In the kitchen, kokanee sit somewhere between the salmon that they are and the trout they live among.
Kokanee, which is an Okanagan word, are small, land-locked sockeye salmon. There is some debate as to whether they are their own species, or are in the midst of breaking away from their anadromous sockeye brethren.
One thing is certain, and that’s that kokanee occur naturally. It’s not just that some dude tossed a bunch of sockeye fry into some lake at some point. That said, kokes are stocked in a great many places beyond their native range, which is the Pacific Northwest down into California. And they’ve naturalized in the Great Lakes.
One other thing is also true: Anglers go bonkers for kokanee, to the point of obsession rivaling that of steelheaders or Northeastern striped bass anglers. Koke heads we call them.
I suspect I know why: First, they are, objectively, a beautiful fish. Chrome, clean lines, dainty mouths. Second, they are the inland angler’s best chance to experience the vivid orange flesh that salmon anglers swoon over. After all, kokanee are salmon, and, as you may well know, sockeye flesh is the reddest of them all.
And that flesh is richer than most trout, a bit soft like salmon is, and hates being overcooked — although you cannot safely eat kokanee raw unless it has been frozen first for at least a week.
But how to cook kokanee?
Decisions start on the fillet table. Kokes need not be scaled, although if you’re persnickety you might want to, because handing kokanee makes it look like you’ve been covered in glitter. I kinda like that, so I leave the scales on.
Second, do you fillet, just gut-and-gill, or butterfly your fish? It’s all a personal decision, but for me, I do the following:
- If you’re going to grill or pan-fry your kokanee, just gill and gut. Remove the head if it’s bothering you, or if it will make the fish fit into your pan better.
- If they’re large, as in longer than about 14 inches, you can get a decent fillet off them. They’re cute little orange slabs. Leave the skin on, as kokanee flesh is soft. Skinless fillets have a habit of falling apart. You can either eat the skin or leave it on the plate. Broil, pan sear, bake or poach them.
- No matter what size they are, I prefer to butterfly my kokanee if I am going to smoke them. Why? It opens a large surface area up to smoke, allows me to add seasonings or to paint the meat with maple syrup or somesuch, and the kite shape you get from butterflying is easy to handle, comes on and off the smoker grates easier than a tiny fillet, and, well, looks cool.
Those are generally the best ways to cook kokanee. Here are some kokanee recipes to get you started.