How to Cook Kokanee


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Hank Shaw holding a kokanee.
Photo by Monte Smith

In the kitchen, kokanee sit somewhere between the salmon that they are and the trout they live among, so what follows is a guide on how to cook kokanee to get the best out of these pretty little fish.

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.

kokanee fillets, arranged on a board
Photo by Hank Shaw

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.

Fresh kokanee, ready to be smoked or filleted
Photo by Hank Shaw

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.

Finished smoked trout recipe

Smoked Trout or Kokanee

This is my method for smoking whole kokanee, when I don’t feel like butterflying them.

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Adding spruce tips to Smoked Lake trout

Smoked Lake Trout

Use this recipe, designed for larger lake trout, with butterflied kokanee. They’ll only need 2 hours, though.

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Grilled trout on a platter

Grilled Trout or Kokanee

My favorite summertime way to cook small, whole kokes. Serve with whatever’s in your garden at the time.

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broiled trout recipe

Broiled Trout

Use this technique when you have kokanee fillets that are longer than your frying pan.

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trout cakes recipe

Trout Cakes

A simple trout or kokanee cake recipe for either leftover fish or chopped fresh kokanee.

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Hands holding salmon dip on a cracker with caviar.

Salmon Dip

I originally designed this recipe for king salmon, but it works great with kokanee.

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A plate of pan fried trout with peas

Pan Fried Trout with Peas

This is a wonderful springtime dish, great with a butterflied kokanee or fillets.

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trout with morels on a platter, ready to eat

Trout with Morels

Mostly I do this with trout in the Sierra, but no reason not to use a kokanee!

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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  1. Have just been introduced to Koke with a gift of ‘canned’ (glass) Koke (Oct 2022) from anglers in Oregon. As first time for both fish and ‘home’ canned fish, a bit nervous to open. Would like to make patties or use as an aperitif. Suggestions will be welcomed!!! Thank you …

    1. Minne: To each his own. I don’t much like salmon or trout smoked over mesquite, but if you do, go for it.

  2. Awesome to see some Kokanee recipes. They are a winter staple in our house. A Hmong friend of mine, simply salts them and pan fries them whole in oil. Amazingly delicious!

  3. About August they start turning to spawn. How red is too red when the males start turning and still be good table fare?

    1. Carl: I like them chrome, but a little color is fine. If they get actually red, you’re too late. Maybe mount one for the wall and then catch and release after that.