Take versatile and flavorful wild salmon far beyond the fillet.

By Justin Chapple
April 28, 2020
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Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Robin Bashinsky / Prop Styling by Missie Crawford

Whether grilled, baked, broiled, or served as tartare, salmon fillets have long been the favorite fish in America. They’re rich-tasting, easy to prepare, and packed with omega-3s.

As much as I love salmon fillets, on a recent trip to Alaska I learned about additional cuts of salmon that offer unique flavor and texture. When you start with a whole fish, smart butchering gives you not just those fillets, but succulent collars, meaty steaks, tartare-like spoon meat, and a juicy tail. These parts, although unknown to most grocery store–shopping home cooks, are well-known to the folks who break down the fish, as I learned from fisherman and wild salmon expert Marsh Skeele.

From Skeele, cofounder and vice president of Sitka Salmon Shares (a cooperative of Alaskan fishermen that offers a monthly fish subscription), I also learned how sustainably caught wild salmon is the best choice on all fronts: flavor, sustainability, and for your health.

Use the guide below to butcher a whole fish, or ask your fishmonger to make these cuts for you. And while I’ve designed the recipes that follow with specific cuts in mind (wild Alaskan salmon like sockeye and coho are leaner than farm-raised, so it benefits from careful preparation), each can be prepared with fillets in a pinch. For more information on the benefits of wild salmon, visit wildalaskaseafood.com

Butchery Tips

Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Robin Bashinsky / Prop Styling by Missie Crawford

Fillets

Cut fillets from the center portion of the salmon, where the fillets are most likely to be even in thickness. Starting at the spine, use the tip of a thin knife to gradually cut down toward the belly, slicing as close to the bones as possible, lifting the fillet as you cut. Remove any pin bones from the fillets with food-grade needle-nose pliers or fish tweezers.

Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer / Prop Styling by Missie Crawford

Tail

Wild salmon tails cook quickly and don’t have pin bones, making for an easy yet dramatic presentation. With a large knife, cut off the salmon tail and the narrowest 6 to 8 inches of the fillet.

Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer / Prop Styling by Missie Crawford

Spoon Meat

After filleting thawed frozen wild salmon, use a spoon to scrape the excess meat from the bones and belly area. Use spoon meat immediately, refrigerate up to four hours before serving, or refreeze once (transfer to a resealable plastic freezer bag, and flatten to remove the air and ensure quick refreezing). Defrost in the refrigerator, and use as soon as meat is thawed.

Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer / Prop Styling by Missie Crawford

Steaks

Cut steaks from the front of the fish, closest to the collar, where they are biggest and include a full portion of fatty belly. With a smooth motion, simply slice through the fish at uniform intervals; cut all the steaks the same thickness to ensure even and easy cooking.

Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer / Prop Styling by Missie Crawford

Collar

First, cut off the salmon’s head and then decide how much fillet meat you’d like on the collar before butchering. To serve as a main course, cut the collar thicker, with more fillet meat; cut it thinner if serving as an appetizer.

Get the Recipe: Soy-Ginger Salmon Collars

Fish Butchering Tools

Joyce Chen Unlimited Scissors

Small but mighty, these easily cut through fish bones and fins. $29 at surlatable.com

New West Knifeworks Fillet Knife

The thin and flexible blade is designed to match the curve of a fish. $183 at newwestknifeworks.com

JB Prince Nose Pliers

The spring-action opening and no-slip plastic handle make these easiest to use. $29 at jbprince.com

Sourcing Wild Salmon

You don’t have to fly to Alaska to catch a wild salmon when the season starts in May. These online purveyors offer a variety of cuts from the whole fish—some can even send a flash-frozen fresh whole salmon straight to your door.

Loki Fish Co.

Source whole fish, butchered cuts, and smoked salmon from this family-owned company. lokifish.com

Pike Place Fish Market

The storied fish market ships a variety  of whole and butchered wild salmon. pikeplacefish.goldbelly.com

Taku River Reds

During the peak season, order fresh wild salmon that’s shipped hours after harvest. taku-salmon.com