Farm-raised, wild-caught, line-caught? Are all those labels and terms baffling? You don't have to be confused anymore. This salmon buying guide will help you quickly know the best salmon to buy when you're at the supermarket.
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Rich or light, meaty or flaky, glazed or rubbed, grilled or roasted. The options for preparing a juicy piece of salmon are nearly endless. Add in the fact that it delivers impressive health benefits, and salmon has every reason to become a regular supper staple.

But when it comes to purchasing salmon at the local grocery store, there's always a bit of hesitation. Will it be affordable? Will it be fresh? Will it taste good? Here, everything you need to know when it comes to buying salmon at the supermarket so you can skip the uncertainty and head straight to the cooking and enjoying. 

Varieties and Pricing 

The three primary differences between varieties of salmon are size, color, and oil content. And generally, these three characteristics align. King (or chinook) salmon are the largest, the pinkest, and have the highest oil content, while chum (or dog) salmon and pink salmon are the smallest, palest, and have the lowest oil content.

In between, you'll find sockeye (or red) salmon, coho (or silver) salmon, and Atlantic salmon. Pricing follows this pattern as well: King salmon is the most expensive, often sold for upwards of $25 per pound. Sockeye and coho come in slightly lower, around $15 to $20 per pound, while Atlantic can be found for between $10 and $15 per pound. Meanwhile, chum and pink salmon are most often processed and sold in a can or a pouch. 

Sourcing

This is where things can get confusing, as there are many terms used to describe where and how the fish were raised and caught — and they all sound slightly similar to one another. Nonetheless, the source of your salmon not only has an environmental impact, but it also alters the nutrition of the fish.

First off, identifiers like "Alaskan salmon" or "Pacific salmon" tell you the location where the fish was caught, but nothing about how it was caught or raised. For that, you'll be looking for one of two ways: wild or farmed. 

For wild salmon, you'll see terms like "wild-caught," which means it was caught in an uncontrolled environment, or "line-caught" or "troll-caught," which means that it was caught with an old-fashioned hook and rod. These tend to carry a slightly higher price tag, but also an optimal nutritional make-up, with more good-for-you unsaturated fats than farmed varieties. 

Farmed salmon will come labeled as "farm-raised" or "sustainably-farmed." Despite the environmental downsides of fish farms, they are tough to avoid — Atlantic salmon, which is the variety most widely available in grocery stores, is exclusively farm-raised. And today, there are farms that have developed technologies that make farming safe and sustainable for the fish and for the consumers.

So how can you determine if the salmon at your supermarket is from one of these farms? First, head to the store and check out where in the world the salmon is coming from. Then search for salmon from those locations through the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch, which will give you an environmentally-friendly recommendation on which to enjoy.

Fresh fish fillets for sale in seafood store
Credit: kali9/Getty Images

Fresh vs. Frozen

It's true that trying to eat fresh food over frozen whenever possible will fill your diet with the largest variety of healthy nutrients. And that advice does hold true for salmon, but only to a point.

If you live in Alaska, Oregon, or Maine, for example, and have access to fresh, never-frozen salmon that was caught there, it is certainly your best bet. If you are able to touch and smell the fresh fish and the flesh springs back and doesn't smell fishy, then you likely have a quality piece of salmon.

Otherwise, frozen is a smarter option. The reason: The "fresh" salmon displayed in seafood cases across the country was likely frozen by the fisherman, shipped to the store, and then thawed and placed in the case. But frozen salmon — especially if it's labeled as "once-frozen" or "flash-frozen" — was frozen immediately after it was caught, locking in the flavor, texture and nutrients of a fresh piece of fish until you are ready to defrost it and enjoy it. 

Cut and Appearance

The cut of salmon you choose depends on how you intend to cook it and how many people you are serving. For serving a crowd, buying a whole side of salmon, or at least a 2- to 3-pound side of salmon, will be easiest — you'll roast it and then divide it into portions afterwards.

A side of salmon is also best if you want to cure or smoke it. If you're only serving a few people, go for individual filets, which will have the skin on the bottom, or steaks, which will have the skin around the outside. Best served pan-seared or grilled, salmon steaks look impressive on the plate but may require additional prep, since they might still have tiny bones in them that need to be removed before cooking.

Individual fillets tend to be the easiest to work with and can be pan-seared, roasted, grilled, or poached. And if you want to crisp up and enjoy the skin, go for individual fillets. No matter the cut, salmon should look thick, moist, and vibrant and be free of any bruises or spots.

Ready to get cooking? Try one of these 20 mouthwatering salmon recipes.