Product cuttings: Buying salmon

Despite its popularity on restaurant menus, salmon can be tricky to purchase. Wild varieties are numerous and varied and farmed fish can be sourced from countries and facilities with very different standards. Aside from price and availability, what impacts your choices? Bret Lynch, corporate chef for Ocean Beauty, a large Seattle salmon supplier, provides guidance and leads us through a product cutting.

  1. Unpack fish and notice appearance and aroma. If the fish is fresh, it should be free of internal ice crystals and have a light seaweed scent.
  2. With whole fish, note that the eyes are clear and bright. For farmed salmon, “make sure the noses are not squashed or bent,” adds Michael LaScola, chef-owner of American Seasons in Nantucket. “This indicates that they’ve been crammed into pens.”
  3. For fillets or whole fish, look for shiny skin free of scars, indentations and scrapes. The flesh should be resilient when pressed lightly.
  4. Flesh color varies by species and region, from bright pink to orange and red. All varieties should be uniform in color and texture with no gaps or separations in the flesh.
  5. Check that you receive the species specified; these are the most common.

•King or Chinook salmon is the largest and top-quality variety. It’s distinguished by rosy color, succulent flesh and high oil content

•Sockeye has the deepest red color and a rich flavor; average market weight is four to ten pounds.

•Coho or silver salmon has orange-red flesh and a more delicate flavor. It’s slightly larger than a sockeye and often sold frozen or smoked.

•Pink or humpback salmon is the smallest Pacific species. It’s characterized by lighter-colored flesh and milder flavor; least expensive of the wild varieties.

•Chum or keta salmon is orange-pink in color and firmly textured with an average weight of eight pounds; second most abundant species.

•Atlantic or farmed salmon is the most abundant species. Flesh ranges from pink to orange with broad white fat lines between layers of muscle tissue. Average weight is seven to 12 pounds.

Salmon: Farmed vs. Wild

Farmed salmon 

•Ability to scale production to meet market demand
•Uniform size for portioning
•Oily texture

•Lack of variety (price, appearance, size, eating quality)
•Supplier consolidation
•Feed supply concerns
•Environmental impact

Wild salmon

•Product variety (common Alaskan species include king, sockeye, coho, pink and chum)
•Sustainability message
•Bolder flavor and meatier texture

•Fresh availability largely limited to summer
•Isolated run disruptions
•Often only “twice-frozen” is available

Buying value-added frozen fillets

Using mild-tasting, sustainably farmed tilapia as a base, Owen Tilley, corporate chef of Fishery Products International, creates a range of products with on-trend flavor profiles, such as smoky Southwestern and wasabi pea and miso. The latest are IQF Pan-Sear Selects, tilapia fillets that are processed with a proprietary coating that allows the fish to be sauteed, grilled, griddled or baked. Here are his product cutting guidelines.

  1. Open the shipping carton and take the temperature to insure proper refrigeration has been maintained. “Off the truck” IQF fillets should register 25°F or below.
  2. Weigh the fillet. It should fall within the weight range provided on the spec sheet that accompanies the shipment.
  3. Visually inspect fillets for signs of dehydration and noticeable voids in flavor coating.
  4. Read package instructions for cooking and storage. Follow directions explicitly and calibrate your cooking equipment before preparation. When checking cooking time, consider how long it will take the product to reach guests and let the fillet rest accordingly.
  5. Taste the cooked fillet. Evaluate for appearance, aroma, flavor and texture.

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