Are you eating more fish to balance out your diet? If so, salmon has probably become one of your go-to items. But not all salmon is created equal. If you shop at a fish purveyor or a grocery with a well-stocked fish department, you might find three or four different types of fresh salmon at a given time. While each has its particular characteristics, there is a fundamental distinction between farm-raised and wild. And, in the latter category, a type of salmon called sockeye stands out. Take a walk on the wild side and learn what makes sockeye salmon special.
What Is Sockeye Salmon?
Sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) is also known as "red salmon" because of the dark red-orange color of its flesh and because it turns deep red as it swims upstream at the end of its life to spawn. Sockeye salmon is smaller than most other salmon, weighing in at about five pounds to a maximum of 15 pounds, with thinner, more compact flesh.
Most wild-caught sockeye sold in the U.S. is from Alaska, with salmon from the Copper River being particularly prized. Commercial catches of sockeye also come from Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia.
Like all salmon, sockeye salmon hatches in freshwater streams. Unique among salmon, sockeye prefers watersheds with lakes and spends up to three years living in lakes before heading downstream to the ocean. Some sockeye populations stay in freshwater lakes for their whole life cycle. These fish are known as kokanee salmon or "silver trout," and are much smaller than other sockeyes.
Sockeye salmon spends the saltwater portion of its life in the North Pacific, where it can be found along the coast in Northern California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska, and in northern Japan. When it reaches maturity and is ready to spawn, it heads back toward its home stream and swims upriver to breed.
Like other salmon, sockeye fattens up for this trip, since it won't eat once it reaches fresh water. Indigenous peoples would often harvest salmon as it headed upriver, and many tribes still do. Whereas the commercial catch is fished out at sea to get the salmon before it reaches the river and is still at its fattest and tastiest.
How to Cook Sockeye Salmon
Sockeye salmon has firm, compact flesh, which makes it stand up very well to grilling. Grill sockeye salmon fillets skin-side down without turning them. Cooking sockeye salmon on a cedar plank is a traditional method that helps prevent the fish from overcooking or sticking to the grates. Other options for cooking salmon include baking, cooking in parchment or foil, and slow roasting in the oven. Frying salmon is another option that will give it a crispy skin.
What Does Sockeye Salmon Taste Like?
Sockeye salmon is rich in texture and high in flavor. In fact, for people who like the flavor of salmon, sockeye tastes the most like salmon. The sockeye salmon eats more plankton and crustaceans like shrimp than other salmon species, which contributes to its darker color and rich flavor.
Sockeye salmon is the second fattiest salmon (after Chinook) and has the added benefit of having the firmest texture of all Pacific salmon. Many of the fishermen in Cordova, Alaska, where Copper River salmon are fished, will swear they prefer the more intense flavor of sockeye over the richness of Chinook, also known as king salmon.
Sockeye Salmon vs. Atlantic Salmon
Atlantic salmon is the large pale orange farmed fish you see year-round just about everywhere fish is sold. It is oily, with thick flaky flesh and a mild flavor. Sockeye salmon, on the other hand, is much smaller, so the fillet is always thinner and more compact, with an intense reddish color and rich flavor. While the larger Atlantic salmon is sold both diametrically cut as a steak and slices from the fillet, the smaller sockeye is usually sold only as a fillet. And because sockeye is predominantly a wild fish, it is available fresh only from late spring through the summer and into September. For this reason, sockeye usually costs considerably more than Atlantic salmon.
Sockeye salmon is a single species of salmon. One subspecies, the kokanee salmon, a freshwater variety, is believed by some to be a different species altogether. As sockeye is a wild fish, there is some notable variation in taste and consistency based on size of the fish, where it was caught, and at what stage in its development it was caught. Besides fresh and frozen, sockeye salmon can sometimes be found smoked or canned.
Sockeye Salmon Recipes
Use sockeye salmon for most any salmon recipe where you are looking for a smaller fillet with more compact flesh, a more intense flavor, and a dark reddish-orange color. Also, use simpler recipes without overwhelming sauces or spices so you can really enjoy the unique flavor of sockeye salmon. (Note: Because the sockeye fillets will probably be smaller and thinner than most other types of salmon, adjust the weight and cooking time accordingly.)
Where to Buy Sockeye Salmon
Populations and fishing season dates are closely monitored where sockeye is caught. Sockeye salmon "runs" in the summer, and officials make sure a sizable population is already upriver headed to spawn before the season opens. If runs start to get too small, the season will close for a while. In general, sockeye is caught in most places from mid-June through July.
Since sockeye salmon is not a huge fish, try to buy a whole fish, if possible, so you can see how the whole thing looks—it's a great way to judge how fresh it is and how well-handled it was when it was caught. Look for bright, rounded eyes, and pass on any fish with dull, cloudy, or sunken eyeballs, since they're a sign it's not that fresh.
If you can't get whole fish, look for fillets with the skin still attached, since it's another way to determine quality. You want bright, shiny skin without scales flaking off. Look for firm and smooth flesh and avoid salmon with flesh that looks feathery or like it's flaking apart. And sockeye salmon, like any fish, should not smell fishy.
Storing Sockeye Salmon
Whole gutted sockeye salmon can be stored in the fridge on ice in a perforated dripping pan for two to three days. Sockeye salmon fillets closely wrapped in plastic can be kept in the refrigerator for one to two days.