Most everyone has tasted salmon in one form or another. But have you ever tried wild-caught king salmon? If not, you are in for a treat. King salmon can grow to well over 100 pounds and is native to the North Pacific Ocean. Most importantly, it has a fantastic flavor. Learn all about this delicious wild fish, how to cook it, and why it is considered the king of salmon.
What Is King Salmon?
King salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), also known as Chinook salmon, after the indigenous Chinookan peoples of the Pacific Northwest, is the largest species of wild North Pacific salmon. It can be found in the rivers of Western North America, from Northern California to Alaska, all the way over to Japan and the Arctic Sea, and has also been introduced into other areas of the world. King salmon is widely considered to be one of the best types of salmon in terms of flavor.
How to Cook King Salmon
You can cook wild king salmon as you would any other type of fish. However, due to its thick meaty flesh, it does particularly well on the grill, seared in a cast-iron pan, or broiled in a hot oven. Thin slices can also be flash-sautéed in a hot frying pan.
What Does King Salmon Taste Like?
Wild king salmon has a dense meaty texture, a rich fatty consistency, and a full fresh fish flavor with a hint of sweetness. King salmon fat can be so creamy that a sushi-grade salmon belly is considered on par with the delicacy of sushi-grade tuna belly. And the taste of king salmon can stand up to intense cooking methods, such as charcoal grilling and wood roasting, as well as pronounced spices and rich sauces, without losing its own inherent flavor.
King Salmon vs. Sockeye Salmon
The comparison of king salmon with a farm-raised one like Atlantic salmon is easy: While both have a similar size, king salmon has much more flavor and a firmer, less oily consistency. But it is much more interesting to compare king salmon to another wild salmon species, such as sockeye.
Sockeye is a much smaller fish, so its fillets are much smaller, thinner, and more compact. While sockeye has a very pronounced flavor—one might say even more pronounced than king salmon—it is a flavor that you do not want to mess with too much by charcoal grilling or heavy spicing, whereas king can support other flavors quite well.
Needless to say, the big difference in size between king and sockeye salmon has an impact on their cooking times. The much thinner sockeye fillets cook much more quickly than the king.
There is a very rare variety of wild king salmon called white king or ivory salmon because, while they look the same on the outside, the flesh of these fish is white like halibut instead of orange. This is the result of a genetic deficiency that prevents these fish from metabolizing the carotene pigments of their diet and storing it in their flesh. While the color is different, the taste is basically the same, except that white king salmon has a more delicate sweetness, silkier texture, and a bit less fat.
King Salmon Recipes
King salmon is incredibly versatile: Its full flavor can stand up to intense cooking methods (like charcoal grilling) and strong seasonings, or the simplest treatment, such as steaming or baking with a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. Either way, its full, rich, wild flavor will shine through.
Where to Buy King Salmon
Look for wild king salmon at a trusted purveyor of quality fish. King salmon is more expensive than farmed salmon, but the distinctive flavor is worth the higher price. Also, remember that it's a wild fish and will only be available from late spring to early fall. The exact dates vary each year according to the season; the legal harvesting dates and quantities of king salmon are, like most wild fish, carefully monitored and set by the authorities.
Ask your fish purveyor to let you know when wild king salmon will be available. And if you are interested in trying white king salmon, let them know that as well.
Orange or white, the flesh should look firm, moist, and translucent, as if it just came out of a cold shower, as opposed to flaccid, dull grayish, and dried out.
Storing King Salmon
Fresh wild king salmon fillet can be kept tightly wrapped in plastic in the refrigerator for a day or two, but it is best used as quickly as possible. It can be frozen too, but it is not recommended, as some of its dense texture and full, rich flavor can be lost in the freezing and thawing process.
When you can find wild king salmon, get it, cook it, and enjoy it—you can even plan a special evening around it. And if you wind up with leftovers, try smoking it, if it is not cooked yet, or make a delicious salmon salad, if it is.