How to Buy and Cook Sockeye Salmon

Wild Pacific Salmon (Sockeye)
Sockeye Salmon. Photo © Getty Images

Sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) are also known as "reds" or "red salmon" because of the dark red-orange color of their flesh and because they turn a remarkable deep red all over as they swim upstream at the end of their lives to spawn. The name "bluebacks" seems to be going out of favor, but is another name for this fish that is a bright silver color with a darker, bluish streak down its back for most of its life, as you can see in the picture.

Most sockeyes weigh in between three and six pounds when caught and brought to market.

How Does Sockeye Salmon Taste?

While king or chinook salmon may get all the attention and many people swear by its superiority, sockeye salmon is a richly textured and highly flavorful salmon. For people who like the flavor of salmon, sockeye is the way to go, since it tastes the most, well, like salmon. Sockeyes eat more plankton and crustaceans like shrimp than other salmon species, which contributes to their darker color.

While chinooks are fattier, sockeyes are the second fattiest salmon, and they have the added benefit of having the firmest texture of all Pacific salmon. Many of the fishermen in Cordova, Alaska, where Copper River salmon are fished, will swear up and down that they actually prefer the more intense flavor of sockeye over the richness of chinooks.

Where Are Sockeye Salmon Local?

Most wild-caught sockeye salmon sold in the U.S. is from Alaska, with those from the Copper River being particularly prized and Bristol Bay being particularly prolific.

Commercial catches of sockeye also come from Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia.

Like all salmon, sockeyes start out their lives hatching in fresh water streams. Uniquely among salmon, sockeyes prefer watersheds with lakes and spend up to three years living in lakes (versus, for example, the one to one-and-a-half years chinook salmon spend in freshwater streams when they first hatch) before heading downstream to the ocean.

There are even, in fact, some sockeye populations that stay in freshwater lakes for their whole life-cycle; they are often called "silver trout" and are much smaller than other sockeyes.

Sockeyes spend the salt water portion of their lives in the North Pacific - from Northern California to the Columbia River in Oregon up the West Coast to British Columbia and Alaska and then over to northern Japan. When they reach maturity and are ready to spawn, they head back towards their home stream and swim upriver to breed.

Like other salmon, sockeyes fatten up for this trip, since they won't eat once they hit fresh water. Also, they are swimming upriver not just to spawn, but to die. Native Americans would often harvest salmon as they headed upriver, and many tribes still do. The commercial catch is fished out at sea to get the salmon while they are on their way to the river and are still their fat, tasty best before they have started to degrade on their journey into the fresh water.

When Are Sockeye Salmon In Season?

Populations and fishing season dates are closely monitored where sockeye are caught. Sockeyes "run" in the summer, and officials make sure a sizeable population is already upriver headed to spawn before the season opens.

If runs start to get too small, the season will close for awhile. In general, though, sockeye is caught in most places from mid-June through July.

How to Choose Sockeye Salmon

Since sockeyes aren't huge fish, try and buy whole fish so you can see how the whole thing looks - it's a great way to judge how fresh it is and how well-handled it was when it was caught. Look for bright, rounded eyes, and pass on any fish with dull, cloudy, or sunken eyeballs, since they're a sign it's not that fresh.

If you can't get whole fish, look for salmon - whether as filets or steaks - with the skin still attached, since it's another way to determine quality. You want bright, shiny skin without scales flaking off.

Whether the skin is on or not, look for firm and smooth flesh and avoid salmon with flesh that looks feathery or like it's flaking apart.

When you press the flesh it should bounce right back. If it stays indented or feels slack, that's not a good sign.

If nothing else, salmon, like any fish, should smell like the ocean, not like "fish." Don't walk but run from a fishy smelling raw fish.

How to Cook Sockeye Salmon

Since it has such a firm flesh, sockeye stands up really well to grilling. I like to grill my salmon as fillets on the skin without turning it. See How to Grill Salmon for details. For more options, check out How to Cook Salmon.