It's an understandable lapse. After all, salmon certainly seems to be available all year. And indeed, farmed Atlantic salmon is available fresh all year. Even wild species are available pretty much whenever a hankering strikes, albeit mostly frozen and canned. But wild salmon at its peak — about 90 per cent of which comes from Alaska — indeed has a season.
Fresh wild salmon — with a firm flesh and rich flavour tinged by the cold ocean — is best had from late spring through early fall. And it certainly is worth seeking out, for it has about as much in common with farmed salmon as wild, earth-ripened morels have with canned mushrooms.
"We're all daydreaming about salmon season starting," says Laura Cole, owner and executive chef at 229 Parks in Alaska's Denali National Park. "It marks summer and the highlight of what Alaska has to offer."
Thanks to its versatility with other flavours, its ease and speed of cooking, as well as a wave of good news about its healthy fats, salmon has become one of America's go-to seafood choices. In 2013, Americans consumed 2.7 pounds of salmon per person, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, making it the country's second favourite seafood after shrimp. It even bumped canned tuna to No. 3.
Americans eat more farmed than wild salmon, and nearly all of it is imported. Farmed salmon enjoys the advantage of being available fresh in supermarkets as consistently as steak and chicken. Its flavour is mild and filets are affordable. But advocates of wild salmon praise its flavour and its provenance as an American fish. Salmon was a staple of early Native Americans.
"I would hope to convince American consumers it's worth supporting American fisheries," says Tyson Fick, spokesman for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. "It also tastes better, there's a variety to it."
Lots of variety, in fact. While many consumers tune in to where their food comes from, even the savviest shoppers likely don't realize that wild Alaskan salmon boasts five varietals: king, sockeye, coho, keta and pink. Each has a distinctive flavour profile and preferred preparations. To get you ready for summer, we've assembled a primer on wild Alaskan salmon, complete with tips and recipes for each variety.
Michele Kayal is co-founder of American Food Roots.com