Exploring Salmon: History, Facts, and Recipes
Before There Were Words
Long before civilization, long before brave explorers set sail across vast oceans, long before the written word, there were pictograms—drawings to record daily events, to record dreams, to record history.
Our story begins with the discovery of cave dwellings in southern France near the Vézère River. Carbon dating tells us that they were inhabited 25,000 years ago by Paleolithic man. And, on the ceiling of the cave, there exists the carving of a salmon.
There is evidence around the world that man relied on salmon as a source of nourishment for thousands of years. Celtic lore of 200 years before Christ speaks of salmon as the most intelligent of all animals. They were revered as the keepers of wisdom because of their abilities to evade predators, survive in both fresh and salt waters, and most notably, because of their ability to gracefully leap from the waters as they return to the place of their birth. And that is how they were named. The word "salmon" comes from the Latin salire meaning "to come up, to leap."
The King's Prize
Centuries passed, and Celtic wisdom was replaced with Anglo-Saxon greed. In his 44 B.C. conquest of the land, Julius Caesar observed plentiful salmon runs. But kings and castles installed weirs to maximize the royal harvest; this resulted in too few fish returning to their spawning habitat and the population plummeted. Incredibly, it was the Magna Carta that restored freedoms not only for the simple man but for salmon:
“All fish-weirs shall be removed from the Thames, the Medway, and throughout the whole of England, except on the sea coast.”
—Magna Carta, 1215
Salmon was so vital that both English and Scottish laws were enacted to restrain pollution and protect salmon during spawning season. Richard the Lionheart (Richard I) codified their passageways by stating that there should be “left in all weirs a gap of such size that a 3-year old pig might turn round in it without touching snout nor tail.” The fish became so common they were cheaper than any other meat.
"In making comparisons between the supplies of fish and other flesh, we must also recollect that fish, or at least salmon, though higher in money value, cost nothing for their “keep,” make bare no pastures, hollow out no turnips, consume no corn but are, as Franklin expressed it, “bits of silver pulled out of the water.”
—Treasures of the Deep, Daniel B. Fearing, 1876
And the Atlantic Salmon's Demise
But despite the rules and regulations, the increase in human populations marked the decline in the availability of salmon. The Industrial Revolution brought with it engines, enhanced communication devices, factories . . . and dams, pollution, and sewage. By the end of the 19th century, salmon were all but extinct in the rivers of England, Scotland, and France. A similar story is being played out on the Atlantic Coast of North America. As late as the 1970’s the Atlantic salmon was a thriving population, with an estimated 1.8 million returning to U.S. rivers to spawn. By the 1990s their numbers had dwindled to 418,000. “Today, the Atlantic salmon is listed as an endangered species in the U.S. and in parts of Canada” (Forbes magazine, March 21, 2016).
I always think of the Pacific Northwest as giant trees and rain and clouds and dampness, like the Native American art from that area. That all says Pacific Northwest to me. Salmon. It really only exists on the West side of the Cascades.— Kyle MacLachlan (American Actor, famous for "Dune" and "Twin Peaks")
The Salmon of the Pacific
The world of salmon can be divided into two distinct categories. If you want wild-caught salmon, you are asking for Pacific salmon. And then, there is Atlantic salmon. That’s not to say that one cannot catch salmon in the Atlantic Ocean, but any Atlantic salmon that you purchase in the grocery store or at a fishmonger will be farm-raised.
Now, to complicate things a bit (why not?), we need to break down the Pacific salmon into several distinct species. There are King, Sockeye, Silver, Pink, and Chum. To confuse things even further, most of these come with one or more aliases.
But, you say, “What about Copper River salmon?” I didn't mention them because Copper River salmon (CR) can be King, Sockeye, or Coho. CR isn’t a specific breed, it’s just the place where some salmon are caught. It’s the environment, not the breed of salmon that distinguishes it from all others. Allow me to explain.
- King (also known as Chinook): This “king” of salmon has earned its name because it is the best tasting. It has a high-fat content, and that’s what makes it so luscious.
- Sockeye (also known as Red): The meat of this salmon is bright orange-red and rich in flavor. They are called reds because when they move upstream to spawn they develop a startlingly bright red color.
If you want something beautiful to put on the dinner table, pick up a sockeye, the salmon species with the most vivid red flesh.— Tom Douglas, American executive chef, restaurateur, and author, living in Seattle, Washington
- Silver (also known as Coho Salmon): These are so named because of their silvery skin. The flesh is bright red and is slightly less “fishy” tasting that King/Chinook.
- Pink (also known as Humpy or Humpback): This is the most common salmon. The name humpback is from the hump they develop on their backs when they are spawning. The meat is light-colored and has low-fat content. Pink salmon is usually canned or smoked.
- Chum (and Silverbrite, Keta, or Dog): These are pale in color and tend to be smaller than other salmon. It is lower in fat and is sold canned or frozen in foreign markets. The name “dog” is not a reference to quality, but because this salmon has dog-like teeth.
- Copper River: Why are these the most expensive, most sought-after, and (indisputably) the tastiest salmon on planet earth? Look at the fifth photo above. The pale-hued package is chum salmon—with artificial color added. The bottom package is Copper River salmon. The salmon (and the photo) are not color enhanced in any way. That deep red color, meaty flesh, and outstanding flavor are the result of the fish storing fat reserves to fuel their 300-mile migration through icy cold glacial waters to spawn.
The Copper River in south-central Alaska is 290 miles long and drains an area of more than 24,000 square miles (about the size of the state of West Virginia).
I mentioned that Copper River salmon are actually three species. Here’s a table to show the season for each type and how they vary nutritionally.
Copper River Salmon Species
Copper River King (20 lb. average)
Copper River Sockeye (6 lb. average)
Copper River Coho (12 lb. average)
Calories (per 7 oz. serving)
Do You Have a Beef With Salmon?
If you have read this far, I have to assume that you are a fan of salmon, or at least a bit curious. But, have you ever:
- had salmon that was dry?
- eaten salmon that was bland?
- decided that salmon tastes too "fishy?"
If you have had any of those reactions, the salmon you were given was not properly cooked. I'm confident that the following meals will change your mind.
Recipes in This Article
- Hazelnut-Crusted Salmon (oven-bake)
- Creamy Tuscan Salmon with Spinach, Artichokes, and Garlic (stovetop)
- Creamy Spinach-Stuffed Salmon (stovetop or oven-bake)
- Grilled Soy-Brown Sugar Salmon (grill or oven-bake)
- Instant-Pot Salmon with Rosemary (instant-pot)
- Crispy (Breaded) Salmon Nuggets (oven-bake)
- Spicy Wild Alaskan Sockeye Salmon Poke Bowls (raw)
Several years ago I entered a recipe contest—the requirement was that we focus on local ingredients. My family and I live in the Pacific Northwest. so I chose salmon and hazelnuts—both plentiful in our area—and made hazelnut-crusted salmon.
I created this 30-minutes or less meal by topping fresh salmon filets with mayonnaise which serves two purposes. First, the mayonnaise protects the delicate flesh from the heat of the oven, keeping it supremely moist and succulent. Second, it acts as the glue to hold the sweet-crunchy topping of orange and hazelnuts.
I have received many favorable comments about this recipe. Although it makes a beautiful presentation for a company dinner it is easy enough to prepare for your family.
Creamy Tuscan Salmon With Spinach, Artichokes, and Garlic
Even those who vow that they don't like fish will enjoy this one-pan 30-minute meal by Julia. The crispy-flaky salmon and the creamy garlic sauce cook together in the same pan. Oh, and that heavenly sauce! There are so many flavors and textures going on in there—sun-dried tomatoes, spinach, garlic, artichokes, and capers lend sweet, earthy, creamy, salty pops with every bite. If you crave northern Italian food, you will love Julia's creamy Tuscan salmon.
Creamy Spinach-Stuffed Salmon
I visit Karina's blog several times per month, and she never disappoints. Her recipes are fun, innovative, flawless, beautifully photographed—and did I mention that they taste amazing?
Her creamy spinach-stuffed salmon hits all the right notes. Simply slash a pocket in each fresh salmon filet, and then fill with a mixture of cream cheese, spinach, garlic, and parmesan cheese. This dish is low-carb, keto-friendly, and can be prepared on either the stovetop or baked in the oven.
Grilled Soy-Brown Sugar Salmon
Grilling is a great way to cook salmon, but oh the mess! Either it flakes and falls apart, plunging into the embers below, or it sticks to the grates. Sadness. Unless, of course, you grill your soy-brown sugar salmon in foil as Amy does. Moist, sweet, flavorful salmon in just 15 minutes on your grill. This meal is easy enough for weeknight dinner but will impress your guests on a weekend barbecue too.
Instant Pot Salmon With Rosemary
I don't own an instant pot, but I know that many of you do. In just six minutes you can have this meal ready for your family. The instant pot keeps the salmon moist and infuses it with the flavor of fresh rosemary. Corrie's recipe for instant pot salmon has just four ingredients (if you don't count the salt and pepper) and is uncomplicated and straight forward.
Crispy Salmon Nuggets
If you're a fish and chips fan, this recipe is for you. Nami uses panko breadcrumbs to provide a crispy coating for boneless, skinless salmon nuggets. And they're baked, not fried, so no worries about deep frying mess or calories.
Spicy Wild Alaskan Sockeye Salmon Poke Bowls
There is not enough space in this article to list the credentials for our final recipe provider. Here’s the shortlist—Jessica Gavin has a BA in food science, a Masters in Agriculture, is a Certified Food Scientist, a Certified Culinary Scientist, and an author. She started a food blog in 2012 and is also a content contributor to SimplyRecipes.
Her sockeye salmon poke bowl is a little spice, a little heat, a little sweet, and a large dose of beautiful color and nutrition.
Health Benefits of Salmon
- Rich in Omega-3 fatty acids
- Excellent source of protein
- High in B Vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, folic acid, and B12)
- Good source of potassium
- Packed with selenium
- Contains antioxidants
- May reduce risk of heart disease
- Because it is high in protein it could help with weight control
- Antioxidants mean that it can fight inflammation
- May help with mental decline (dementia)
- Anadromous - fish born in freshwater who spend most of their lives in saltwater and return to freshwater to spawn, such as salmon and some species of sturgeon.
- Antioxidants - man-made or natural substances that may prevent or delay some types of cell damage.
- Omega 3's - Omega-3 fatty acids are necessary for our physiological health but are not manufactured by our bodies; we can gain them only by dietary supplement. They ensure the health of our central nervous and immune systems.
Questions & Answers
© 2019 Linda Lum