Part two of our comprehensive guide on salmon focusing on how to buy salmon, how to store salmon, and everything in between


Posted Jun 19, 2020


Posted Jun 19, 2020

This is part 2 in a series. Here is part 1: The Complete Guide to Salmon: Salmon 101 and part 3: The Complete Guide to Salmon: Preparing & Cooking Salmon.

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High in protein and omega-3 fatty acids, salmon is one of our favorite good-for-you foods, and it also happens to be totally delicious. Because salmon can be pricey, you’re going to want to know how to buy and store it so you can get maximum enjoyment out of every luscious bite. With that in mind, here’s our guide to your most common questions.

Jump ahead in this post to:

How to buy fresh salmon >>

How to buy frozen salmon >>

How to buy smoked salmon >>

How to buy salmon roe >>

Storing salmon >>

How do you freeze salmon? >>

How do you defrost salmon? >>

How do you reheat salmon? >>

How long is cooked salmon good for? >>

How can you tell if salmon is bad? >>

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How to buy fresh salmon

When you’re buying fresh salmon at the grocery store, first consider how the salmon looks. It should be light pink if it’s farmed salmon and dark pink if it’s wild-caught salmon (that is, if it's wild king salmon, aka Chinook, or sockeye salmon, the two most popular species; other wild salmon species are lighter pink). It shouldn’t have any gray areas or brown blemishes. It should look moist and firm. But you should use your instincts: if it looks bad, it probably is bad. 

When you’ve made your selection, smell the salmon if possible before you commit to buying it. It shouldn’t smell fishy even when your nose is next to it. It should have a mild, seabreeze scent, but you should have to put effort into smelling it to get a reading. Again, use your instincts: if it smells bad, it probably is bad. 

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How do I know salmon is fresh? 

The two ways to determine if salmon is fresh are by appearance and smell. The flesh of the salmon should be firm and pink and the scent should be very mild — it should smell like an ocean breeze. If it smells fishy, skip it. 

How to buy salmon at a grocery store 

If you’re buying salmon at the grocery store, it was probably flash-frozen when it was caught and then thawed to be put on display. There’s nothing wrong with that — it’s probably better that way than having fresh fish shipped in, because any time in transit is time for the quality to diminish. That said, always make sure the flesh is pink, moist (but not slimy), and doesn’t look dried out or wilted. When you smell it, it shouldn’t smell like much of anything but salty, ocean air. A fishy smell means it’s past its prime. 

How much does salmon cost?

Salmon is sold by the pound or by ounces. For a 6-oz. serving of wild salmon, you can expect to spend $6 to $12. Farm-raised salmon costs a little bit less. A 6-oz. serving of farm-raised salmon might cost you $6 to $8 per piece. Smoked salmon costs a bit more — it might cost double what you’d spend for fresh salmon.

Wild vs. farmed salmon

Wild-caught salmon is fished from its natural habitat in or near the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Alaska, California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. Wild salmon often comes with a higher price tag because of its limited supply but it’s also available frozen and canned year-round. 

Farmed salmon is usually labeled Atlantic salmon whether it’s raised in Chile, Norway, or British Columbia. The salmon is raised in a contained area with a controlled environment and diet.

How to buy wild salmon

For wild salmon, if you want it to be fresh, you should buy it based on the time of year. Wild salmon season usually runs from May to September. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get wild salmon at other times of the year. Frozen wild salmon is sometimes considered better than fresh salmon because it’s frozen fresh off the boat and then shipped. The quality of fresh wild salmon starts to deteriorate as soon as it’s harvested, but frozen salmon bypasses that part, making it the superior choice. 

There are five species of wild salmon. The two most popular are king, also known as Chinook, which has the most fat and a mild but rich flavor, and sockeye, which has a deeper flavor and is lower in fat. King and sockeye salmon are the types of salmon you see most often in the fresh fish case at the market. Other species of wild salmon are Coho (aka silver), pink, and keta (also called chum); they’re popular for smoked salmon, canned salmon, and salmon burgers.

How to buy salmon for sushi 

If you’re buying salmon for sushi, you’ll probably see a section of fish labeled “sushi-grade,” but that’s really just for marketing purposes. For sushi and serving raw salmon for things like poke bowls, just make sure you’re buying the freshest salmon that’s available. Most raw salmon you find at markets has been frozen, which kills parasites, but if you plan to eat the fish raw, understand that there is a risk of foodborne illness. 

How to buy sustainably raised salmon

In terms of making ocean-friendly buying choices, there’s a lot to know about how salmon is raised. If you want sustainably raised salmon, check the recommendations from Seafood Watch. It will tell you the best choices and best alternatives based on how the salmon are caught or farmed and how the fisheries are managed.

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How to buy salmon cheap 

If you want to buy the least expensive salmon, look for Atlantic salmon because it’s farmed and, therefore, less expensive. But if you must have fresh, wild-caught salmon, buy it between May and July for the best quality and biggest supply; however, it will be more expensive. Buying frozen salmon is your best bet for inexpensive uncooked wild salmon. And if your recipe calls for pre-cooked salmon, canned salmon is a very inexpensive option. 

How to buy frozen salmon

Most frozen salmon will be wrapped tightly in packaging, and if the packaging is opaque, this makes it difficult to tell if it’s good or not — which means you should pay attention to how the salmon looks when you unwrap it. If the packaging is clear, the most important thing to look for is whether or not ice crystals have formed. Ice crystals mean that the fish has been frozen, thawed, and frozen again, and will have lost moisture and quality. The other thing to look for is freezer burn. If fish has freezer burn, the flesh around the edges will be visibly dry and a lighter color than the rest of the fish. 

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How to buy smoked salmon

How you buy smoked salmon depends on what kind of smoked salmon you want. There’s cold smoked salmon which is first cured in salt and then smoked at a low temperature — typically 80° Fahrenheit or cooler. The result is a very smooth, translucent flesh that’s best served in thin slices. Hot smoked salmon is cured and then smoked at a temperature of 120° Fahrenheit and higher. It yields something more like cooked salmon — it’s opaque, flaky, and has a very smoky flavor. When buying either cold smoked or hot smoked salmon, pay attention to the expiration date. After opening, it will last in the refrigerator for a week.

How to buy salmon roe

Also referred to as red caviar or ikura, salmon roe is a specialty item that you can buy fresh or canned. Pink salmon, the most plentiful Pacific salmon, has the most popular roe. Pink salmon roe is medium-sized. If you want larger eggs, keta (chum) roe is an option. If you want smaller eggs, look for sockeye roe. If you buy roe in a jar, there will be preservatives because they’re required by law to keep the roe safe. If you’re buying frozen roe, you can find it without preservatives; just make sure that it’s flash-frozen and packaged in a vacuum-sealed container.