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Salmon, especially king salmon, are the pigs of the aquatic world. Large, fatty, with significant differences in flavor from cut to cut, the salmon is, like pork, equally good fresh or cured.
And if there is a fish you can get all nose-to-tail on, it is the chinook. If you are lucky enough to come home with lots of salmon, you can dispense with the fillets (they can go straight into the freezer) and wallow for a week in the “nasty bits.” There really aren’t any truly nasty bits on a salmon, but what I’m talking about are the pieces many anglers toss into the river: heads, collars, bellies and bones.
These parts are quite possibly the best cuts on a salmon, as they are fattier and have a more interesting texture and flavor than straight-up fillets. The most surprising dish to many may be my salmon head soup. If you bleed your fish immediately after catching them, and then put them on ice — and remove the gills, which will ruin your soup — this is actually a very clean-tasting lovely soup.
Note that there is no obvious head in your bowl. That’s the point: You pick off all the nice meat from the heat, especially the cheeks. So satisfying, even on a hot evening. Holly thinks this soup is almost buttery, with pearls of salmon fat dotting the surface of the broth like constellations. The cheek meat is transcendent, and strangely meaty; it tastes uncannily like the “oyster” in a chicken or pheasant.
We also grill or roast the bones of salmon and pick off the meat for salmon salad or salmon cakes. Sometimes we won’t even cook the bones first. We use a spoon to remove all the meat from the carcass, chop it roughly and use it for salmon burgers or patties.
That leaves the collars and bellies. There simply aren’t any better parts of a salmon than these, and there simply isn’t any better way to prepare them than grilling or smoking. Why?
- You have skin, which is crispy, yet slightly gelatinous from the subcutaneous fat.
- You have the meat itself, which is clean and umami-liciously decadent.
- You have ALL THAT FAT. Salmon, like the rest of us, store most of their fat in their bellies. And this, friends, is a Mother Lode of those omega-3 fatty acids people are all talking about. I actually got a full-on glob of salmon fat in one bite, which, if you can imagine it, was both alarming and tasty. No need to take fish oil pills after this meal.
- You also have collagen from the cartilage around the fins and bones. This partially melts under the heat of the grill and lubricates everything. I feel that my lips are more supple these days…
- Finally, there are the fins. The crispy ends of the fins, dipped in whatever sauce you are serving, are nutty little crunchy tidbits that contrast so well with the luxuriant fat, collagen and meat that you’d think Nature herself had created it just for our pleasure. And maybe she did.
We usually get two nights of collar-belly foodgasms. Collars grilled and served Japanese style with sesame oil and a ponzu dipping sauce. A classic teriyaki of soy, mirin, sake and a little sugar, boiled down by half, is another excellent option.
Bellies are either done the same way or smoked to make salmon candy. Belly “candy” is a quantum leap better than salmon candy made from the fillet. Once again, it’s a fat thing.
We’re always sorry to see those collars and bellies disappear. Now all we’re left with is all that pristine salmon fillet in our freezer. Poor us.
I need to buy salmon bones. Do you sell them?
I cook them with my own formula, Shallots, garlic, chilli peppers, key lime leaves, lemon grass, ginger, curcuma, galangal, bay leaf, lemon juice, salt, water.
Fragrant and fresh and inviting to eat never stop. Hahahaha
We cheated and bought a whole salmon at Sunh Fish and a couple of extra heads at Oto’s. Made the fish head soup–amazingly good and easy, and grilled the bones and brined collars and fins. The meat off the bones (the filets went in the freezer) went on a salad. Great dinner–thanks for the tips! We will never throw anything away again!
wow! thanks for posting these ideas. Here in France local fishmongers throw away all the bones and heads. I was given one last night and found your idea&s just before boiling it to bits for the dog! great thanks, DC
Thanks for the post yours was the only recipe I found! I really liked your recipe for salmon belly & fins. It seems so wasteful to toss. However good for me, I bought it from my local fish market for 50 cents/lb! My Japanese friend told me about broiling it, which I did this time. I want to try your recipe of bbq but since it cooks so fast and the pieces were kind of small, I wanted to know how long you actually cook yours on the bbq? It tastes better a little burnt.
Saw salmon bellies in the health food market the other day and didn’t know whether to take the bait. Now after reading this, I can’t wait to try them.
After reading this post I would gladly give up all other meats and live of salmon. Everything looked amazing and delicious.
Db: Yes, I *always* remove gills from every fish I cook whole, in stock or otherwise — for precisely that reason.
Did you take the gills out of the heads before you boiled them? I was roasting a whole rockfish head and didn’t take out the gills and the smell tainted the whole of the meat for me.
Glad you enjoyed your Salmon in such a scrumptious way. Just bought a whole Salmon from our local fish market & lady was flabbergasted when I said, “I want the whole fish, head also. Had them do steaks. Saved the head & looking for cake recipes. I will try some of your tips too. Thanks,Ms.E
OK, why all the strange looks one who asks for fish heads, of the guys who caught, filleted and threw frames, heads, and entrails in the nearby dumpster? Oh well . . . Salmon licenses here in Washington State are outta my retirement funds’ reach, so I ‘catch’ a bargain or two at the store, or, watch for fat neighbors who love catching local salmon on several rivers and streams nearby.
Anyway, when my boys were still home, both were great salmon catchers, and the North Umpqua River, just East of Roseburg, Oregon, provided many big salmon for our humble home provision. One of my means to earn a few bucks was providing fuelwood, and the local Douglas Fir loggers left many huge chum piles of ‘Madorna,’ as they refer to it down there.
Being rather adventurous, I figured Madrone might make a good smoker flaovor, and it still is my favorite! [Move over, Alder guys!] So, with the eight heads and other parts my neighbors left me have, I soaked them overnight in salt, a bar-B-que flavor, and a hint of black pepper and chilli, then they went on a make-shift bar-B-que – turned-smoker, and some fresh-cut Madrone. After a few hours of low temp smoking, all were nicely cooked, and the heads fell apart as I gently lifted them off the metal pans on the grill.
The ‘backs,’ as the “frame” is called here, yielded a good pound of very tasty meat slivers, and the heads gave up some cheek muscle, back meat, and went on to yield lots of yummy stock.
That’s when I decided to look up how to use salmon heads for a meal, and your blog came up!
My kids spent their first 11 years near their mom’s home in South Central Pennsylvania – Conewago Township – but we never thought to fish the little muddy streams, or the nearby Susquehanna River. Wish we had!
I’ll tell a wild tale, later, about my butchering a medium-sized snapping turtle! What a crazy time that was!