Nothing can beat a piece of pristine, truly fresh fish. Yet what's sold as fresh salmon isn't always better than frozen salmon—and isn't necessarily always even fresh. It's often fresh-frozen, meaning it was frozen after being caught, shipped to your fishmonger, and defrosted for sale.
As salmon fishermen will tell you, they'd rather have a piece of frozen salmon that was wild-caught with a gill net, bled immediately (which slows down decomposition), and frozen that day than a "fresh" piece of salmon from a fish that was farmed or poorly caught, or not bled, or that sat on ice for days before being frozen.
That's why it's so important to know where your salmon comes from.
The Best Fresh Salmon
The best fresh salmon is actually fresh, never frozen, and wild-caught. Look for fish with firm, brightly colored flesh. Whole fish are the best, because you can look into their eyes. No joke. Clear, plump eyes are a supreme sign of freshness in a fish (those with cloudy or sunken eye are best avoided).
Fresh fish should also smell fresh, like the sea and not really fishy at all.
If you can give the fish a poke, the flesh should bounce back when you do so. Don't buy fish that feels soft, mushy, or doesn't spring back into shape. Like cloudy eyes, it's a sign that the fish isn't fresh.
If you're like me, you'll also want to look for wild-caught salmon for the best flavor and sustainability. (Great strides have been made in making farmed salmon more sustainable, but it still uses more small fish to create each pound of salmon and some farms use antibiotics, and have questionable containment practices that risk letting farmed species mix with wild ones.)
The Best Frozen Salmon
Once it's frozen, the classic signs of fresh fish listed above won't do you much good. Yet it is often easier to get clear information about frozen fish, since it frequently has an actual label.
Look for wild-caught fish from a sustainable fishery—fisheries up and down the Pacific coast of North America are well-managed.
More Information Often Means the Best Fish
In short, ask your fishmonger where and how the salmon was caught. Better yet, buy salmon directly from a fisherman or a co-op, that way you'll know exactly when and how it was caught. Many salmon fishermen in Alaska and Washington state are set up to sell their wild-caught Pacific salmon directly to consumers.
Learn more about salmon here. And once you have delicious fresh or frozen salmon on hand? Try throwing in on the grill—it's definitely my favorite way to cook salmon. Looking for something else? Find other ways to cook salmon here.