Get Schooled: How to Buy the Best Salmon at the Grocery Store
Don't be fooled by confusing labels—our handy salmon buying guide decodes common terms so you can shop the seafood counter like a pro.
Everyone can agree that salmon is part of a healthy diet—from Coho to Sockeye, salmon is loaded with heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, protein, bone-protecting selenium, and so much more. Chefs and home cooks alike prize this spectacular superfish around the year for its rich, satisfying taste and versatility. However, buying salmon at the grocery store can be a stressful task for shoppers. With a multitude of salmon varieties behind the counter, how do you know which fish is right for you?
Under Country of Origin Labeling law, the USDA requires all grocery stores and retailers to clearly list product origins and method of production (farm-raised or wild-caught) for fish and shellfish. The good news: the label contains valuable information you need to make a smart choice. The bad news: actually reading and understanding the label can be a confusing and stressful task. There are simply too many factors to consider—wild versus farmed, fresh versus flash-frozen, organic versus sustainable—the list goes on. To simplify your next trip to the seafood counter, we’ve taken a deep dive into terms commonly seen on salmon labels so you can make a smart, healthy, and responsible choice.
- Pacific Salmon: Salmon swims in two major bodies of water off the coast of the United States, the Atlantic and the Pacific. There are five varieties of Pacific salmon: Coho/Silver, King/Chinook, Sockeye, Pink, and Chum/Keta. Most Pacific Salmon is wild, but there are some instances where it is farmed.
See More: Pacific Salmon Varieties
- Atlantic Salmon: While there are five types of Pacific salmon, there is only one Atlantic variety. Atlantic Salmon is endangered in the wild, so virtually all of it is now farmed.
- Farm-Raised: Fish that are endangered in the wild are often raised in aquacultures, or “fish farms,” to control overfishing. “Farm-raised” goes hand-in-hand with Atlantic salmon, and has attracted criticism due to its devastating environmental effects. However, some aquaculture methods are better than others, so it’s important to know which one applies to your salmon. Approach salmon raised in net-pens with caution—this practice allows waste and feed to flow freely, potentially contaminating the surrounding ecosystem. From a nutrition angle, farmed salmon contains more saturated fat than wild, which is typically leaner.
- Sustainably-Farmed: Sustainable seafood is a hot topic in the food world, garnering praise as a more responsible and environmentally friendly way to control overfishing. Look for salmon raised via closed tank aquaculture—the fish are completely separated from salt and freshwater bodies, allowing for farming with minimal environmental effect. Salmon raised specifically in low-density net-pens (less salmon = more space to swim) make for a cleaner environment. Thankfully, there are plenty of sustainable Atlantic salmon varieties available, but it can take a bit of research to identify them since labeling is often inconsistent. Learn the sustainability of salmon or any fish by looking it up in the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program.
See More: Sustainable Fish and Seafood Choices
- Wild-Caught: This simply means that fish must be caught or harvested from a non-controlled environment, such as a freshwater or ocean body.
- Troll-Caught: Also called "line-caught," this sustainable fishing method uses a traditional hook and line approach. While they may carry a higher price tag, troll-caught wild salmon are considered a benchmark for quality, since fisherman carefully inspect every fish they catch.
- Organic: There is currently no USDA certification method for organic fish. So, in effect, it’s impossible to know what this term really means. Rely on other methods for choosing salmon.
- Wild Alaskan Salmon: This is not a specific type of salmon—instead it indicates where the salmon was caught. From Sockeye to Coho, the vast majority of Pacific salmon is caught off of the coast of Alaska.
- Verlasso Salmon: Based in Patagonia, Verlasso is considered to be a sustaiable choice—the company farms Atlantic salmon in low-density net pens and has earned approval from the Monterey Bar Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program.
- Scottish Salmon: This term identifies Atlantic salmon farmed off of the coast of Scotland. Due to the use of pesticides to control an outbreak of sea lice in farmed populations, Seafood Watch recommends avoiding this type of salmon.
- Skuna Bay Salmon: A popular choice amongst sustainably minded top chefs, Skuna Bay farms Atlantic Salmon in low-density net pens off the coast of Vancouver. While Skuna Bay does not currently have a rating from Seafood Watch, the company is Best Aquaculture Practices Certified by the Global Aquaculture Alliance.
- Arctic Char: With a similar taste and appearance to salmon (they’re from the same family), arctic char is considered a sustainable and equally-as-tasty alternative. Most char are farmed, but in closed tank aquacultures. Seafood Watch approves Char that are farmed in closed tank aquacultures.
Cook This: Seared Arctic Char with Cucumber Relish
- Steelhead: Actually a type of Rainbow Trout, Steelhead has a similar appearance and texture to salmon. Like Char, Seafood Watch approves closed-tank farmed Steelhead. In the wild, Steelhead are endangered.
- Fresh: Like “organic,” this term is essentially meaningless and is often used as a way to market the fish. We’ll just say this—the freshest fish you’ll ever eat is the kind you catch straight from your boat and cook an hour later.
- Flash-Frozen: The fish is frozen on the boat immediately after it’s caught to lock in peak freshness. We’d much rather see this term than “fresh,” since it tells you exactly how the fish has been handled.
- Sushi-Grade: Purveyors can choose to put this label on salmon to show that it’s safe to consume raw. Salmon, Tuna, and other fish intended for sushi is flash-frozen to kill parasites before ending up in the grocery store.
- Color-added: This term only concerns farmed salmon. Wild salmon get their reddish hue from the carotenoids in underwater plants and algae, but farmed salmon get their color from pigment added to their feed.
- Product of U.S.A.: Under the Country of Origin Labeling law, only fish that are caught and processed in the US can use this label. This is especially important for wild salmon, which is often caught in the US, but is sent to other countries for processing such as deboning and filleting. While this is a common, highly regulated practice intended to offset labor costs, it’s something shoppers should know.
Best Salmon Recipes
From roasted to grilled to cured, there are endless ways to cook salmon. Here are our favorite ways to cook with this deliciously nutritious fish:
- Grill it: Grilled Salmon with White Bean and Arugula Salad
- Broil it: Salmon with Lime-Hoisin Glaze with Crunchy Bok Choy Slaw
- Roast it: Lemony Roasted Salmon with White Wine Couscous
- Sauté it: Sautéed Salmon with Citrus Salsa
- Poach it: Poached Salmon Fillets
- Cure it: Classic Gravlax (and then put an egg on it! Smoked Salmon and Egg Sandwich)
- Burger it: Hoisin-Glazed Salmon Burgers with Pickled Cucumber
- Last but not least, the one-pan wonder: Sheet Pan Honey Soy Salmon Dinner
Now, it's time to hit the grocery store or seafood market. The key to shopping smart is finding a fishmonger that you trust. If labeling is ever vague or unclear, don't hesitate to ask for help.