Salmon School

A chef, lodge owner, and cooking instructor shares her love of wild Alaskan fish.
Kirsten Dixon

In Alaska, where I live and spend summers at Winterlake Lodge, almost 200 miles northwest of Anchorage, nothing marks the end of the long, snowy, dark winter more clearly for me than the return of wild salmon to our river.

Each year, I wait with pleasurable anticipation for that first excited phone call relating the news that will resonate throughout the valley. Someone has caught a king salmon, one of the five Pacific salmon species to arrive home from the ocean to spawn. Thus begins the daily arrival of fresh salmon to my kitchen door―and I'll prepare salmon in its many variations and methods through the middle of fall.

King salmon, the first to arrive in our river, are also the largest. These fish can weigh nearly 100 pounds, and average about 20 pounds. Years ago, cookbook author and culinary teacher Anne Willan came to stay at my lodge. She wanted to prepare the French dish saumon en croûte, whole salmon baked in a delicious pastry. One of our guides brought a 50-plus-pound king salmon into the kitchen and flopped it onto the counter. Willan's eyes widened. Then she rolled up her sleeves and made a megabatch of pastry dough to cover the fish. We had enough to feed the French army.

Like Willan, guests visit Winterlake and our other property, Redoubt Bay Lodge, to fish for and dine on wild salmon, which are prized for their rich texture and succulent flavor. Aficionados believe wild salmon's marine diet of herring, shrimp, and squid contributes to their distinctive taste.

Wild by Law
In Alaska, all salmon are wild. There are no farm-raised fish in Alaskan waters. In fact, it is illegal to farm-raise finfish. The thinking is that this will help preserve the pristine nature of our waters and the hearty genetic stock of our wild fish.

Wild salmon tend to be slightly lower in calories, fat, and sodium than their farmed cousins, and depending on the variety, they can have a bit more protein. Because salmon stop feeding once they re-enter the river, they are particularly high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and protein to fuel their long journey through icy-cold waters.

Alaskan salmon are either commercially caught in the ocean or sport-caught in freshwater streams. Guests who stay at my lodges often take some salmon home as an edible souvenir of their trip. But even if you don't plan to visit Alaska and catch your own fish, you can find wild Alaskan salmon in markets everywhere this time of year.

Cooking with Different Types
There are three species of Pacific salmon generally found as fresh fish in the market: king, coho, and sockeye. You can use any type of salmon in the recipes here, but keep in mind that each species cooks a little differently because of its fat content and average size. The idea is to avoid drying out or overcooking the fish. A general rule is to cook it about eight to 10 minutes per inch thickness of fish, however you are preparing it. King are the favorite of professional chefs, in part because the high fat content of the fish keeps them moist as they cook. Try searing king salmon, then finish it in the oven and serve with a sauce.

Coho are best grilled, hot smoked, pan seared, or baked. During the summer, I love to peruse my herb and vegetable garden for fresh ingredients to create main course salads topped with grilled salmon. If you grill salmon, try to select fish with the skin intact; the skin helps hold the fish together on the grill. Although I usually remove skin after grilling, many people enjoy the taste of crispy, crunchy salmon skin.

Sockeye have become more popular over the past few years. On the day that fishermen can begin catching sockeye in Alaska's Copper River, restaurants across the country begin featuring them on menus. Sockeye have a deep red color that looks beautiful simply steamed and served with colorful vegetables.

What to Look For
When shopping for Alaskan salmon, usually you'll find fillets or steaks nicely portioned and packaged. You can ensure your fish is of good quality by looking for:

  • Firm, resilient flesh
  • Shiny skin, if it is still intact
  • Pleasant sea smell―no ammonia
  • No weeping fluids or dried-out flesh

Don't be afraid to buy fresh-frozen fish, also known as "fish frozen at sea" (fas). It is often vacuum packed and frozen as soon as it's caught to preserve texture and flavor. It's a good alternative when fresh wild salmon isn't available.

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