How to Source Wild Alaskan Salmon

Take versatile and flavorful wild salmon far beyond the fillet once you've ordered it online.

Guide to Salmon Cuts
Photo: 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 a favorite fish in America. They're rich-tasting, easy to prepare, and satisfying.

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 for flavor.

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 made with fillets in a pinch. For more information on the benefits of wild salmon, visit wildalaskaseafood.com

Fish butchery

Guide to Salmon Cuts
Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Robin Bashinsky / Prop Styling by Missie Crawford

Salmon 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.

Salmon 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.

Slow-Roasted Salmon Tails
Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer / Prop Styling by Missie Crawford

Spoon salmon 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; flatten to remove the air and ensure quick refreezing). Defrost in the refrigerator and use as soon as meat is thawed.

Salmon Tartare with Pistachios and Lemon Recipe
Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer / Prop Styling by Missie Crawford

Salmon 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.

Quick-Cured Salmon Steaks with Grilled Tomatoes and Tzatziki Recipe
Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer / Prop Styling by Missie Crawford

Salmon 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.

Soy-Ginger Salmon Collars Recipe
Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer / Prop Styling by Missie Crawford

Fish butchering tools

Joyce Chen Unlimited Scissors

Small but mighty, these easily cut through fish bones and fins. $29 at Sur La Table.

New West Knifeworks Fillet Knife

The thin and flexible blade is designed to match the curve of a fish. $289 at New West KnifeWorks.

Honenuki Tatsujin III Fish Bone Pliers

The spring-action opening and no-slip plastic handle make these easiest to use. $26 at MTC Kitchen.

Where to buy wild caught 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.

Pike Place Fish Market

The storied fish market ships a variety of whole and butchered wild salmon through Goldbelly.

Yakobi Fisheries

During the peak season, order fresh wild salmon that's shipped hours after harvest.

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