Salmon is one of the world’s most popular fish–each year, salmon fisheries produce over 32 million pounds worth of the fish–and for good reason, as its unique flavor fits into a variety of cuisines.
But anytime you’re cooking with fresh fish (as you should, for reasons related to both taste and sustainability), there’s the inevitable worry about its freshness. Since fish already smells different than meat and poultry, it can be challenging to know the telltale signs of spoilage.
In this article, we’ll break down salmon food safety facts by using seafood safety guidelines to ensure you only eat the best salmon each time.
Although it might be our first instinct to jump to visual clues, the truth is that evolution has provided us with another excellent spoilage detector: our noses. While visuals can sometimes be difficult to parse (especially if salmon has been frozen and thawed), the smell is a reliable way of assessing salmon’s freshness.
While many assume that fish always has an odor, fresh salmon should not have a particularly noticeable smell at all–it might have a mild odor if you get close, but if it’s just been caught, even this will be subtle. If your salmon has been pre-frozen, it might have a more noticeable fishy smell, though if it’s fresh, it still shouldn’t be smelly.
On the other hand, you know that salmon is no longer safe to eat if it has a smell that’s rancid, trash-like, or overpoweringly fishy, which sounds a little subjective. However, if you’re handling rotten fish, you tend to know it–the fish has an unavoidable, overpowering, and unappetizing smell.
The next thing you should look for in assessing your salmon’s safety is its color, which is intuitive for salmon, as one of its signature traits is its bright pink flesh. If your salmon is so dull that it appears gray or if it becomes black, that’s a sure sign to steer clear.
Of course, the challenge with giving salmon an ocular pat-down is that plenty of salmon filets aren’t radiant pink so much as orange or rosy. That isn’t necessarily a bad sign: when salmon is frozen (as it often is, given its popularity), the formation of ice crystals can dull its natural color. That means that when you thaw it, it will be less brightly colored–but still safe to eat.
It can take a bit of critical judgment to notice the difference, but rotten-colored salmon will be fairly obvious based on context and other factors like smell and texture. That’s all to say that you should be on guard when your salmon has an extremely dull, gray, unappetizing look.
A third way to check your salmon’s freshness is to check out its textures, as they contain several clues that your salmon has gone bad.
First, your salmon should not be slimy. Now, it’s possible that your salmon might feel moist since it is a biological creature with natural oils–not to mention the fact that, when frozen salmon thaws, the ice crystals inside it melt and collect in the receptacle around it. That said, this moisture should be very light, and you should be able to dry it off with one pat of a paper towel.
On the other hand, rotten salmon flesh will give way. When you press the flesh in, your finger will leave an indent that will not go away or break the skin apart.
Fresh salmon flesh will have the consistency of, well, flesh! It will be firm to the touch, and when you press it, it will stay firm and bounce back into place without breaking.
On the other hand, rotten salmon flesh will give way. When you press the flesh in, your finger will leave an indent in the fish that will not go away–or it might even break the fish skin apart.
Keep in mind, of course, that this is all relative. We’re not talking about testing the fish’s firmness by pressing on it as hard as you can; a simple touch of pressure will do the trick. If the salmon flesh falls apart from that, it’s a sign that the fish is decomposing and should be thrown away.
Another visual way to determine your salmon’s freshness returns us to the realm of the visual. If you’ve ever seen a salmon filet, odds are that you’ve noticed the white lines that run through the flesh, which is marbled fat. It’s especially common in farm-raised salmon (wild-caught salmon tend to have less fat because they have to swim through fierce currents all their lives)–and if the marbling is off, then the salmon may be bad.
Thankfully, you don’t need to be a culinary scientist to investigate this marbling. If the lines are clear, bright white, and stripe across the salmon in well-defined lines, then you have a fresh piece of fish on your hands. If they’re extremely dull (not just a pale white, but full-on gray) and seem to be diffused throughout the salmon, that’s a sign of bad fish.
The Final Clue
So, you’ve given your salmon a smell, done a thorough visual examination, and given it a rigorous test–but you still feel uncertain about whether it’s safe to eat, and you’re still asking how to know if salmon is bad. What are you to do?
The simple answer is to use your context clues and think about how you got the salmon. If you bought it pre-frozen, there should be an expiration date–and if it’s past that date, throw it away. If you bought your salmon fresh, it won’t stay good for more than three days in the fridge.
Using these cutoff dates can be a great decision-making tool if you’re feeling on the fence. Using these salmon food safety facts will help you determine if your salmon is okay to eat. The most important thing is your safety–no matter how well you cook your salmon, it won’t be a successful meal if it gets you sick! So when in doubt, throw it out.