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Five Types Of Pacific Salmon You Need To Know

Salmon. Credit: G215/iStockphoto

Salmon. Credit: G215/iStockphoto

For most Alaskans, summer means experiencing 24 hours of daylight each day and time for spotting bears. For many folks in the rest of the United States, Alaskan summers mean the return of wild salmon. Fattened for their trip up their birth rivers to spawn after roughly one to five years in the ocean, these oily, nutrient-rich fish are a delicacy in the Lower 48, often costing well over $10 per pound.

Smoked, grilled, baked or canned, Alaska’s wild salmon have a strong, distinct flavor. Those people who claim they can’t tell the difference from farmed salmon have probably been fed an inferior species — commonly, salmon marketed as Atlantic salmon is farmed.

When you’re purchasing your salmon, you should know what you’re getting. The following is a primer on the five types of Pacific salmon. The first three — king, red and silver — are considered the best and are therefore the most expensive. Many Alaskans view pink and chum, while certainly edible, as inferior to the former three, but that is generally because of the abundance of the former three, rather than a lack of quality of the latter two.

King (Chinook): These are the granddaddies of salmon and one of the most prized catches. The largest of the Pacific wild salmon, kings are valued for their rich flavor and firm texture as well as their massive size (they usually do not weight less than 30 pounds; the record weight is 97 pounds). Kings from the Yukon are particularly prized because they are rumored to be fattier, thanks to cold temperatures and a long migration. Kings are excellent smoked, but also taste great grilled, baked, poached or any other way you can think to cook them up.

Red (Sockeye): Another highly valued Pacific salmon, reds are not as large as kings but have a rich, deep color and a high oil content. Flavorful and beautiful, red salmon present well on the plate and their density makes them a favorite for sushi. This fish also pairs well with other strong flavors.

Silver (Coho): Silver salmon are another favored wild salmon. Aggressive and fast, these smaller fish (averaging 10 pounds) congregate at the mouths of rivers to wait for appropriate weather or high tide. They are popular with sport fishermen, and their meat is also prized. Silver salmon’s flesh is more orange than red, and it has a mild flavor, with the firm flesh that is typical of the top three types of Alaska wild salmon. It is a favorite for grilling and canning.

Pink (Humpy): Pale in color and light in texture, the pink salmon has a low fat content compared to kings, reds and silvers. It is the smallest of the five Pacific salmon, averaging 3 to 5 pounds, and the most abundant, so it is easily caught and processed. Pinks are usually canned and sold in Europe and the South, and big blocks of the meat are also shipped to China. (Alaskans are notoriously snobby about their salmon and tend to stick to the three more popular varieties.) Pinks are an excellent source of protein.

Chum (Dog): The least desirable of the five Pacific salmon, chum have the lowest market value and are often sold to foreign markets. Though they are not as firm and rich as king, red or silver salmon, chum are nonetheless an excellent source of protein and have enough oil to be versatile in cooking.

In fact, many believe that chum have a bad rap. At the least, chum are clearly better than farmed salmon. If caught in the ocean and processed well, chum can make a tasty, lightly-flavored dish. Chum’s roe (eggs) are also the most valuable of all the Pacific salmon, and they are often caught for the roe alone. These fish are also marketed as “silverbright.”

Top photo: Salmon. Credit: G215/iStockphoto

Zester Daily contributor Catherine Bodry is a travel writer based in Anchorage, Alaska. Though she loves her state, she spends winters in Asia. Her work appears in many places, including BBC Travel, AOL, Lonely Planet guidebooks and Trail Runner Magazine. When she’s not gallivanting around the planet, she can be found picking wild berries, or in her kitchen attempting to recreate Asian dishes from her travels.

  • Anonymous 6·26·13

    Chum is also marketed as “keta” (the species name) and although this article concerns wild salmon, some chum is farm-raised in Alaska — see

  • saklmon 7·3·13

    FYI There are NO!! fish farms in Alaska. Hatcheries are NOT farms.

  • john johnson jr. 7·9·13

    Valuable article. Thanks. I wondered at the difference between King and Coho and Sockeye. I have tended to go for farm-raised, believing it to be more friendly to the species, though I know farms create problems. It is cheaper and I haven’t minded the flavor. Perhaps I should educate my palate, even at the threat to my wallet.

  • Julia della Croce 7·9·13

    I appreciate this information as the Alaskan salmon I’ve bought has been wildly inconsistent. A question: Are Alaska salmon varieties always labeled accurately? I have my doubts. Any information about this would be welcome.

    • Suzette Calleja 6·30·17

      This is not an answer but I totally agree with you. I have bought king (wild caught) from the store and tasted very bland. It should never taste like that

  • rose 7·9·13

    Curious where I can order/ buy fresh and direct. By the time this hits the grocery stores it is usually not fresh.

  • Harriet Sugar Miller 8·9·13

    I order from They have high-quality salmon from Alaska and northern British Columbia. Even their canned salmon (sockeye) is delicious.

    From what I understand, chum or keta does not contain as large a proportion of the healthy omega 3s as the other species.

    The fat is a good and bad thing–It gives flavor and contains the healthy omega 3s but it also contains pollutants, as many of those industrial pollutants tend to reside in fat (and to migrate north, from industrialized Asia towards the Arctic.) That’s why experts suggest moderating intake.

    Here’s a summary of how much of each species of salmon you can safely eat per week:

    and here’s a list of cans with and without BPA:

    After researching salmon for months, I’ve decided to opt for sockeye–a balance of good flavor and healthy feeding habits. Don’t forget to eat the grey stuff.

  • susie 10·27·14

    Whole foods market usually has king coho and sockeye and its always fresh! They get fresh wild caught delievered to their store every morning.

  • Jim 11·20·14

    We were in Haines AK then up in Homer and Seward. We got confused as to the salmon runs. Is there a progression? Do they run at the same time?



  • art 5·4·15

    What is valson salmon

  • Kiante 10·22·15

    Does anyone know how many different types of salmon their is?

  • rdavis 12·7·15


    did you read the article?

  • keith 1·1·16

    I like Chum (keta) salmon a lot.