The Taste of Wild Salmon

 Image cropped from The Pacific Salmon Conservation Assessment 2010 map from the Wild Salmon Center

Image cropped from The Pacific Salmon Conservation Assessment 2010 map from the Wild Salmon Center.[1]


By Dale Mayo, April 20, 2023

What is wild Alaskan salmon?

In the United States, wild caught salmon usually refers to Pacific salmon, specifically the five Alaskan species of Pacific salmon:  king (chinook), sockeye (red), coho (silver), chum (keta), and pink (humpies).  The waters off the coast of North America from the Columbia River in Washington and Oregon to the northern Bering Sea in Alaska[2] is home to most of the world’s population of salmon.

Habitat, breeding, and diet

Alaska’s watersheds create ideal conditions for wild salmon:  a rich mosaic of freshwater habitats that feed rivers leading to saltwater bays and the oceanic expanse of the North Pacific.[3]  Tens of millions of salmon return to Bristol Bay from ocean waters each summer and then separate into runs up several river systems.[4] Salmon are anadromous, which means they spawn in fresh water, migrate to the ocean where they feed and grow, and then return to fresh water to spawn and die. When they die, their bodies provide nutrients for the freshwater ecosystem. A biological clock tells the salmon when it's time to return to the place of their birth to spawn a new generation.[5] 

Eggs are buried in gravel nests, where they hatch several weeks or months later and where the juvenile fish (“fry”) may stay for another three or four months. The length of time spent in each phase and place depends on the species.  Juvenile salmon may spend several hours to several years in freshwater rivers. Juvenile salmon transition from living in fresh water to salt, a process called smoltification.  As they adapt, they may spend days or weeks in estuaries before moving on to the ocean.[6]  Salmon can spend from one up to six years in the ocean as they mature and grow into adults. While in the ocean growing, salmon feed on small fish, squid, eels, and shrimp.

Wild vs. farmed salmon

Wild and farmed salmon are different – they look different (red-orange vs. pink-orange), they generally have a different texture (firmer vs. softer and fattier), and a different flavor (savory vs. mild).[7]  There are a number of reasons for the differences between them.

  • Different species. Most farmed salmon are Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar). 
  • Different lifestyle. Wild salmon are active throughout their lifecycle, swimming many miles before returning upriver to spawn and die. Farm-raised fish are hatched, raised, and harvested under controlled conditions.[8] 
  • Different diet. Wild salmon eat what’s available in their ecosystem, farmed salmon are fed a processed diet that may be high in fat and protein which makes them larger.[9]  

A note about farmed salmon.  Because wild populations of Atlantic salmon are generally at very low levels, their commercial harvest is limited.[10]  Aquaculture was developed in part to avoid overly depleting the wild fish population - farming fish helps supply seafood and take pressure off over-fished resources. Today, top natural foods grocers find suppliers that use no antibiotics, no farm chemicals or pesticides, and follow environmentally friendly production standards. Farmed Atlantic salmon make up more than 90 percent of the farmed salmon market and more than half of the total global salmon market. By 2030, fish farms are expected to provide almost two-thirds of global food fish consumption.[11]  Nutritionally, farmed salmon are fattier than wild salmon, but that is not a bad thing as it might be for red meat.  The American Heart Association and most doctors recommend eating at least two four ounce servings of fish every week, farmed or wild-caught.

Understanding the Taste of Wild Alaskan Salmon

Wild salmon tastes different from farmed salmon. Because it makes up about half the salmon sold, farmed salmon is what many people think of when they think of eating salmon.  Farmed salmon is mild and soft (fatty) with a pink-orange hue, whereas wild salmon is savory, firm-fleshed, and is a more vibrant red-orange color. Some people prefer the flavor and texture of wild-caught and others prefer farm-raised.  There are also differences in flavor among the wild Alaskan salmon species.

Pacific Salmon Species

Salmon Species from httpsjasonsguideservice.comsalmon

  • King (Chinook). Adult king salmon (Oncorhynchus tschawytscha) can weigh 20-50 pounds.  King salmon are considered by many to be the best tasting of the Pacific salmon.  They have the highest oil content that gives the meat its delicate texture. They have a rich red color and succulent flavor and is the highest of the salmon species in omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Sockeye (Red). The smallest of the Copper River salmon species, adult sockeyes (Oncorhynchus nerka) weigh 4-6 pounds.  Sockeye meat has a deep red color, robust flavor, and firm texture. They have high levels of protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Alaska sockeye salmon also provides antioxidants such as taurine and heart-healthy vitamin B12. In addition, it contains selenium (shown to promote healthy brain function and support the immune system) and packed with protein which facilitates muscle growth. 
  • Coho (Silver). Coho (Oncorhynchus kisutch) are nicknamed silver because of their silvery skin.  Adult weight ranges from 5-18 pounds.  Their meat has a bright orange-red color and firm texture, but they have a delicate flavor.  High in omega-3s.
  • Chum (Keta). Chum (Oncorhynchus keta) is nicknamed dog salmon because of its dog-like teeth. Adults weigh about 8 pounds.  The meat has a coral-pink color, mild flavor, and firm texture and is low in fat.
  • Pink (humpies). Pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbusha) are the most common Pacific salmon. Called humpback salmon because they develop a hump on their back when they spawn.  The meat has a light rosy-pink color, delicate flavor, tender texture, and is low in fat.

Brown Bear fishing Salmon by Christoph Strässler is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

"Brown Bear fishing Salmon" by Christoph Strässler is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Cooking wild Alaskan salmon

Salmon is both simple to cook and versatile – it can be an appetizer or main course, broiled, baked, poached, pan-seared, smoked, used in soups or stews, or even as salmon bacon or in ice cream.  There are hundreds of salmon recipes available on the web from well-known sources like Food & Wine, The New York Times (behind a paywall), bon appetit, the Food Network, and Martha Stewart

If you prefer wild salmon with a milder flavor, Real Simple even has two suggestions (2 rules for how to cook salmon even haters will love):  1) buy frozen pre-portioned salmon to ensure freshness and 2) use sauces to complement the salmon flavors.  America’s Test Kitchen offers several techniques to minimize salmon’s strong flavors (use a glaze, grill your fish, or turn it into a burger to be flavored as you like).  

A note about the ideal internal temperature of a properly cooked salmon.  The FDA recommends that seafood be cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees; for fish, the flesh should be opaque and separate easily.  Many of the recipes found online for salmon make a distinction between the ideal temperature for farmed and wild salmon.  The clearest description comes from America’s Test Kitchen:  Farm raised salmon have softer flesh and contain more fat than any wild variety and taste great at 125 degrees. With naturally firmer flesh and less fat, wild salmon can have the texture of overcooked fish at 125 degrees, but by cooking wild salmon to just 120 degrees, the flesh stays moist and tender.[12]  

Sizzlefish offers wild caught Alaska salmon (and farmed Atlantic salmon, if you prefer) in pure natural fish portions, tools and tips for quick easy preparation, and nutritional information about our products.


[1]  Wild Salmon Center, Protecting the best: Proactive conservation, Stronghold Approach. The Pacific Salmon Conservation Assessment.  This 2010 map shows the south to north march of salmon decline, with the blue watersheds remaining as the strongest – full of abundant salmon with diverse life histories, and least affected by hatcheries.

[2]  Rosen, Y. (2021). In Alaska’s northern Bering Sea, a commercial pink salmon fishery emerges. ArcticToday, August 4, 2021.


[4]  Sherwonit, B. (2008). Alaska’s Pebble Mine:  Fish vs. gold. September 8, 2008.




[8]  Tom, P.D., Olin, P.G. (2010). Farmed or wild? Both types of salmon taste good and are good for you. Marketplace, Global Aquaculture Advocate, May/June 2010, 58-60.

[9]    DiGiacinto, J. and Leech, J. (2021). Wild vs. farmed salmon:  which type of salmon is healthier? Healthline. August 27, 2021.

[10]  Tom, P.D., Olin, P.G. (2010). Farmed or wild? Both types of salmon taste good and are good for you. Marketplace, Global Aquaculture Advocate, May/June 2010, 58-60.

[11]  FAO 2023. Salmo salar. Cultured Aquatic Species Information Programme. Text by Jones, M.. Fisheries and Aquaculture Division. Rome.


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