Is Salmon a White Fish or a Pink Fish? Clearing Up the Confusion

For both novice and experienced cooks it can be confusing trying to determine whether salmon is a white fish or a pink fish. While salmon is often classified as a white fish its color can vary greatly depending on factors like diet, environment, and genetics.

To clear up the confusion once and for all let’s take a detailed look at how salmon is categorized and why its color differs so drastically from other white fish.

How is Fish Classified as White Fish vs. Pink Fish?

Seafood is generally grouped into two broad categories – white fish and oily fish.

White fish have white, flaky flesh and a mild flavor. Examples include cod, tilapia, haddock, sole, and snapper. They live near the ocean bottom and don’t need high fat content.

Oily fish have darker, fattier flesh with a rich, fishy taste. Salmon, mackerel, sardines, and tuna are common oily fish. They contain higher levels of healthy omega-3 fatty acids thanks to their oilier flesh.

So where does salmon fall in this spectrum?

Why Salmon Is Technically Considered a White Fish

Salmon is traditionally grouped under the white fish category for a few key reasons:

  • It has a relatively low fat content compared to other oily fish, ranging from 5-11% fat depending on species and diet.

  • Farm-raised salmon tends to have lighter colored, pinkish-orange flesh. Many consumers associate white fish with lighter flesh.

  • Its flavor is milder and not as fishy as strongly oily fish like mackerel or herring. The taste is subtle enough to suit many recipes calling for white fish.

So while not as fatty as some oily fish, salmon offers a nice middle ground between the two categories with its moderately high fat content and rich taste.

What Makes Wild Salmon Darker than Farmed Salmon?

Here’s where things get interesting. While farmed salmon has light pink flesh, wild salmon ranges from deep red to almost maroon in color.

This striking color difference comes down to their diets. Farmed salmon eat processed high-fat pellets, while wild salmon eat krill, shrimp, and other small fish containing orange-red carotenoid pigments. These pigments are stored in their tissues, giving wild salmon a deeper, more vibrant color.

Some common salmon species arranged from lightest to darkest flesh:

  • Chinook (king) salmon
  • Sockeye (red) salmon
  • Coho (silver) salmon
  • Atlantic salmon
  • Chum (keta) salmon

Is Color an Indicator of Quality in Salmon?

Contrary to popular belief, the color of salmon is not necessarily an indicator of quality or nutritional value.

Both wild and farmed salmon varieties provide great sources of protein, omega-3s, B vitamins, and minerals. Choosing salmon based on sustainable fishing practices or eco-friendly farming is more important than color when it comes to quality.

That being said, wild salmon tends to have a richer, more complex flavor in addition to its prized color. Its texture also tends to be less fatty than farmed salmon.

Cooking Salmon According to Color

A salmon fillet’s color will impact how it looks and tastes when cooked:

  • Light pink farmed salmon holds up well to most cooking methods including baking, sautéing, broiling, and grilling.

  • Fattier portions of darker wild salmon excel when cooked gently via poaching or baking. Intense heat can make the rich flesh dry and rubbery.

  • For a showstopping pan-seared or grilled salmon, choose a fattier wild cut like the belly or top loin. Quick cooking gives a beautifully caramelized exterior and tender interior.

  • Brightly colored wild salmon makes a stunning gravlax cured in salt, sugar, and dill.

No matter which salmon suits your recipe, keep in mind that color and fat content can vary widely. Check for doneness by flakiness, not color. Cook wild salmon a little less to keep it tender.

The Takeaway: Salmon Has Earned Its Stripes

While traditionally lumped under white fish, salmon clearly stands in its own category thanks to its diverse flavors, colors, and fat contents. Its trademark range of pink hues comes down to natural variations in habitat and diet.

Rather than classifying salmon as white or pink fish, it’s better categorized as a superfood oily fish that offers nutritional benefits rivaling its vibrant palette. The color simply adds to salmon’s intrigue, visual appeal, and position as one of the world’s most popular fish.

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