The Truth Behind True Salmon

Matt Stein of King's Seafood Gives a Crash Course on Our Country's Favorite Fish

by: Madelyn Gagnon

Salmon may reign supreme in American seafood cuisine, yet many of its professed fans are unaware not every catch can actually be classified as a “true salmon.”

This unexpected fact was among the revelations shared at a recent L.A. salmon tasting led by Matt Stein, Chief Seafood Officer of California-based King’s Seafood Company. In addition to comparing different varieties and regions of salmon, Stein detailed the species’ intricate “life histories” using knowledge he’s gleaned from 20 years of experience with the company, where he now serves as partner.

salmonHe explained that the term “true salmon” specifically refers to wild salmon varieties found in the Pacific Ocean and its feeder rivers: Atlantic salmon, for example, is not a true salmon. The absence of this classification, however, doesn’t broadly discredit the taste or quality of other flaky fish in the salmonid family.

Aside from location, what sets a true salmon apart from its non-true counterparts is its lifespan. Pacific salmon—which encompasses varieties like King (chinook), Coho (silver), Sockeye (red), Pink (humpy), and Keta (chum), as well as Asian Pacific species Masu and Amagu—almost universally die after one spawn. By contrast, other fish in the salmonid family, including trout, char, whitefish, and grayling, are more likely to die after numerous spawning cycles.

During the tasting, we sampled three “flights” of wild salmon caught the previous week in the Pacific Northwest, with each fillet simply cooked and sprinkled with a dash of sea salt. The first flight included troll-caught (line-caught) Alaskan sockeye, Coho, and King: Of the three, the bright, red-fleshed Sockeye had the strongest flavor; the lighter-orange King was rich and buttery flavor; and the Coho was the mildest of the group.

In the second flight, we compared net-caught King salmon sourced from three rivers: the Willamette in Oregon, the Columbia in Washington, and the Stikine in British Columbia. Of this trio, the most flavorful was the Columbia; in most cases, Stein explained, longer rivers correlate to richer fish, as salmon that travel longer distances need enough food and nutrients stored to make the journey upriver.

The last flight challenged us to compare the flavor profiles of two King salmon fillets with contrasting coloration: orange and ivory. I had never seen ivory salmon before, and while I appreciated its rarity, I still preferred the more pigmented fish.

After detecting increasingly subtle nuances in flavor with each flight, I started to feel like a bona fide salmon expert by the end of the third round. After I hypothesized that the richness of a salmon’s color must directly determine how pungent or “natural” its flavor is, I was slightly disappointed when Stein told us this theory remains unproven.

The life of a wild salmon

The mysterious lifecycle of a Pacific salmon seems to be part of what makes this fish so compelling. They’re almost all anadromous, which simply means they’re born in freshwater rivers or lakes, migrate to the sea, then return to freshwater: not just any freshwater, however, as they often spawn within feet of where they were born. We still don’t know exactly how the fish can instinctively navigate back to these specific spots after traveling hundreds or even thousands of miles to the ocean, which only adds to their mystique.

While at sea, the salmon feed as much as they can to store up the energy required for their return voyage; once they’ve entered the river, they stop eating completely, so salmon caught at river entrance points are typically at the height of their culinary potential due to their larger stores of nutrients and fats. This explains why King’s Seafood and other fishing companies aim to catch their salmon at these entry points. Stein says the key to quality is “dead-bled-cold,” meaning the fish was killed quickly, bled, then put over ice.

For more information on King’s Seafood and the company’s various restaurant concepts, located in California, Arizona, Nevada, and Texas, visit

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