distance than chinook and sockeye, so they require much less in the way of fat deposits. Coho spawn in the autumn. 

This chart and the one below are from the Portage Valley.
In 2010, coho were only 2.3% by number and 3.72% by weight of the salmon caught in Alaska. The meat tends to be more orange than red and is considered to have a milder flavor than both chinook and sockeye. Coho spend one or two years in freshwater before migrating to sea.
Coho from King's Fish House. It was grilled and over-cooked.
Coho from King's Fish House baked on a cedar plank. It was cooked rare and marvelous. This was another instance of a nice piece of salmon over-cooked one day, and a similar piece cooked rare another day. How long the salmon is cooked makes a huge difference in the salmon eating experience. 
Coho we purchased at Albertson's and baked with black rice and purple cabbage. It was great. 
Left-over coho from Albertson's. It was wonderful to eat the next couple of days cold with a little salt.
Pink, Humpy, or Humpback

Pink salmon is also known as humpback or humpy salmon because spawning males develop a pronounced humped back. They have a fat content of 3% to 9% and are the smallest of the five species, averaging 3.5 to 4 pounds. They are by far the most common salmon. In 2010, pinks were 62.8% by number and 49.63% by weight of the salmon caught in Alaska. They migrate to sea soon after hatching and have two year cycles. Pinks spawn in estuaries or the small channels near them, so have short migrations, the reason they have less fat. Pinks spawn in late July and August. 

At their prime, when caught in the ocean before spawning, their flesh is a grayish pink. Alaskans are snobby about salmon and generally stick to chinook, sockeye and coho. Pinks are not as flavorful because of their lower fat content. Most of them are canned, but some people like pink salmon wrapped in foil, seasoned and grilled.
Canned pink salmon.
Canned pink salmon spread out in a bowl. Wonderful mixed with mayonnaise and spread on a sandwich.
Four pink salmon filets we had shipped in from Alaska.
Pink salmon filets after baking. I loved it as did many of our guests at our salmon tasting. 
Chum, Dog, Keta, Calico or Silverbrite

Chum salmon, also known as dog, keta, calico and silverbrite salmon, have a 2% to 5% fat content. The name chum means varied color and refers to the spawning color of the salmon, just as the terms red, silver and pink refer to the spawning colors of those salmon. In 2010, chum were 10.81% by number and 17.74% by weight of the salmon caught in Alaska. Chum salmon migrate to sea soon after hatching and spawn in estuaries or low in river systems, the reason that they have less fat. Chum spawn from July to October. They have the lowest market value and most of it goes to overseas markets, much of it canned. When found in the U.S. it is usually in a discount grocer in the frozen section.
We purchased this Yukon River fall keto salmon and had it shipped from Alaska. It was billed as having 16 to 22% fat and having a higher fat content than Copper River chinook. Given what little I know about the keto or chum spawn, I question the fat content numbers. It was also my least favorite of all the salmon we sampled and I was expecting it to be some of the best because of what the shipper said about it. 

Atlantic salmon are obviously not Pacific salmon, but are important to know about because they are the salmon most of us buy in stores and eat when we have sushi. Because of overfishing and habitat damage the commercial market for wild Atlantic salmon is prohibited in the U.S. Wild Atlantic salmon make up only .5% of the Atlantic salmon available on the world fish market. Farmed Atlantic salmon, what we do eat, have been selectively bred to develop at twice the rate of wild salmon. A recently approved GMO variety has an added gene from a chinook salmon, among other things, and the rate of growth is four times the rate of wild Atlantic salmon. Farm-raised salmon are raised in lower quality water because of the density of the fish, they do not forage but are fed land based food and tend to be higher in fat, and they are fed antibiotics and antifungal agents to keep them healthy. The concerns about eating farm-raised salmon are similar to the concerns about corn-fed beef on feed lots compared to grass-fed beef raised in pastures.

The only chart I could find comparing the fat content of the five Pacific species of salmon and farmed Atlantic salmon gave fat grams per 3 ounces of cooked salmon. In that chart, the fat content, in order, were: (1) coho – 3.7; (2) chum – 4.1; (3) pink – 4.5; sockeye – 5.7; farmed Atlantic – 10.5; and chinook – 11.3. I saw a different chart which had the coho salmon number much higher than the chum and pink numbers, which corresponds more closely with what I’ve been reading. But note, the numbers vary widely depending on where the salmon were caught. 

I've eaten a lot of salmon the last few months. I was able to get chinook and sockeye in Alaska, and had to wait to get home to try the other species. A few take-aways. Wild salmon cooked more than rare to medium-rare is usually ruined. It becomes dry and much less appetizing. Salmon is better with other ingredients, particularly exotic rice and greens such as arugula. I've had wonderful chinook, coho and sockeye and I've had some pretty ordinary or horrible chinook, coho and sockeye. I'm not sure I have a preference for one over another. I've had some very nice pink salmon, but would not rate it in the same category as the first three. I was very disappointed in the chum we ate and was expecting more of it. 


  1. You've been getting plenty Omega 3 oil during the last few months, that's for sure. It's been fun to eat the results of your obsession. I agree that the best salmon can be ruined by the way it's cooked and mediocre salmon can still be amazing cooked in the right way. The future of the salmon industry looks bleak with the focus on engineered, farm-raised fish. It is hard to know what you are getting.

  2. I love salmon, and sadly agree with Judy--farm-raised fish seems to be taking over the market.