How to Buy Salmon
Wild, farmed, Pacific, Atlantic—with so many options, understanding how to buy salmon can be confusing. This guide will help you figure out exactly what to look for.
Not sure how to buy salmon? That’s totally understandable. It’s not as simple as buying strawberries, where you only have to choose from organic or conventional, fresh or frozen. There are different species of salmon, with different sizes, colors and flavor profiles. Salmon are also raised in different ways that can be better or worse for your health, the environment and the sustainability of the species.
To help you make the best choice, we’ve put together a thorough guide to how to buy salmon.
Different Cuts of Salmon
The first key to buying a delicious piece of salmon is knowing which cut to buy. The cooking method you want to use and the recipe you’re preparing should guide your choice. Here are your options:
This thick, crosswise cut of a larger fish includes both sides of the salmon and has a round bone (the salmon’s backbone) in the middle. It holds up well to grilling, but can also be pan-fried or baked, like in this Lemon-Garlic Salmon recipe. Check out some of our favorite grilled salmon recipes.
Side of salmon
The side is the part between the head and the tail. Basically, it’s a fillet that weighs several pounds. When you buy a side of salmon, it may contain scales, belly bones and pin bones, all of which you should remove before eating. Better yet, ask the person working at the seafood counter to remove them at the store.
A fillet is what you’re most likely to buy at the store or be served in a restaurant. It’s a smaller portion of a side of salmon. The side has five parts: top loin, loin, belly, second cut and tail. Each has a different shape and fat content that makes it ideally suited for certain preparations, from sashimi to pan searing.
A whole salmon is just what it sounds like: both sides of the fish, including the head, tail, scales and bones. You can bake a whole salmon, or break it down and cook each part in a specific way.
What to Look for in Salmon
Now that you know what the different cuts of salmon are, it’s time to learn how to choose high-quality fish. Here’s what to look for:
Salmon will be light pink to red, depending on the species. The color should be vibrant, with no darkening around the edges.
Salmon should smell like the ocean—like a nice day at the beach. It should not smell fishy or off-putting.
Salmon flesh should be firm and, if not frozen or previously frozen, shiny. A whole fish should have bright, clear, protruding eyes.
If you’re purchasing still-frozen salmon, make sure the package has no ice crystals, frost, discoloration or liquid. If you’re purchasing previously frozen “fresh” salmon from the refrigerator case, make sure it is tightly sealed, wrapped or vacuum packed.
Sourcing of Salmon
When you’re shopping for salmon, the labeling should tell you where it was raised or caught, where it was processed and whether it was farm-raised or wild-caught. For example, you might see something like “wild-caught Alaskan salmon, product of China.” It’s common practice to send fish overseas for processing because the labor is cheaper.
Should I Buy Farmed or Wild Salmon?
If you’re wondering whether to by farmed or wild salmon, you probably have two concerns: sustainability and nutrition. Both farmed and wild salmon can be produced sustainably or unsustainably in ways that are good, bad or neutral for both fish populations and the broader environment. And both have nutritional benefits and drawbacks.
Environmentally Sustainable Salmon
Farmed salmon can be raised sustainably in indoor recirculating tanks with wastewater treatment, or unsustainably in indoor recirculating tanks without wastewater treatment. Salmon can also be farmed in the ocean, but open-ocean salmon farms can threaten wild salmon populations and cause larger environmental problems.
Wild salmon can be caught in a variety of ways, but knowing the fishing method alone is usually not enough to tell you if a particular salmon is a sustainable choice. For example, some types of troll-caught salmon, which are caught in the ocean one at a time with a hook and line, are sustainable, and others are not. No matter how it is caught, sustainable wild salmon comes from fish populations that are not endangered.
The distinction between farmed and wild also matters when you’re choosing Atlantic vs. Pacific salmon. If you’re buying Atlantic salmon, it should be farmed. Wild Atlantic salmon have been overfished, and at least one species is endangered.
What about Pacific salmon? Many types are protected under the Endangered Species Act because their populations have been diminished by habitat destruction and hydroelectric dams. However, Pacific salmon may be wild or farmed, and wild stocks may be supplemented with young fish from hatcheries to keep populations up.
When you’re at the store, a simple shortcut is to look for salmon that is Marine Stewardship Council Certified. MSC certification tells you the salmon was produced sustainably. Another source to check is the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Guide. It gives salmon best, certified, good and avoid ratings to help consumers make sustainable choices.
Nutrition of Wild vs Farmed Salmon
Wild and farmed salmon eat different diets that give them different nutritional profiles. Farmed Atlantic salmon tends to be much higher in fat (and therefore calories). Wild salmon is higher in calcium, iron, potassium and zinc. Both are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids. And both have healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in addition to less healthy saturated fats.
Wild salmon is never produced with antibiotics and may be lower in an environmental pollutant called PCBs, so if you can afford its higher price and you like the taste, it may be a healthier choice. If you eat salmon in moderation, the potential downsides are not a serious risk, health experts say.
What about organic salmon? That’s not a real thing in the United States, but a Canadian company called Creative Salmon raises certified organic chinook salmon.
How Much Salmon to Buy per Person
Speaking of nutrition, if you’re buying Atlantic salmon, you may want to buy just three to four ounces of uncooked salmon per person and round out the meal with grains and veggies.
For leaner cuts of wild salmon or when you want to indulge, six to eight uncooked ounces is a good serving size. Raw salmon will lose about 25% of its weight after cooking.
Fresh vs Frozen Salmon: Which Is Better?
Most salmon is frozen shortly after it’s caught to preserve its flavor and quality. If you want truly fresh salmon, you’ll need to eat it locally and in season.
Keep in mind that frozen salmon, like other frozen fish, is not an inferior product. The flash-freezing process locks in the freshness we’re all looking for.
Once you bring your salmon home, store it in the fridge at 40°F or lower for no longer than two days before cooking it. If it’s already frozen, store it at 0°F or lower and use within eight months.
Store cooked salmon in the fridge for up to four days. Unopened canned salmon will keep in a cool, dry place for up to five years.
Types of Salmon
Also known as sea run salmon, kelts or black salmon, there are three types of wild Atlantic salmon: North American, European and Baltic. Wild North American salmon are not commercially fished because of their endangered status. If you’re buying Atlantic salmon in the United States, expect it to be farmed. This fish has a mild flavor and light pink color. Try it in one of our easy salmon recipes.
Pacific salmon live off the west coast of Canada and the northern United States. King, coho, sockeye, pink and chum are all Pacific salmon. You can find both wild and farmed Pacific salmon at the store.
Also called chinook salmon, king salmon is the largest of the Pacific salmon. It’s also the highest in fat, with a silky texture that’s good for poaching or smoking.
Also called red salmon, sockeye salmon is stronger in favor and lower in fat than other varieties. You’ll find it served raw, smoked, canned and in burgers.
Also called silver salmon, coho salmon has a mild taste, delicate texture and medium fat content. Because they’re smaller, they’re good for poaching or roasting whole. Northwestern coho salmon are threatened under the Endangered Species Act due to commercial overfishing and habitat loss, but several types of wild-caught coho are sustainable. Try it in one of our top salmon recipes.
Pink salmon are usually canned. They’re lower in fat and best used in salads and salmon cakes. Try it in our Speedy Salmon Patties for a light meal.
Chum or keta salmon are a popular source of salmon roe (caviar). They’re lower in fat and good for drying, smoking, grilling or roasting.