Sustainable salmon–from the freezer


Once upon a time, fresh salmon made a regular appearance on my dinner table.  The California fishery was still relatively healthy and I could always count on finding fresh, locally-caught king salmon at my neighborhood grocery store throughout the spring and summer.  The succulent orange flesh of the thick steaks and fillets was irresistible.  Prices weren’t bad either.

Fast forward a decade and fresh salmon from local fishing boats has become a rare luxury.  Federal authorities have placed the California coastal king salmon, also known as Chinook, on their list of threatened species. The state closed salmon fisheries altogether for the first time in 2008 and 2009 because the stock of Chinook was so low.  This year, the ocean season was restricted to the month of April and catches were limited to two salmon a day.

Of course, there’s still salmon in the market, but most of the wild-caught fish has been shipped from Alaska with prices to match. Even then much of it is labeled “previously frozen” because most of the Alaskan catch is flash-frozen on the boat as soon as it’s caught.  So I’ve been reconsidering the shrink-wrapped wild salmon in the freezer cases at stores like Trader Joe’s, where prices are about half that of fresh fish.

My lucky break came last week when I met a rep from the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute at the Cooking for Solutions event hosted by Monterey Bay Aquarium, the organization that brought us the helpful Seafood Watch guides to sustainable fish.  She pointed me to, where the Institute has posted instructions for cooking fish straight from the freezer.  (There’s a free iPhone app, too.)

The results were impressive.  A good-sized fillet of sockeye salmon went from freezer to plate in about 10 minutes.  The flesh was moist and the flavor rich.  The lively Asian spices I added in the last minutes of cooking pumped up the flavor and proved a tasty counterpoint to the mixed greens on which I served the fish.

One note of caution:  Use an old skillet, preferably cast iron, for pan searing, which can be messy. And turn on the exhaust fan.  My good stainless steel saute pan had to be soaked and scrubbed several times to remove the burned-on splatters and non-stick is out of the question since the pan remains empty during pre-heating.

You also can poach, roast, steam and grill in foil from frozen.

I created an Asian spice blend for my salmon but any combination of spices that appeals to you will work.  Lemon pepper is suggested for salmon on the web site.

The coho wasn’t quite as good as the local King salmon but it was far better than the farmed Atlantic salmon that most people eat.  According to Howard Johnson, director of global programs at Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, 80 percent of the fresh and frozen salmon consumed in the U.S. is farmed.

It’s better for the environment, too.  Although advances are being made in aquaculture, fish farming in the ocean continues to pose serious environmental issues, from the interbreeding of escaped farmed fish with wild species to the overfishing of smaller forage fish used to feed the farmed salmon.   With the exception of Pacific coho grown in contained freshwater environments by Washington-based AquaSeed Corp., Seafood Watch lists farmed salmon among the fish to avoid.  Alaska wild-caught salmon is touted as a best choice.

Now we all can have our salmon and clean consciences, too – without blowing our budgets.

Serves 1

2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons Chinese five-spice powder
1 teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground cayenne
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
1 tablespoon white sesame seeds
1 teaspoon peppercorns, preferably Szechuan
1 fillet frozen wild-caught salmon
Canola or peanut oil

In a small jar, place spices, sesame seeds, and peppercorns.  Screw on lid and shake well to blend. Set aside.  This will make far more of the spice blend than you will need for a single fillet but it will keep for months in a dry, dark place.

Preheat over medium high a pan just large enough to accommodate the fillet.  While pan is heating, rinse the fillet in cold water to remove its thin coating of ice and pat dry with a paper towel.  Brush both sides of fish with a film of canola oil.

Place fish in the pan, skin side up, and cook uncovered for 3-4 minutes until browned.  Flip over the fish, season to taste with Asian spices, and cover skillet tightly.  Reduce heat to medium and cook 6-8 minutes, or until fish begins to flake when prodded with a fork.    If the fillet is very thick, it may be necessary to finish cooking in a 400 degree oven until done.

Serve on a bed of mixed greens if desired.

Adapted from techniques explained at

Aleta Watson

One thought on “Sustainable salmon–from the freezer”

  1. sounds great, Aleta – and the sources on sustainable fish etc very helpful. I started using Chinese 5 spice powder several years ago on a roast chicken recipe I have and now use if for nearly everything – well, not all the time….and do use it on salmon. I\’ll try the rest of the rub too. Thanx.

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