FILLETS, STEAKS OR WHOLE? Justin Hughes pulls the fresh stuff at G&G Supermarket in Santa Rosa.
We're about halfway through the commercial fishing season for salmon, when 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.
I cruise the fish counters and seafood markets until I find fresh fish at a good price, at a fish counter that looks clean and well managed. Next, I ask the manager if it's possible to buy whole fish, minus the guts and heads.
I prefer my fish headless because 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 fish. 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 fillets, 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.
Freezing steaks is preferable to fillets 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. Fillets sometimes contain short, hidden short 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.
After purchasing the fish, bring it 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.