How to Cook Wild Salmon

May 31, 2024
Dining & Wine
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In Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book, “Where the Wild Things Are,” the Wild Things are hardly mild. When the main character, a little boy named Max, meets these monsters, he first notices their “terrible” roars, teeth, eyes and claws. A rumpus ensues, and Max comes to learn that these monsters aren’t terrible at all. They’re just Wild Things: unpredictable and exciting. The same is true of wild salmon.

While farmed salmon is tame in taste — the result of controlled environments — wild salmon tastes like hard-earned adventure. Its well-exercised flesh is lean and meaty. Its flavor is nuanced and robust from foraging for food. And its color is deep, ranging from hot pink to ruby red.

If wild salmon’s firm texture or intense flavor has ever surprised you, know that you’re just tasting salmon that has run free — what a treat. Follow these tips to better understand, appreciate and cook this wild thing.

This two-step method allows you to enjoy the rich flavor of wild salmon without overcooking. Because it has more collagen and less fat than farmed salmon, wild salmon has firmer flesh and is easier to dry out. To seal in its moisture, brine it in saltwater for 15 to 30 minutes and bake it at a low temperature to just 120 degrees for medium-rare. (The fish will continue to cook outside the oven.)

Baking works for all sizes and types of wild salmon, including long, gorgeous, red sides of sockeye, which can be tricky to maneuver in a skillet or over grill grates. The tender fish can stand up to punchy accouterments or be adorned more simply. Add juiciness with a squeeze of lemon, a dollop of Greek yogurt or a splash of chile or toasted sesame oil.

You can find wild salmon in the fresh fish section of many grocery stores, but look in the frozen aisle, too. Often flash frozen shortly after being caught, frozen fish maintain their peak taste more than the defrosted fish displayed on ice. Simply thaw it by refrigerating it overnight uncovered on a paper towel-lined plate. Or, if you’re in a hurry, place the fish in a resealable plastic bag in a bowl of cold water, replacing the water every 30 minutes or so to keep it cold. Resources like Seafood Watch can help discern which salmon is sustainably raised.

If the only option available is in the fresh case, choose fillets that are firm, shiny, uniform in color and don’t smell like much of anything.

Because wild salmon have more active lives and varied diets than farmed fish, their taut flesh tastes more complex and is nuanced according to their surroundings. (Think of it as the difference between a summer tomato ripened in the sun and a winter one from a greenhouse.) The three main types of Pacific salmon sold fresh or frozen have some clear differences. Chinook (king) is buttery Atlantic salmon but with firmer flesh. Sockeye (red) is deep red and meaty with a bold flavor. Coho (silver) falls somewhere between the two. Other types — Pink (humpy) and Keta (chum) — are typically sold smoked or canned.

Unless otherwise stated, most recipes are developed with farmed salmon. You can use wild salmon in any salmon recipe, but reduce the cook time to avoid dry fish. It’s best to cook it to medium-rare (115 to 120 degrees in the thickest part). The edges should be opaque, and the inside should still be slightly translucent and look wet if you stick in a paring knife and peek at the flesh.

Consider cooking the fish gently in the oven or in liquid (poached, steamed, or simmered in soup). You can absolutely pan-sear or grill wild salmon, just trust your eyes and your thermometer to know when it’s done.

Whether it headlines your next dinner party or boosts a weeknight meal, wild salmon season is a reason to celebrate — and to cook.

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