One of the staples of Pacific Northwest cuisine, wild salmon are born in freshwater creek and river beds. From there, they make their way to the deep waters in the middle of the North Pacific, spending from two to four years maturing on the ocean floor before they return to the waterways of their origin, where they spawn and start the cycle of life all over again. Following are the five species of Pacific salmon, when they’re usually available, and how they’re best prepared. Keep in mind that regional differences exist among salmon runs. You may see Copper River reds in the seafood markets in May, for instance, while their counterparts from Alaska’s panhandle may not make an appearance until the middle of July.
Called king salmon in Alaska and generally referred to as Chinook salmon elsewhere, the largest of the salmon species also commands the highest prices on the market. Kings are the first salmon species to begin the seasonal rush to their home spawning grounds, with runs in most areas starting in June. However, several small winter king fisheries exist on Alaska’s panhandle, but harvests are extremely limited and generally go to a handful of exclusive restaurants.
With its rich yet surprisingly delicate flavor, king salmon is best when lightly grilled and complemented with a Pacific Northwest pinot noir or with a sparkling rosé. Colors of king salmon flesh range from relatively rare white through deep orange.
With their jewel-toned flesh and bright flavor profile, reds are the stars of the salmon show. They look gorgeous on a plate, particularly when served on a bed of freshly picked garden greens and drizzled with a wild huckleberry sauce. Like king salmon, reds should be prepared simply to let their distinct flavor shine through. Grill it and serve it with the type of small batch, bold pinot noir you find in boutique wineries found down winding dusty roads in Oregon’s back country. For an extra accent of elegance, lightly poach it in the same wine you’ll be serving it with.
August brings the silvers home. With their firm, bright orange flesh and mild flavor, they’re an excellent all-purpose salmon. Grilled, poached, baked, or fried, silver salmon never lets you down. Its nonfussy flavor profile pairs well with a cool, crisp pinot gris.
Although harvested by indigenous peoples for thousands of years, keta salmon is a relative newcomer on the Pacific Northwest commercial seafood stage. Keta is lower in fat than other salmon species, which means it has less of the characteristic salmon flavor, making it particularly well suited to preparation techniques involving sauces and spices. Try keta salmon brushed with honey-mustard dressing, wrapped in foil and baked until tender inside. Enjoy it with a cold glass of honey cream ale or sparkling mead. Keta is an abundant species that usually begins its run in July.
Called humpies by commercial fishermen, pink salmon are rarely found in the fresh market. It’s what’s inside most of the cans you see on the supermarket shelves. Pinks have a pleasant, mild flavor and usually begin returning to their spawning grounds in July.
The Copper River is a long, wild waterway that makes the salmon work extra hard to reach their spawning grounds. As a result, salmon specific to this region have developed an extra layer of fat to help sustain them on their difficult road home — and that fat is what gives Copper River salmon its glorious taste and texture as well as an extra helping of healthy omega-3 goodness. Only salmon that return to the Copper River to spawn can be designated as Copper River salmon, in much the same way that only sparkling wine produced from grapes in the Champagne region of France can truly be labeled Champagne. Copper River reds are the most famous of the Copper River family, but kings and silvers are also available.
Opinions are divided among salmon aficionados as to whether ivory kings taste better than their pink/orange counterparts or if it’s just the delicate sheen of the shimmering pale flesh that makes any meal featuring an ivory king into a special occasion.
Wild Pacific salmon is considered by many to be a seasonal treat available only during late spring, through summer. However, because Indigenous people valued their salmon as a year-round staple, they developed ways to preserve it. Most of the time, it was smoked and dried so that it could be enjoyed right up until the spring when the salmon started running again. Native cultures also fermented the roe by burying it underground, with the resulting delicacy being a common staple in ceremonial feasts. The culinary journey of Pacific salmon roe has taken it to all the way to Thomas Keller’s French Laundry. Like their indigenous forerunners, today’s consumers also have no reason to limit their enjoyment of salmon to fresh market availability. Following are the four major preservation strategies that allow year-round access to salmon.
Flash freezing occurs almost immediately, preserving the salmon in the exact state of freshness it’s in when placed in the freezer. Many modern commercial fishing vessels have flash freezing systems right on board, making it possible to enjoy salmon with freshly caught taste and texture all year round.
Just like its traditionally produced counterpart, commercially smoked salmon is also available on an all-season basis. It’s sometimes frozen, but it’s most often pouched or canned.
The most commonly canned salmon has traditionally been ocean-caught pinks, which are typically used as a delicious and nutritious alternative to canned tuna. However, small batch processors in Alaska have begun canning both smoked and plain king, red, and silver salmon, giving salmon-loving consumers even more choices.Few things are better, however, than grilled salmon in the summer. Here’s just one of the many great ways to enjoy this iconic
Pacific Northwest fish:
Grilled Salmon With a Honey Mustard Glaze
Whisk together equal parts of Dijon mustard with fireweed honey in a bowl, and give a half-lemon a good squeeze over the mixture. Add once freshly minced clove of garlic, one half-Tablespoon of olive oil, a shake of freshly ground pepper, and sea salt to taste.
Place two medium-sized salmon filets in a shallow dish and pour the mixture over them. Refrigerate for at least one hour, but for
best results, leave them in overnight.
Heat the grill using its medium-high setting, grease it well, and grill the salmon for about five minutes on either side, taking care not to overcook — when it flakes easily with a fork, it’s done. While you’re tending the fish, have someone else toss the salad and pour the wine. Enjoy immediately after removing from the grill.