Salmon Head Soup

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Finished salmon head soup recipe in a bowl
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

Salmon head soup has a more gruesome name than the dish actually is. Yes, it is indeed a fish head soup, and you do use salmon heads to made the broth, but there are no eyeballs, bones or jaws floating around.

It is actually a refined, Japanese-style miso soup with noodles. It doesn’t even take very long to make, and this soup is so, so satisfying. You’ll never toss those fish heads again.

And while I prefer to use large salmon heads here, you can make this a generic fish head soup by switching up the species. Cod and striped bass heads are common in the Northeast, grouper and snapper in the Gulf, lingcod and halibut in the Pacific. Inland, I’d use big pike or bass. All these are lean fish, however.

Salmon heads make this a luxurious broth — it’s the fat — so if you want to substitute other species that will give you a similar effect, try lake trout, large char or other trout, catfish, cobia, sturgeon, amberjack or tuna.

Here is a good list of fatty fish you can try.

Two important things to remember when you use salmon or other fatty fish are 1) to never let this broth boil, or it will get overly fishy and cloudy (think making a tea rather than boiling a soup); and 2) it doesn’t keep well. Eat your fish head soup that evening or the day after. Beyond that, and things can get stinky.

salmon head soup recipe
4.91 from 10 votes

Salmon Head Soup

You will need some Japanese ingredients to make this dish, but they are not terribly hard to find. Easy, actually, if you have an Asian community near you.
Course: Soup
Cuisine: Japanese
Servings: 6 people
Author: Hank Shaw
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 40 minutes
Total Time: 55 minutes

Ingredients 

  • 4 large salmon heads, gills removed
  • 1 small onion chopped, about 1 cup
  • A 2-inch piece of dried kombu seaweed (optional)
  • A 3-inch piece of slivered ginger
  • Salt
  • 1/4 cup 1/4 cup mirin (sweet wine)
  • Asian noodles somen, udon or rice noodles
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 3 tablespoons white miso paste
  • Chives and sliced chiles, for garnish

Instructions 

  • Wash the salmon heads well to remove any blood or gills. Gills will ruin the broth by making it bitter and cloudy. Cover the heads with water in a large pot or Dutch oven. Add the onion, kombu and ginger and bring to a bare simmer. Do not let this boil. Simmer gently for 20 to 30 minutes.
  • Strain the broth and save the heads. Pick out all the meat from the heads, especially the cheek meat. Reserve in a bowl.
  • Return the broth to a clean pot and add the mirin. Heat but do not let boil. Add the soy sauce. If the broth still needs salt, add salt -- not more soy sauce, as that will make the broth too dark.
  • Bring another pot of salted water to a boil: This is for the noodles. Cook the noodles according to the directions on the package.
  • Ladle out some broth into soup bowls. Add a heaping teaspoon of miso (or more) to each bowl and stir to combine. Portion out the noodles to each bowl. Add the salmon meat on top of the noodles. Each person should get at least one cheek. Cover with more broth, garnish with chives and sliced chiles and serve at once.

Nutrition

Calories: 201kcal | Carbohydrates: 8g | Protein: 24g | Fat: 8g | Saturated Fat: 1g | Cholesterol: 62mg | Sodium: 610mg | Potassium: 606mg | Fiber: 1g | Sugar: 4g | Vitamin A: 45IU | Vitamin C: 1mg | Calcium: 23mg | Iron: 1mg

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Tried this recipe? Tag me today!Mention @huntgathercook or tag #hankshaw!

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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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45 Comments

  1. Richard: Has nothing whatsoever to do with the water. All gills from all fish impart a foul flavor to fish stock. Remove the gills.

  2. Hank, can I ask you something? You say to remove the gills. However, you are an angler: does this mean that all the salmon heads you use were caught in shallow water, and could this be responsible for the gritty taste you describe? The reason I ask is that I live in London and haven’t fished for 45 years, though I can buy farmed salmon heads locally. Do you think it would be safe to leave the gills on? Thanks, Richard.

  3. I made this awesome recipe with pickerel (aka walleye) for my 81 year old Japanese father and he loved it. We used wonton soup noodles. The fish was caught by my father, which made it taste even better. Thank you.

  4. My daughter loved this recipe! She’s an extremely picky eater but she loved this salmon+udon combo which I had never tried before! Thank you, I was able to add one more item to my repertoire of things she really enjoys!

  5. Walt: Did it boil? If so, then it will be cloudy. Regardless, you are making broth, not consomme, so a little cloudiness is not a problem. Besides, you will be putting miso in it, so that will cloud up the broth even more. You just want to avoid two things: Boiling the stock for more than a moment, and cooking it too long – when that happens, calcium leaches out of the bones and can make the broth bitter.

  6. Hank,

    I’m trying this recipe with a grouper head. I removed the gills and cleaned the fish pretty well, but my broth is still cloudy. Could this from using grouper? or am I doing something else wrong?

    Thanks

  7. This looks awesome. My Dad always made fish head soups growing up, particularly when he commercial fished for a few years.

    I always buy smoked salmon collars and wingtips. Way better than the filet…

  8. I actually made this yesterday, after finding wild salmon heads at the market!

    First, the cheek meat was amazing! I didn’t much care for the rest of the meat, so I just used the broth.

    The reason why “recipes” say to not to use salmon heads for long simmered stock is that the fats can oxidize. But, it is fine for a short simmer.

    Also, adding the miso after the broth has cooled slightly preserves more of the probiotics in traditionally fermented miso. 🙂

  9. Andy: Yes, you could make this and store it for a few days ahead of time. Probably not more than 3-5 days, though.

    Ed: Depends. I last made this with one really big head (from a 20 pounder) and a couple of smaller ones. I’d use only 2-3 large salmon heads.

  10. Hank,
    Sounds great! How big are the heads? I’m asking because my buddy caught some 25 pounders yesterday. Pretty big heads 🙂

  11. Hi Hank,

    Question: Can the broth be made ahead of time, or will that ruin the dish. Not more than a day ahead, but breaking it up over a few days might simplify it a bit for me.

    Thanks!

    P.S. I’ve made your green curry with fish now twice, both times with gifted rockfish and it was excellent.

  12. Hello Henk,
    It is so good to know YOU DO NOT WASTE any part of a fish. And it is so good of you to demonstrate how to prepare the soup/dish.

    I normally would buy salmon heads (other fish heads too but salmon tastes the best IMHO), plus the bones if the fish-stall has any. Boiled, picked the meat out for my cats (and myself TOO), use the stock for soups. AND if you are in Malaysia or Singapore, do go and try our famous Fish-heads curry. Absoulte wonderful.

    I am not a really fish heads person. I think we should not waste any part of an anmial if it can be eaten.

  13. Jean: No, the mirin is not boiled. If you are worried about alcohol, then you can boil it, but the taste is fine as it is. And yeah, I’ve been hearing that the scientists are taking salmon heads. Glad they did not get mine!

    Brady: You add the miso at the end because that’s what you do with miso: It is supposed to be cloudy, just like any other miso soup. Just following tradition, I guess. I’ve never tried adding it earlier, but if you do, let me know how it goes!

  14. Hank,

    Why add the Miso into the bowls at the end? My guess is that you would end up with a cloudy broth. If that is the, any reason you couldn’t add it prior to dishing out?

    I know it won’t be the same, but I’ve got a pond that’s full of stunted 10″ LM Bass that have a date with the soup pot…

  15. Is the mirin boiled first, as other wines are?

    The only salmon I have caught this year had the head taken by the science folk for the tag inside it.

    I sure enjoy your site and all the lovely things you put forth.

    Thank you.

  16. Peter: I do method photos once in a while, but only when I think the technique is especially difficult. There’s nothing really hard about simmering a fish head and then taking it out and picking out the meat, so I skipped it for this one. I am not a fan of those websites with 25 pictures for every recipe; just a style thing, I guess.

    Dan: Everyone says not to use salmon for stock because salmon has a strong flavor — anything you make with salmon heads and bones will always taste like salmon. This is not a bad thing, but salmon broths are limited in this way, where, say, a stock made from sole or striped bass will not be.

  17. I made abalone chowder last night and I used a salmon head to make the fish stock. It came out great!! I am not sure why everywhere I read online says this was a mistake. Any ideas?

  18. This sounds awesome! I’d definitely like to try it.

    However, at the risk of sounding far too demanding of someone freely sharing such amazing recipes, I do have a request: Photos during the process of cooking would be much appreciated from the perspective of someone who, like me, has never eaten (let alone prepared) fish heads as part of a meal.

    Just an idea, anyway. Thanks for all the work you do on this site, it’s a regular destination for me.