The journey of wild salmon inspires our contributing seafood editor to explore Alaska—and to develop an amazing smoked preparation. 

By Barton Seaver
August 23, 2016
Anglers fly-fishing in Alaska's Bristol Bay
Photo: Nick Hall/Getty Images

Far into Alaska's northern reaches, my prop plane skids down the water, gaining momentum before improbably taking flight. After a long journey up the coast, my last leg takes me deep into the heart of salmon country on the tundra edging the ragged mountains. The bumpy flight crosses a lush and verdant landscape, a unique collage of land and water interwoven so much that they no longer seem like opposites. This is the home of the salmon, the king of fish, a species steeped in both mystery and marvel.

Salmon are born in shallow, crystal-clear streams far inland; once juvenile, they descend into the lowlands and out to sea. There, they live for several years before returning to the exact spot of their birth. It's possible that we relate to salmon more so than other fish because of their intuitive drive to return to the place where their journey began.

Native Alaskans and First Nations tribes have thrived alongside plentiful salmon since first stepping foot on this continent. In fact, all five species—king, chum, coho, pink, and the main attraction of Bristol Bay, the sockeye—are critical to sustaining Alaskans, whose heritage and traditions honor the fish on which they rely. As a result, artisanal Alaskan fisheries have had a positive influence on commercial salmon fisheries, creating an industry that's sustainable and an example of how we can live in concert with nature.

Salmon has found its way into cuisines all over the world, but no dish better tells the story of the striking Alaskan coastline and its people than cured, smoked salmon. When the fish surge upstream in summer and fall they are caught, preserved, and smoked so they can be stored throughout the year. While this preparation preserves the salmon, I've adapted that tradition to create an easy to make and versatile dish that is flavored with brine and smoke, but meant for eating within a couple of days. The flavor of the richly textured, alder wood–smoked salmon always sends me on a journey of my own, back to those rugged Alaskan shores near the top of the world.

5 Types Of Wild Alaskan Salmon
King: The largest and richest of the salmon, it's also the most prized.
Coho: Also known as silver salmon, this is the salmon that is probably most familiar: not overly rich, well-flavored but not assertive.
Pink: The smallest but most abundant of the five wild Alaskan salmons. This has traditionally been directed toward canned products, though there is a growing market for fresh, which is light in flavor and leaner than the other salmons.
Sockeye: Also known as red salmon, its flesh is deeply hued, a rusty sunset tone. It's lean and has the most pronounced flavor, with a gamey quality that makes it the perfect variety for smoking.
Chum: Also known as dog salmon, it is harder to find at market, though it's a perfectly balanced fish with a bright, floral flavor and fatty richness.

Barton Seaver is a chef, sustainable seafood expert, and National Geographic Explorer, and is the author of several books, including For Cod and Country and Two If By Sea.