The 7 Types of Salmon Every Cook Should Know

Redjina Ph

We hate to say it, but fish can be confusing. Did you know, for example, that the same variety of fish can have several names? Patagonian toothfish, for example, is the same as Chilean sea bass. (Dazzling.) Or that sometimes farmed fish is more nutritious than its wild counterpart? They tend to have higher levels of healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids. (Strange but true!)

But salmon might take the cake for the most confusing fish of all, at least among the varieties you’ll come across regularly in the supermarket. Like many other species, there are countless varieties under the salmon umbrella, each with its own unique flavor profile, texture, and range of ideal culinary preparations. How should the average consumer choose? If you’re currently standing in the middle of the fish aisle, unsure which one would go best in that garlic parmesan salmon recipe you’ve been eyeing, rest assured you’re not alone. We are here to help you.

Several different species of wild (and farmed) salmon are native to or sold in the United States. Some are best in poached salmon recipes, while other species of salmon shine on the grill. Some varieties are best as canned salmon, while others are better suited for large salmon and creamed corn chowder. Below, we’ve rounded up the seven most common strains you’re bound to come across, including information on what sets them apart and how durable they are to choose in 2022.

If you’re a salmon lover, bookmark this page – you’ll want to use it as a cheat sheet the next time you’re at the fish market.

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Coho salmon (coho salmon)

coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisuchlisten)) is also called “coy salmon” because of its telltale shiny silver skin. It is an anadromous species – meaning it lives mainly in salt water, but returns to native fresh water to spawn – of Pacific salmon, found in coastal streams and rivers between Alaska and central California.

Adult coho salmon have a bright red, sweet, fresh flavor. They can weigh up to 12 pounds and measure up to 30 inches long. Although some coho salmon stocks are listed as endangered and are so protected, most wild-caught coho are sustainably harvested under US regulations. But it’s complicated.

“The number of coho salmon populations has declined significantly across much of its original range,” said biologist Hilary Starks of UC Santa Cruz. “Progress must be made to better manage and conserve the remaining populations to ensure this species will be present for future generations.”

Take-out? Coho salmon is probably a once in a while fish.


Pink salmon (humpback salmon)

Pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbusha) are the most abundant of the seven species of Pacific salmon. Also called “humpback salmon” because of the characteristic hump they develop on their backs when spawning, pink salmon are the smallest of the Pacific salmon. Like coho salmon, pink salmon hatch in fresh water, swim out to sea and return at spawning time.

They have light-colored flesh with a delicate taste and low fat content. They are also small, averaging around 4 pounds each.

“The majority of this fish goes to the canning industry”, write chefs Ron Oliver and Bernard Guillas in Two Chefs, One Take, but you wouldn’t have trouble finding this variety fresh, frozen, and smoked too. At the fish market, look for the telltale dark oval spots on their dorsal and tail fins.


Sockeye salmon (red salmon)

Red salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) is one of the smallest species of Pacific salmon, but no less delicious. With dark red flesh, its strong flavor requires little additional seasoning.

“Sockeye salmon are prized for their delicious fat (second only to chinook), firm texture and strong flavor,” said chef Becky Selengut in the sustainable seafood cookbook good fish. At the fish market, you will easily find them by looking for their bright red skin.


Chum salmon (dog or Chum salmon)

Chum salmon (Oncorhynchus keta), also called “dog” or “keta” salmon, is a small variety that averages about 8 pounds each. With its pink-orange flesh and low fat content, chum is commonly canned or sold frozen in overseas markets. Its eggs (called “ikura”) are used for sushi.

“Because of their leanness, I prefer to steam them or smoke them, or cook them in chowders to preserve their moisture,” writing Chief Becky Selengut. Look for his telltale dog teeth when you’re at the fish market.


Chinook salmon (king salmon)

Chinook salmon, often called king salmon because of their gigantic size, are the largest variety of Pacific salmon. It can reach 129 pounds (!) and high quality cuts tend to be expensive. When buying king salmon, keep in mind that it has the highest fat content of all varieties.

“King salmon has a milder flavor and higher fat content than red salmon, so it works wonderfully with a milder preparation and more subtle flavor profiles,” writing Maya Wilson in Alaska From Scratch Cookbook. At the fish market, look for black spots on the upper half of the body and tail fin, as well as a hooked upper jaw.


Atlantic Salmon (Salmo Salar)

While most of the other varieties of salmon on this list come from the Pacific Ocean, Atlantic is native to the Atlantic Ocean. Recreational Atlantic salmon fishing in the United States is prohibited, so you will only find the farmed varieties in fish markets.

It is probably a fish to be eaten sparingly. Why? There is a fierce debate about the sustainability of farmed salmon, not to mention concerns about levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

“Since PCBs and most industrial pollutants tend to amplify at each step of the food chain, the further down the food chain a salmon eats, the fewer contaminants a salmon is likely to receive. ‘to have in one’s tissues’, said author Paul Greenberg in Four fish: the future of the last wild food.

Farmed salmon that is fed minced fish, for example, has higher PCB levels than wild salmon. For this reason, the Mayo Clinic recommends eating fresh or frozen Atlantic salmon only once every two months.

At the market, look for its spindle-shaped body shape, mottled back, and bright orange flesh.


Masu salmon (sea trout)

Masus salmon (Oncorhynchus masu), also called sea trout, is a fish endemic to Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and Russia, and is considered a delicacy here in the United States. Its flesh varies from soft orange to pink and its texture is quite tender, with a refined taste reminiscent of tuna.

It is a freshwater species, but it has a higher fat content than most other freshwater fish. Although you unfortunately can’t find them too easily in the US, keep an eye out for them in specialty markets.

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