A Guide to Every Type of Salmon You Can Buy

Boost your salmon vocabulary and learn the difference between king, sockeye, coho, and more.

Salmon has long dominated as one of the most popular fish in the United States. In 2020, it was the nation's top-value finfish, equating to $478 million in revenues. But it would probably be safe to say the average consumer knows little about the pretty pink fish sitting atop their dinner plate.

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Can you tell the difference between your king and Chinook? Trick question: It's the same thing!

To prepare you for wild salmon season, which runs from late April to early October, we spoke to three West Coast seafood specialists to put together a handy guide to every type of salmon one can find in the United States.

King (Chinook)

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What to know: It's rich, high in fat, and big.

There's a reason this species is at the top of the list and earned itself the royal moniker: King salmon is considered by many to be the best salmon money can buy. It's rich, high in fat, and big. The average weight of a king salmon is 40 pounds, but they can weigh as much as 135 pounds or as little as 20-something. "They spend more time at sea growing and eating," says Matt Stein, former chief seafood officer at King's Seafood Company. "They're going to be a bit more loaded with Omega 3s, which usually translates to fattiness and flavor."

The flavorful meat and thick fillets make it one of the most prized among chefs and home cooks. It holds up when grilled or pan-roasted in a nonstick skillet, creating a custardy center with a slightly nutty flavor at medium-rare. Like steak, it's important to temper king salmon fillets on the counter 30 minutes to an hour before cooking, and allow them to rest when removed from the heat.

King salmon has a far larger geographic range than most other species, stretching down into the Central Coast of California all the way up through Alaska and into Asia. The color of the flesh differs from river to river, and also depends on the fishes' diets before heading into freshwater to spawn. The hue of the fillet can be as red as sockeye, any shade of pink or orange, and even white or marbled. The latter tends to be found in fish caught in northern British Columbia and southeast Alaska.

That wide range does not equate to an abundance of king salmon. It's one of the rarest species — in 2019, a mere 9.9 million pounds of king salmon were commercially caught in U.S. waters compared to 290 million pounds of sockeye — which is why it's so damn pricey. King salmon caught from the prestigious Copper or Columbia Rivers can fetch as much as $70 per pound retail. Make sure to avoid these cooking mistakes when you're forking over that kind of money.

Sockeye (Red)

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What to know: Super flavorful, bright red flesh, generally leaner.

Sockeye salmon are known for their bright red flesh and their bold, salmon-y scent. They're the most flavorful (what some would consider fishy) of all salmon and are commonly sold smoked, in high-end salmon burgers, and by the fillet.

Significantly smaller than king salmon, not as fatty and generally leaner, full-grown sockeyes range from five to 15 pounds.

Sockeye is also a heck of a lot cheaper, often retailing at $15 to $30 per pound. Columbia and Copper River sockeye tends to be higher because of name recognition, and can command upwards of $45.

While those aforementioned runs get a lot of press, many chefs prefer salmon from some of the lesser-known areas, like Los Angeles-based, James Beard Award-winner Michael Cimarusti (Providence and Connie & Ted's). "One of my favorite runs is Quinault River," says Cimarusti, who gets his pick direct from the Quinault Indian Nation. "Sometimes we get them less than 20 hours from the river. The quality of that fish is incredible."

Cimarusti recommends cooking sockeye fillets (or any salmon fillets) on a hot, well-oiled grill, brushed on both sides with a whisper-thin layer of mayonnaise, seasoned with salt and pepper, starting with the skin side down.

Coho (Silver)

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What to know: Medium-fat, subtle flavor, great for cooking whole.

Coho salmon doesn't get the recognition that fatty king and bold sockeye do, but it has a lot going for it. Its medium fat content gives it a mild, subtle flavor that is less in-your-face. While they can reach 23 or 24 pounds in weight, cohos tend to be smaller, making them a great pick for cooking whole.

"The traditional Native American cooking technique for this area is to hang the fish by the collar on a cross and lean it over the fire to slow smoke it," says Doug Adams, former chef at Bullard in Portland, Oregon. "You can just stuff cohos full of herbs and cook the whole thing on the grill."

Pink (Humpback)

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What to know: Light-colored, mild, low in fat, small.

In 2019, commercial U.S. fishermen brought in a whopping 396 million pounds of pink salmon, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This salmon has a light-colored, pink flesh that's very mild and low in fat. Each fish weighs between two and six pounds. It can be found fresh, frozen, and smoked on occasion, but the vast majority is processed and stuck into cans or pouches.

Chum (Dog/Keta/Silverbrite)

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What to know: Small, lower fat, delicious roe.

It's no surprise, given the adoring title, that chum salmon has been getting the short end of the stick for quite some time. With a pale- to medium-red flesh, lower fat content, and relatively small size (generally around eight pounds), it's most prized for its roe. "Most ikura on the market is derived from chum," says Cimarusti.

While it's been one of the salmon underdogs for quite some time, chum salmon has risen in the ranks over recent years. Fishermen have started handling chum with more respect and care. At the Yukon River, for example, where these fish start running earlier than the more highly sought-after species, fishermen have been increasingly treating chum the same way they do pricier king and sockeye, processing them for their fillets rather than canned meat. "They're like little eight-pound footballs," says Stein. "The color isn't great for a fresh fish case — that's a bit judgmental for me to say – but they eat quite nice."


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What to know: Pink-orange flesh, often affordable, varies in flavor.

Salmon is a generic name that gets applied to a couple of different genera and overlaps with trout. All Pacific salmon and rainbow trout — which includes steelhead (aka ocean trout) — are labeled under Oncorhynchus. Suffice it to say, the anadromous steelhead (like salmon, it's born in freshwater, migrates to the ocean, then heads back to its freshwater birthplace to spawn) falls into the same category as salmon.

The pink-orange flesh looks remarkably similar to Atlantic salmon fillets, but steelheads can grow to over 50 pounds. Typically, they weigh about eight pounds.

Often ringing in at half the price of king salmon, wild steelhead can be picked up for a steal. Because it eats all the way up the river, rather than gorging itself and starving on its way to procreate, "steelhead is much leaner," says Adams. "It tastes more like rainbow trout than salmon."

Steelhead is also farmed, available throughout the year mostly on restaurant menus. Its flavor and texture can vary depending on how and where it's grown. "It can be almost custardy with so much fat and so much foundational flavor," says Stein. "There's a grower in Norway with amazing, off-the-charts lusciousness of fat."

Atlantic Salmon

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What to know: Mild, affordable, farmed, controversial.

Atlantic salmon falls under the Salmo genera, which also includes brown trout. Wild Atlantic salmon is no longer commercially available — what you find in stores and restaurants is all farm-raised — but small, endangered populations still live in watersheds that drain into both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Farm-raised Atlantic salmon has gotten a lot of flack over the years for a myriad of concerns, ranging from antibiotics and pollution to lack of diversity in the look, flavor, and texture of the meat. There are chefs, like Cimarusti, who won't use any fish other than wild-caught. "It's incredibly variable, which to me is what makes working with wild fish so intriguing and special," he says. "It's not bred to fit into packaging or conform to anyone's will."

According to NOAA, farm-raised salmon and trout have greatly improved over the years. Many of Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch "Best Choice" picks for salmon are actually raised on farms nowadays. "They are calmer, more efficient, more disease resistant, grow faster, and have higher fillet yields, among other traits," says Mike Rust, science advisor at NOAA Fisheries Office of Aquaculture. "Feeds have changed to be more plant-based and less fish-based, and better formulated to meet the fish's requirements for efficient high growth and high health. Vaccines and better husbandry have greatly reduced diseases."

And it's actually affordable and available for wide segments of the population who can't splurge on $70 per pound Copper River king salmon. Ranging in hue from pink to orange with a mild flavor, farm-raised salmon is available year-round, often ringing in at right around $13 a pound. Says Stein, "It's a great product with great flavor, and it's approachable in price."

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