How to Buy Salmon

Wild, farm-raised, Pacific, Atlantic—with so many options, understanding how to buy salmon can be confusing. This guide will help you figure out exactly what to look for.

Not sure how to buy salmon? That’s totally understandable. It’s not as simple as buying strawberries, where you only have to choose from organic or conventional, fresh or frozen. With salmon, there are different species, sizes, colors and flavor profiles. Salmon are also raised in different ways that can be better or worse for your health, the environment and the sustainability of the species.

To help you make the best choice, we’ve put together a thorough guide on the best salmon to buy and how to buy it.

Wild vs. Farmed Salmon

First things first: When you’re shopping for salmon, the label should tell you where it was raised or caught, where it was processed, and whether it was farm-raised or wild-caught. For example, you might see something like “wild-caught Alaskan salmon, product of China,” which means the fish was caught in Alaskan waters but sent to China for processing (it’s common practice to send fish overseas for processing because the labor is cheaper). If it’s not clear on the label or at the fish counter, ask someone.

When it comes to buying wild versus farmed salmon, the main concerns are usually sustainability and nutrition. “Sustainable” salmon simply means that salmon was caught or farmed in a way that ensures healthy populations of fish both now and in the future, and that there’s minimal environmental impact overall. Both farmed and wild salmon can be produced sustainably or unsustainably, and both have nutritional benefits and drawbacks.

Is Farmed Salmon Sustainable?

Farmed salmon can be raised in a sustainable way, depending on where and how the fish are farmed. Some inland salmon farms where they recycle their water might be considered more sustainable than some open-ocean pens, for instance.  If not maintained safely, an open-ocean farm can threaten wild salmon populations and cause larger environmental problems. The best thing to do: Look for farmed salmon raised in a way that doesn’t conflict with wild salmon populations or water quality.

If you’re eating Atlantic salmon, it’s probably farmed (or should be). Wild Atlantic salmon have long been overfished, and at least one species is endangered. Farmed Atlantic salmon generally comes from other countries around the globe, including Norway, Chile, Scotland, Ireland and Canada. Some Pacific salmon species, like king salmon, can be farmed as well.

Is Wild Salmon Sustainable?

Pacific salmon species, including king, coho, sockeye, pink and chum, live off of the west coast of Canada and the northern United States and are generally wild (although some are farmed, as noted above). Many are protected under the Endangered Species Act because their populations have been diminished by habitat destruction and hydroelectric dams.

Wild salmon can be caught in a variety of ways, but knowing the fishing method alone is usually not enough to tell you if a particular salmon is a sustainable choice. For example, some types of troll-caught salmon, which are caught in the ocean one at a time with a hook and line, are sustainable, and others are not. No matter how it is caught, sustainable wild salmon comes from fish populations that are not endangered.

Salmon Certifications

When you’re at the store trying to figure out if your salmon is sustainable or not, one simple shortcut is to look for salmon that is Marine Stewardship Council Certified. That MSC certification will tell you that a particular salmon came from sustainable fish stocks, and that it was fished in a way to have minimal environmental impact.

For farm-raised salmon, look for salmon certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council. The ASC certification means that the fish farms comply with environmental and social criteria. Another source to check is the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Guide. It gives salmon best, certified, good and avoid ratings to help consumers make sustainable choices.

Nutrition of Wild vs. Farmed Salmon

Wild and farmed salmon eat different diets that give them different nutritional profiles. Farmed Atlantic salmon tends to be much higher in fat (and therefore calories). Wild salmon is higher in calcium, iron, potassium and zinc. Both are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids. And both have healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in addition to less healthy saturated fats.

Wild salmon is never produced with antibiotics and may be lower in an environmental pollutant called PCBs, so if you can afford its higher price and you like the taste, it may be a healthier choice. If you eat salmon in moderation, the potential downsides of PCBs are not a serious risk, health experts say.

Organic Salmon

There is no official “organic” designation for salmon from the National Organic Program, so you won’t see a “certified organic” seal from the U.S. Agriculture department. Some salmon from Europe, where standards have been established, might be labeled as organic. A farm that calls itself  “organic” because of the type of feed and farming practices used might also say that their salmon is organic. But none of it is certified by the USDA. However, there is a Canadian company called Creative Salmon that raises certified organic chinook salmon, which you might see at your local grocery store or fish counter.

Fresh vs. Frozen Salmon: Which Is Better?

Most salmon is frozen shortly after it’s caught to preserve its flavor and quality. If you want truly fresh salmon, you’ll need to eat it locally and in season.

Keep in mind that frozen salmon, like other frozen fish, is not an inferior product. The flash-freezing process locks in the freshness we’re all looking for. Once you bring your salmon home, store it in the fridge at 40°F or lower for no longer than two days before cooking it. If it’s already frozen, store it at 0° or lower and use within eight months. Store cooked salmon in the fridge for up to four days.

Canned salmon is a great economical way to get your daily omega-3s. No matter if it’s pink, chum, coho or red sockeye canned salmon, it has good nutritional value and is pretty tasty, especially in something like baked salmon patties. To get the most calcium, choose canned salmon with bones. Lower-sodium options are best, as well. Unopened canned salmon will keep in a cool, dry place for up to five years. Once opened, unused salmon will keep in the fridge for up to four days in an airtight container; it will keep in the freezer for up to three months.

The Best Salmon to Buy

When it comes to choosing high-quality salmon, look for a vibrant flesh color that’s light pink or red, depending on the species, with no darkening around the edges. The flesh should be firm and, if not frozen or previously frozen, shiny. Salmon should smell like the ocean—like a nice day at the beach—not fishy or off-putting. A whole fish should have bright, clear, protruding eyes.

If you’re purchasing still-frozen salmon, make sure the package has no ice crystals, frost, discoloration or liquid. If purchasing previously frozen “fresh” salmon from the refrigerator case, make sure it’s tightly sealed, wrapped or vacuum packed.

Types of Salmon

There are six types of salmon you’ll see at the grocery store or fish counter, whether it’s fresh, frozen, previously frozen or canned. Atlantic salmon, which is most common around the country, is also known as sea run salmon, kelts or black salmon. The fish has a mild flavor and light pink color, and is perfect for everyday easy salmon recipes, whether fillets or steaks.

Of the Pacific salmon species, King salmon, also called chinook, is the largest. It’s high in fat with a silky texture that’s great for things like simple poached salmon and smoking. Sockeye, also called red salmon, is stronger in flavor and lower in fat than other varieties; you’ll find it served raw, smoked and canned, and it’s a good variety for salmon burgers. Coho, or silver, salmon is mild in flavor and has a delicate texture. It’s smaller and is often sold whole (great on the grill!).

Pink salmon is the most abundant Pacific salmon and a smart food choice because it’s sustainably managed and generally not overfished. It’s lower in fat and most often canned, making it a good candidate for salads and salmon cakes. Chum or keta salmon are a popular source of salmon roe (caviar). They’re lower in fat and good for drying, smoking, grilling or roasting.

Cuts of Salmon

Deciding on which cut of salmon and how much to buy should be dictated by your recipe and how many people you’re serving. Three to four ounces of uncooked salmon per person is usually good for a fuller meal (here are some great side dishes for salmon). For leaner cuts of wild salmon or when you want to indulge, six to eight uncooked ounces is a good serving size. Raw salmon will lose about 25% of its weight after cooking. Here’s a little primer on which cuts work best:

Salmon steaks

This thick, crosswise cut of a larger fish includes both sides of the salmon and has a round bone (the salmon’s backbone) in the middle. It holds up well to grilling—check out some of our favorite grilled salmon recipes—but can also be pan-fried or baked, like in this lemon-garlic salmon recipe.

Side of salmon

The side is the part between the head and the tail. Basically, it’s a fillet that weighs several pounds. When you buy a side of salmon, it may contain scales, belly bones and pin bones, all of which you should remove before eating. Better yet, ask the person working at the seafood counter to remove them at the store. Next, try this delicious miso salmon recipe.

Salmon fillets

A fillet is what you’re most likely to buy at the store or be served in a restaurant. It’s a smaller portion of a side of salmon. The side has five parts: top loin, loin, belly, second cut and tail. Each has a different shape and fat content that makes it ideally suited for certain preparations, from sashimi to pan searing to baked salmon recipes.

Whole salmon

A whole salmon is just what it sounds like: both sides of the fish, including the head, tail, scales and bones. You can serve baked whole salmon, or break it down and cook each part in a specific way.

Salmon Recipes to Make for Dinner
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Amy Fontinelle
Amy Fontinelle has been an online content creator since 2006. Her work has been published by Forbes Advisor, The Motley Fool, Business Insider, Investopedia, International Business Times, MassMutual, Credible, and more. Amy cares about making challenging personal finance topics easy to understand so people feel empowered to manage their finances and don't get taken advantage of. She wants everyone to experience the peace of mind and freedom that come from financial security. Amy spends much of her free time in the kitchen making her own pizza dough and ricotta cheese.
Lesley Balla
As an associate editor at Taste of Home, Lesley helps track food and cooking trends, and writes and updates digital content. When not at her desk, you'll find her whipping up something with finds from the farmers market, discovering new restaurants, or hiking and roadtripping with her husband and pup Pucci.