5 Types of Pacific Salmon Found in North America
Salmon is one of the most commonly found seafood items across the US in restaurants and homes alike. Prized for its nutritional benefits and distinct taste, salmon offers a great mainstay for any eater. While most people enjoy salmon weekly, they often don’t realize there are several different types of salmon. In fact, there are five different types of Pacific Salmon found in North America alone. They are:
King (Chinook) Salmon – Often considered the best and most expensive salmon due to its high-fat content and flavorful profile.
Sockeye (Red) Salmon – Lower in fat than the king salmon, but still high in fat content compared to others on this list.
Coho (Silver) Salmon – This is one of the most highly prized catches by fishermen due to its fighting spirit. It’s similar in flavor to a King Salmon, but with a more delicate texture due to its lower fat content.
Pink (Humpback) Salmon – Low-fat content with a mild flavor. Typically, canned, dried, and smoked.
Chum (Keta) Salmon – Extremely lean and often fished in higher numbers. While the fish itself is not highly prized, its roe is often used in sushi dishes.
In this article, we will take a deeper dive into the differences between the five identified Pacific Salmon and compare the best ways to prepare them for a spectacular meal regardless of the type of salmon that you are using.
King (Chinook) Salmon
Chinook salmon is the largest of all the Pacific salmon. They average about three meters and range from 11 to 20 pounds. However, some of the larger fish can weigh up to 110 pounds and grow up to five feet long.
The Chinook salmon is recognizable from its silver sides and bluish-green heads. They have irregular black spots in various places but are most recognizable by their hooked noses and ridged backs.
Where is Chinook Salmon Found?
Chinook salmon are anadromous. They start their lives in freshwater rivers or lakes and then migrate to the open ocean as they get older. This means that fully matured Chinook salmon are found in the ocean, but they do return to the river where they were born to procreate.
Inside of the US Chinook salmon is most commonly found in the Pacific Northwest. They are especially popular in Alaska, Idaho, and Washington. Outside of the US, you can find them in Russia and Japan.
Flavor Profile of Chinook Salmon
Chinook salmon are considered to be the most flavorful and often best tasting of the Pacific salmon. They tend to have high fat and omega-3 content. As a result, they have a very velvety texture.
Tips for Cooking with Chinook Salmon
Chinook salmon can be baked, broiled, smoked, or prepared in a way that you would normally prepare any other type of fish. However, due to its high-fat content and a lovely natural flavor, one of the best ways to prepare it is on the grill or seared in an iron skillet.
Sockeye (Red) Salmon
Sockeye salmon, also known as red salmon are much smaller than Chinook salmon as they typically range from 1.5 to 2.5 feet in length and can weigh anywhere from 4 to 15 pounds. Kokanee salmon, a non-anadromous type of Sockeye, are much smaller, rarely growing longer than 1.2 feet.
Sockeye salmon are often referred to as blueback salmon as they are blueish, silver in color when living in the ocean. However, when they return to rivers after fully maturing their heads take a green hue and their bodies turn red.
These types of salmon are easily distinguishable by their long, serrated gill rakers. Additionally, they rarely have spots on their body or tail.
Where is Sockeye Salmon Found?
Like Chinook salmon, Sockeye salmon are mostly anadromous; however, they tend to spend less time in the ocean, before returning to their river of birth.
Sockeye salmon are most commonly found in the rivers of Alaska in the US, but can also be found along the west coast all the way down to Northern California. Outside of the US, they are mostly found in Canada, Japan, and Siberia.
Flavor Profile of Sockeye Salmon
There is some debate over whether the Chinook salmon or a Sockeye salmon is the best-tasting Pacific salmon. It is not as fatty as the Chinook salmon, but it still has a dense and buttery texture. Therefore, it really just comes down to the individual’s taste as to which is better. Sockeye salmon is easily recognizable behind a seafood counter due to its bright blood-orange coloring.
Tips for Cooking with Sockeye Salmon
Due to its low-fat content and appealing color Sockeye salmon is often used in sushi dishes. If you prefer your food cooked, it's best to stay away from heavy sauces as this salmon already has a very complex flavor. Storing it with a cedar plank, pan-searing, or grilling it will give you the best results.
Coho (Silver) Salmon
Coho salmon are known as the third-largest type of Pacific salmon, averaging at just over 2 feet in length and from 7 to 11 pounds. Since there are over 20 different stocks, or populations, of Coho salmon, weight and length can vary significantly.
While in the ocean Coho salmon have a dark metallic blue back and silver sides. When returning to freshwater mature Coho salmon have red sides with a darker back. They are often touted as the toughest type of catch and are sometimes fished for sport.
Where is Coho Salmon Found?
Coho salmon are most commonly found in the United States in the coastal areas of Alaska and Oregon: however, they can be found as far south as Northern California. These salmon have been introduced to landlocked areas of the US and have even been found outside Pacific waterways in Europe.
Flavor Profile of Coho Salmon
Coho salmon is fatty but less so than Chinook. It has a milder flavor than Chinook or Coho, making it a great choice for those looking for a less “fishy” taste, but still wanting the nutritional benefits of salmon.
Tips for Cooking with Coho Salmon
Since Coho salmon has a mild flavor it's best paired with light seasoning, lemon, or even a white wine sauce. This will complement the fish without a completely overpowering flavor.
This kind of salmon appears soft and flimsy when uncooked, but will firm up and become flakey when heated.
Pink (Humpback) Salmon
Pink salmon are the smallest and most numerous of the Pacific salmon. On average, they only weigh from 3.5 to 5 pounds and grow to be about 20 to 25 inches. They are nick-named humpback salmon due to the large hump males grow before spawning.
Pink salmon are easily distinguishable by the large ovals found on their backs and tail fins. The steel blue backs in the ocean and a dark back with red, brownish splotches in freshwater.
Where is Pink Salmon Found?
Unlike the three previous types of salmon, Pink salmon do not spend a long period of time in freshwater. After birth, they quickly migrate to marinas or estuaries and then to the ocean when they are ready.
Pink salmon are most commonly found in the US Alaska and Washington State. Outside of the US, they can be found in Russia and North Korea.
Flavor Profile of Pink Salmon
Pink salmon is lower in fat and has a very mild taste. Its texture is much softer than other Pacific salmon and therefore is less flakey.
Tips for Cooking with Pink Salmon
Pink salmon is often sold frozen or canned. Since it has a mild taste it is easily masked with heavy flavoring. The salmon burgers that you often find in the freezer section are made of Pink salmon.
If you purchase a frozen fillet of Pink salmon, it is often best baked in a foil-wrapped package with some kind of marinade. The soft nature of the salmon absorbs the juices of the marinade well and results in a wonderful flavor.
Chum (Keta) Salmon
Chum salmon is only second in size to the Chinook salmon averaging 9 to 17 pounds and about 24 inches. They get their name from the Chinook word tzum, which means spotted.
In the saltwater, Chum looks a lot like Coho and Sockeye salmon with dark, blue backs and dots. However, Chum transforms significantly when entering freshwater. Both males and females develop a tiger stripe pattern with red and black stripes, while males also develop a calico pattern and sharp fangs.
Where is Chum Salmon Found?
Chum salmon are the most widely spread of all the Pacific salmon and can be found pretty much anywhere in the North Pacific Ocean.
Much like Pink salmon, Chum salmon quickly migrate to the ocean after they are born. As a result, they are most populous in coastal areas along the North Pacific Ocean.
Flavor Profile of Chum Salmon
Chum salmon is very lean compared to the other types of Pacific salmon and has a very mild flavor. It has a much paler orange color than the other types of Pacific salmon and is firm and coarse in comparison.
Tips for Cooking with Chum Salmon
Chum's lack of vibrant color and tendency to come out dry do not make it a great standalone meal. Instead, it should be combined with a sauce to add moisture and mixed into a casserole or burger patty.
Which Type of Pacific Salmon to Choose?
Each of the five types of Pacific salmon covered in this article can be used beneficially. If you are looking to feature a nice salmon steak or fillet, then you are best off choosing a Chinook or Sockeye salmon. If you are making a salad, casserole, or salmon burger then opt for the cheaper Chum or Pink salmon as you are going to slather it in sauce or a marinade.
Regardless of which type of salmon you are choosing, you can be sure that you are getting a healthy protein that will add delicious, nutritional value to any meal.