The Ultimate Guide to Salmon

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Salmon is known to be one of the most nutritious foods available so let's learn how to use it! Learn all about why salmon is so good for you plus the ultimate guide for how to pick it, store it, and prepare this healthy fish.

Salmon is known to be one of the healthiest proteins out there, but how much do you really know about it. Use this guide to learn everything you have ever wondered about salmon - it's nutritional make-up, how to choose it, whether you should choose wild or farm raised, how to cook it, recipes, and more.

The Surprising Health Benefits of Salmon

Isn’t it funny how we can eat a food all our lives but never really picture it in its whole form? Sure it’s easy to think of a cow or a pig, but how often do you look at fish and picture what the fish really looks like? Can you easily think of red snapper in its entirety? What about tuna? I was shocked when I first saw a photo of a tuna fish. I had no idea they were so large!

Admittedly, when I think of salmon, I picture the quintessential photo of a bear trying to catch the big fish as they swim upstream to spawn in some Alaskan stream. While that’s not incorrect, it’s important to note that salmon can be as varied as the ways in which to prepare it.

Baked, grilled, fried, whole, get the picture. There’s a reason there are so many ways to eat this versatile fish — because it’s it’s as delicious as it is nutritious. It’s also easy to find in almost any grocery store. No matter which type you pick or how you choose to prepare it, you’re sure to enjoy the benefits of adding one of the healthiest foods on Earth to your diet.

Types of Salmon

There are seven species of Pacific salmon. They range in size, anywhere from five-pound pink salmon to 126-pound king salmon. Five of the seven types of salmon live in North American waters, two types live only in Asia and one lives in the Atlantic. Some salmon live in freshwater all their lives, some live in salt water, and some are anadromous, meaning they live in both types of water, depending on the season.

Is Salmon Good for You?

By now, surely you’ve heard about the benefits of eating salmon. Touted as one of the richest food sources of omega-3 fatty acids, it’s also a great source of protein, B vitamins, potassium, calcium, and antioxidants.

Salmon is also great to add to your diet if you are trying to lose weight, control your cholesterol, or if you’ve been looking for more ways to add seafood dishes to your weekly menu. It’s also a great option for vegetarians who are open to adding fish to their diets and are looking for ways to mix up the same old, same old foods.

The Nutritional Makeup of Salmon

According to the USDA nutrient database, a 3-ounce serving size of Atlantic raw salmon contains 121 calories, 17 grams of protein, 5 grams of fat, and no carbs, fiber, or sugar. Salmon is a great source of good-for-you fats, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, niacin, folate, and a myriad of other vitamins and minerals your body needs to be healthy.

Different types of salmon on ice at a fish market and a hand picking up a filet.

Wild-Caught Versus Farm-Raised Salmon: What’s Better for You?

Is wild or farm-raised salmon better for you? Well, that depends. Although farmed Atlantic salmon can provide more omega-3s than wild-caught, some studies have shown that factory-raised salmon contains more carcinogenic chemicals called PCBs. In some farms, the chemicals found have measured up to ten times higher than that of wild salmon. Then again, other studies have shown that levels of PCBs in farm-raised salmon to be comparable to those found in wild-caught.

Another factor to take into consideration is mercury levels found in fish. When it comes to salmon, though, you don’t have to worry. Most farm-raised fish contains very little mercury and fish with the highest mercury levels include bigger, wild-caught fish like tuna, shark, king mackerel, and swordfish.

And, as far as the use of antibiotics or hormones to grow fish in farms, you don’t have to worry about that, either. United States regulatory groups prohibit their use. (This is not always the case in other countries, so be sure to check the label first before you purchase.) You also don’t have to fret over genetically modified fish for sale as food in the United States.

All that said, the best course of action is to do a little research into where your salmon comes from. Some grocery chains, such as Whole Foods, have stricter guidelines for the factory-raised fish they buy and sell in their stores. Look for salmon (and other fish) sources that practice sustainable and responsible farming practices.

When in doubt, mix it up. The fact is, wild-caught salmon is harder to find and can be more expensive. Also, remember that any factory-farmed fish is probably going to be better than a Twinkie, right? As long as the good outweighs the bad in life, I say don’t sweat it.

The Health Benefits of Salmon

  • They are high in omega-3s. Salmon is one of the best sources for omega-3s you can find, in fact. Omega-3s are great for your body and mind. They can help lower your risk of heart disease, depression, and arthritis. It can also help to quell inflammation in your body and can slow down the buildup of plaque inside your arteries and veins by lowering your triglyceride levels and it can even lower your blood pressure.Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are important elements that your brain needs to function throughout all stages of your life, from birth to old age. Pregnant women who take fish oil or up their fish intake have had children who score higher on intelligence tests. And when you grow older, ensuring adequate intake of omega-3s can help to delay the beginnings of dementia and Alzheimer's.
  • They are low-carb. There’s a good reason salmon makes a frequent appearance on many low-carb diets such as Paleo and Keto as it contains zero carbs. That’s right, none. If you are following a low-carb diet or watching your weight, then salmon is a great protein addition to any breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
  • They are low-calorie. You already know salmon packs a heart-healthy punch, but isn’t it great to also learn that salmon is low-calorie? Now you can fill up on this lean protein knowing you’re staying within your calorie limits as well.
  • They are high in protein. Fish and seafood, in general, are great options when you’re looking for foods that are high in protein and low in fat. The USDA recommendation for protein intake is based on body weight but roughly equates to 54 grams a day for a 150-pound female or 71 grams a day for a 195-pound man. With 17 grams of protein per serving, you can achieve your desired protein intake easily, plus benefit from all the other goodness salmon brings.
  • Salmon is a good source of essential B vitamins. From B1 to B12 and nearly everything in between, if you’re looking to stock up on B, you should be eating salmon. B vitamins play a key role in making sure your metabolism runs smoothly. They also are involved in DNA creation and repair, help reduce inflammation, and work to maintain brain and nervous system functions.
  • They are good for your bones. The calcium found in salmon can help keep your bones strong and aid in the prevention of osteoporosis. Calcium is an important mineral that your bones cannot do without. It is also responsible for contracting your muscles, making new bone tissue, and helping your blood to clot.

How to Choose Salmon

If you’re buying fresh salmon, make sure it doesn’t smell fishy. Fresh salmon shouldn’t really have any smell at all. And, unless you’re at the store looking for smoked salmon specifically, you’ll want to steer clear of any salmon that appears dried out. You’ll also want to skip any fish with brown spots or bruising or that has skin that appears brown or is starting to dry up and curl.

Salmon flesh comes in a variety of red to pink shades. Regardless of which shade you find, make sure it’s vibrantly colored and skip any fish that looks pale.

When purchasing frozen or packaged salmon, keep in mind it’s often chilled right there on the boat, soon after being caught. Typically, it’s then vacuum-sealed right after being filleted, furthering its freshness. Stay away from any packaging that appears to have broken seals or air inside.

When in doubt, read the label (where you might discover details such as “color-added” that will cue you to stay away), or ask your fishmonger for advice.

How to Store Salmon

If you’ve purchased fresh salmon, it’s best to cook and eat it within three to four days. You can always freeze fresh portions as well for up to two months. If you’ve thawed frozen salmon in the refrigerator, you should eat it within one to two days. If you’ve thawed frozen salmon in the microwave or under cold water, you should be prepared to eat it right away.

As far as salmon leftovers are concerned, they can keep up to three days in the fridge. When in doubt, throw it out. It’s better to start over than to risk food poisoning.

How Do You Know When Salmon Is Done?

Although cooking methods vary, one rule of thumb is to cook them for four to six minutes per inch of thickness, or three to four minutes per side. If you’re not sure, you can gently check the center with a knife. If it’s still slightly translucent in the center, it’s probably done. You can also take its temperature. A range of 110 to 140 degrees is considered the sweet spot. You can cook the fish anywhere from medium-rare to medium well-done within that temperature range.

Salmon recipe with asparagus on a sheet pan.

How to Cook Salmon

And now for the best part — cooking the salmon! I love salmon almost any which way, as you might have been able to tell with the amount of recipes for salmon that I have here on Slender Kitchen. Read on for my favorite recipes featuring different ways to cook salmon. I recommend you give them all a try. After all, the government recommends we eat lean fish and seafood twice a week for optimum health.

Baked Salmon

If I had a mantra, it might be “quick and easy.” That’s what I was thinking when I made this Baked Honey Salmon and Vegetables recipe. Cooked in foil for easy clean up and ready in less than 20 minutes, it doesn’t get any easier than that. You also should check out this Broiled Honey Garlic Salmon that's ready in 10 minutes and Maple Mustard Salmon that is a favorite in our house.

When baking salmon, you’ll want it to come out looking nice and flaky. To achieve this, I set the oven to 400 degrees and cooked the fish with the vegetables for 15 minutes.

If your salmon has the skin on, be sure to bake it skin-side down, like I did in this recipe for Spicy Sesame Salmon (say that three times fast).

Broiled salmon on quinoa with asparagus on a ceramic plate.

Grilled Salmon

There’s nothing better than firing up the grill in the summer. One of my favorite things to grill is, of course, salmon. For this recipe for Grilled Spice Rubbed Salmon, I made my own spice rub. I recommend letting spices rest on the fish for about 15 minutes before grilling. This version only took about 10 minutes to finish to my liking. Depending on your grill and temperature setting, your cooking time may vary, so be sure to watch it closely. You don’t want your salmon to be overdone.

Again, you’ll want to make sure you start off grilling salmon with skin-side down before flipping. You’ll want to grill longer on the first side than the second. When I grilled this Cajun Salmon, I cooked it for 3-4 minutes on the skin side before I flipped it for 1-3 minutes more.

Grilled salmon with asparagus on a black plate.

Pan-Fried Salmon

This Blackened Salmon with Garlic Zucchini Noodles combines two of my favorite things. When cooking salmon in a pan, simply prepare the fish with your rub or marinade and then heat some olive oil over medium heat, and cook the salmon for 3-4 minutes on each side. Set the salmon gently atop zucchini noodles, rice, pasta, or alone with a side of roasted vegetables for a simple, yet delicious, low-carb meal.

Pan fried salmon on a bed of zucchini noodles and a wooden table.

Seasoning Ideas for Salmon

There are so many different ways to season salmon from simple salt and pepper to more bold spice blends. Here are a few options for salmon seasoning that will make any salmon taste amazing.

  • Blackened or Cajun: Use a homemade blackening seasoning or a store bought option to make a smoky and spicy salmon.
  • Lemon pepper: Make homemade lemon pepper by combining lemon zest with black pepper, salt, and garlic powder. A store-bought blend will also work, just look for one with natural flavors so it tastes like real lemon, instead of artificial lemon flavor.
  • Brown sugar: Adding a touch of brown sugar to your favorite store-bought spice blend will help you create a crispy topping on the salmon since the sugar caramelizes.
  • Asian: You can use store-bought or homemade Asian style marinades for salmon. One that always works is equal parts honey, soy sauce, and lemon or lime juice.
  • Lemon herb: Use a store-bought herb blend that contains herbs like thyme, rosemary, oregano, marjoram, or parsley. Blend it with olive oil to smear on the fish and then squeeze lots of fresh lemon juice on top when it's finished cooking.
  • Italian: Italian spice blends work great with salmon. For some spice add in red pepper flakes, which typically aren't included in these spice blends.
1 Comment
On The Ultimate Guide to Salmon
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Ann Courtney
June 28, 2018 - 14:39
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When it comes to salmon, there's no better place to live than Alaska. The closer you are to the river, the less prep it needs--a little salt & pepper and a grill will suffice. For the best eating, look for Red Salmon, then King Salmon, and then Silvers (the order of the latter two may not be important--I'd take either one). We feed the pinks (or chum) to the dogs. :). Come visit! You'll never eat frozen salmon again!