The Five Species of Wild Alaskan Salmon

Salmon is most certainly not simply salmon, especially when it’s caught wild.

As opposed to farm-raised species, typically imported from overseas and oftentimes unnaturally plump and flabby — and in some studies lacking the same concentration of critical omega-3 fatty acids — the flesh of a wild fish is firm and muscular, with a cleaner taste that chefs covet. Granted, the major drawback of wild versus farm is that farm is more often available fresh, while wild product sourced from Alaska is typically frozen at the many processing facilities lining the shores and harbors.

 

But with a premium placed on cutting-edge freezing technology, very little of the salmon’s salmon-ness is lost. Whether you are ordering at a restaurant or checking out your favorite fish shop, there are defining characteristics for each of the five species of salmon — which, as you will see, go by a variety of names.

 

 

Here’s a rundown of what you need to know about each species (with the nickname in parentheses):

King (chinook)

The largest and most prized of all the species, typically between 20 and 60 pounds each. Kings are often the first salmon caught during the season, which starts around May. “I ate Alaskan troll-caught king salmon three times this week and wondered why I’d waited so long,” wrote Mark Bittman in a 2010 come-to-Jesus column. “There is no better finfish.” High in oil content, the king is often what you will find on the sushi bar. That is, it’s good enough to eat raw. “I love cooking with king for its luscious character and fat content, without it being flabby,” says Seattle chef Tom Douglas. King salmon is also the inspiration for a poorly received 1993 Sega Genesis video game.

Sockeye (red)
As the “Red” nickname name suggests, the flesh of sockeye is its defining characteristic: bright red that remains a desirable shade even when cooked. This is a big reason that seafood-focused chefs covet it when it’s in season. “It’s a gorgeous fish,” says New York City chef Anita Lo, who has fished for salmon in Alaska the past two seasons. Due to its color, sockeye is also used extensively in canning. It’s also the salmon used for that Sunday brunch staple, lox. “I love it for its intense color, firm texture and strong fish flavor,” says Douglas.

Coho (silver)
With a definitive silver skin and reddish-orange flesh, coho is often considered the best-tasting salmon species. It’s also the angler’s choice, as coho are known to put up a fight. While the fat content is not as high as the king, it’s considerably higher than pinks and chums. “Balanced” is also a term that is thrown around. While coho is abundant in Alaska, it’s less so in Canadian waters, thus the lion’s share of coho served in the U.S. comes from the 49th state.

Chum (Keta)

One of the workhorse species, and priced lower than king and sockeye, chum is defined by its pinkish flesh and lower fat content. It’s often smoked or dried. But chum is most well known for its valuable eggs. Called ikura in Japan, the tiny, yolky eggs are harvested, then tumble-cured in a brining liquid and packaged. High-quality ikura can sell for as much as $100 per kilo.

Pink (humpy)
Extremely lean and delicate, pinks are the most commonly caught wild salmon in Alaska — and also the smallest, around six to seven pounds each. Due to the sheer volume of pinks heading upstream during the spawning season, the fish found in the rivers and streams are sometimes damaged (battered and bruised from overcrowding). This is why pinks are primarily used for canning or as bait to catch larger fish.