Flaky, dense, almost meaty, a tiny hint of fishiness; wild salmon is a mild and flavorful fish with a fascinating lifestyle.
It is probably one of the most popular fish from a culinary perspective, having been pushed into the limelight for all of its healthful qualities. Due to its popularity, the demand for wild salmon has resulted in many varieties being almost fished out. Sadly, this has led to the conventional farming salmon, which has created a version of the fish that isn’t anywhere near as healthful and has also been removed from its natural and very amazing lifestyle.
The natural lifestyle of the salmon is actually pretty interesting. Most of them, depending on the variety, are able to live in both fresh and salt water. They are born in freshwater and over the next couple of years begin to chemically change, a process called smolting, so they can make their way from their freshwater habitat into the ocean. The changes they undergo are pretty fascinating; the fat redistributes in their body, their coloring changes to something that will keep them safer in the ocean, their behavior changes, as does their metabolism. Once they make the journey to the ocean, they spend a year or more in that habitat and then at some point, when the timing is right, they make their way back to their original spawning stream or at least as close as they can get to it. Researchers have shown that most salmon attempting to get back to freshwater to spawn, do indeed try to get back to their point of origin. It’s pretty amazing really to think of their natural design. Want to know more? This is an interesting book on the topic: Salmon, People, and Place: A Biologist's Search for Salmon Recovery.
From a culinary perspective, wild salmon is a great choice for a variety of dishes because of its great texture and mild flavor. Like all fish, if salmon is fresh, it tastes of the environment it came from rather than the sharp fishy flavor and smell that can accompany fish that has been left too long before cooking. You can bake it, steam it, grill it, fry it... even make it into sausages (which I had for dinner last night). Salmon also preserves well. You can smoke it, salt cure it, and even pickle it.
From a health perspective, salmon is a quandary and a controversy. Wild salmon is amazingly good for you. Typically, when people think of the health benefits of salmon the first one they list is the presence of Omega 3 fatty acids, which is indeed one of its healthful qualities. It is also, however, a great source of vitamin B12, Vitamin D, selenium, and higher quality protein (if it’s wild). Research also demonstrates that wild salmon contains specific types of protein molecules that can help repair cartilage, decreases systemic inflammation, and regulate insulin production. It is the combination of these protein molecules with the fatty acids that contribute to the healthful benefits of wild salmon.
Notice that I keep emphasizing the word “wild”? That’s because, no matter how you cut it, farmed salmon doesn’t hold a candle to the healthful qualities of their wild relatives. In fact, typically, farmed salmon contain a high amount of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPS) and other petrochemicals from their contained environment. They tend to be less muscular, lower in nutrient density, and higher in stress chemicals. Because of the type of food they are given, they tend to have a decreased amount of Omega 3’s and an increased amount of Omega 6 fatty acid. I mean think about it, a sedentary lifestyle and a diet of sub-quality food doesn’t make for a healthy body in any species. (this is also true of supplements made from farmed salmon)
To feed farmed salmon the type of diet that they need to actually thrive well, requires two the three times the amount of wild foraged fish than they themselves produce (salmon are carnivores and eat other fish and insects). There has been a push to hybridize farmed salmon so they will thrive on plant products like corn and soy; again, this produces a drastic change in the quality of the fish. To be fair, there are also initiatives that are trying to “ranch” salmon in a more healthful or natural environment which seem to be making decent inroads on repopulating the overfished habitats and also meeting the public demand for salmon.
The next time you’re choosing salmon, you may want to ask first where it came from and how it got to your table. If you are lucky enough to find wild salmon on your plate, take a moment and think about the tenacity of this great fish and the gift of health it provides.
If you’re feeling adventurous here’s a recipe for Gravlax adapted from Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing (Revised and Updated)
Fennel & Honey-Cured Gravlax
- 1/2 cup dill seeds
- 2 tablespoons peppercorns
- 2 tablespoons juniper berries
- 1 cup honey
- 1/2 cup molasses (optional)
- 1 cup sea salt
- 1 cup filtered (or boiled and cooled) water
- 4 pounds salmon fillet, no thicker than 1-1/2 inches, skin on, pinbones removed
- 1 fennel bulb, with stalks and leaves, thinly sliced
Toast the dill, peppercorns, and juniper berries over medium-high heat in a dry pan.
Allow the spices to cool and then crack with mortal and pestle or process briefly in a mill.
Mix spices with honey, molasses (if using), salt, and water, stirring until salt is dissolved. Pour 1 cup of cure into bottom of curing vessel. Lay the salmon fillets skin-side down on the cure and pour remaining cure over the salmon.
Cover the salmon with sliced fennel, then fennel leaves.
Cover the fish tightly with a piece of wax paper. Place a dish or water-filled zip-top bag on top of the salmon. Cure at 40-50F for 24 hours (fridge is fine for this, but if the weather’s cool enough, I put it in a protected area outside), then turn the fish skin-side-up, replace the weight, and cure for another 24 hours. Fish is fully cured when it is uniformly firm to the touch. If there are still some mushy spots, return the fish to the brine and cure for another 12 hours or so and check it again.