We're about halfway through the commercial fishing season for salmon. During this window, the quality is high and prices are low for wild Pacific salmon. This presents an opportunity for savvy shoppers to gather a stash of fish to freeze, and subsequently feast on all year long. But doing so requires care and focus. The process includes many steps, all of which have to be done just right. Small lapses here and there can quickly add up to the difference between expensive disappointment and affordable delicacy. The two phases of this endeavor are the purchase and the processing of the fish.
Because salmon are currently being pulled from the water by the millions, most cities have multiple retail outlets that are bringing in fish just days after it's caught. Upscale grocers like Whole Foods make guarantees, like 48 hours from the boat to the counter, but less prestigious stores can get fish just as fresh at a better price, so it pays to ask around.
I cruise the fish counters of "normal" grocery stores, like Albertson's and Safeway, until I find fresh fish at a good price at a fish counter that looks clean and well-managed. When I find it I ask the manager if it's possible to buy whole fish, minus the guts and heads.
While I don't mind some fish head soup now and then, I don't want to pay the same price for the heads that I pay for the bodies. But I do want the collar, which is at the end of the fish's body, right before the head and gills, where the pectoral fins attach on either side. Sometimes called spare ribs of the ocean, collars contain big chunks of rich, succulent flesh.
There are several reasons why I prefer whole fish to pre-cut. The price per pound is lower, even after accounting for the bones you pay for. More importantly, with whole fish the flesh receives less handling than do filets, and the flesh remains protected from the air by the skin. This leaves the meat in better shape when you get it home. And whole fish can be cut into steaks, which is the best way to freeze salmon.
Last summer in Alaska I was appalled at how much good meat is wasted in the filleting process. Even if the cutter is skilled and the knife is sharp, it's impossible to get all of a fish's meat in two filets, and the rest gets tossed with the skeleton. In Alaska, where salmon are almost as abundant as mosquitoes, they can afford to waste a little fish, but I can't.
Freezing steaks is preferable to filets for much the same reason that purchasing whole fish makes more sense than buying parts: the flesh is better protected from exposure to air, reducing the potential for spoilage. With steaks, most of the meat remains covered by the skin, with only the two cut ends exposed.
Some people complain about the bones in salmon steaks. But I think the bone situation is arguably preferable compared to filets.
Filets sometimes contain short, hidden bones that can catch you by surprise. But with steaks, the bones all remain attached to the spine. You know where the bones are, and the flesh falls off them without hesitation. And when cooking steaks, those bones add flavor, in the same way bones add flavor to stock.
Some markets will stock whole fish, as my local Costco did the other day, at $7 a pound for headless sockeyes. The fish had arrived the day before, according to the label. I took a chance on a five pounder, and it passed my inspection. After dinner I froze the remains, and I would be comfortable returning with a couple hundred dollars for a year's worth of awesome fish.
Many places will order whole fish for you, and give you a call when they arrive. But remember, just because you ordered them, you don't have to accept delivery if the fish are no good. The eyes should be clear, the flesh should rebound when you poke it, and it should not smell fishy. Make sure the scales are off—if not, ask the fishmonger to scale them.
Bring the fish straight home, on ice, and get to work. I soak them in a strong saltwater solution to remove any slime—it's an inexact mixture of about half a cup of salt in a big vessel of water. Once the salt is dissolved, add ice to the water, and then the fish.
Remove each fish from the salt water, rinse thoroughly, pat dry, and cut it crosswise into about three to five sections, depending on how big the fish is and how many mouths you plan on feeding per sitting. The sections can be cut into individual steaks when the fish is thawed, but for the sake of protecting the flesh from exposure to air, it's better to freeze larger pieces that can be cut into portion sizes when cooking.
When cutting your fish into steaks, you want a thin knife that's razor sharp. Otherwise you will risk pressing down too hard on the fish as you cut it, crushing the flesh.
When going to such lengths to freeze good fish, you're wasting your time—or at least rolling the dice—if you don't seal it in a top quality vacuum sealer. Once you have one of these units, you'll probably find yourself using it quite often for more than just fish.
The morning after you freeze your salmon, check on the packets. If any of them have ice crystals, you should eat those as soon as possible, before freezer burn sets in. I recommend a marinade of garlic, ginger, soy sauce, and sugar. And then broil them.