The mighty Chinook Salmon or King Salmon is the largest of the five species of salmon in Alaska. Every year their arrival is much anticipated throughout the state, global markets, and in local nets here in Bristol Bay. It’s fat rich meat & delicate texture is prized for smoking, grilling, cutting into traditional strips, baking or boiling the heads, jarring, filleting, freezing, & steaking the meat. It’s rich roe is some of my favorite for making Ikura or salmon caviar.
Processing one of these monster fish by filleting can be daunting, and while practice certainly makes a better fisherman of us all, one way to create a stunning product that requires less finesses is to steak out the fish. The benefits are not only in presentation but steaking lends itself when cooking the meat – via grill, oven, stovetop or otherwise – to a more easily achieved evenly done result. There is also very little waste when the salmon is processed in this manner. To begin, a quality final product starts when the salmon is caught, regardless of species. Handling gently, holding the fish properly (by the gills instead of the tail), bleeding promptly, and chilling as soon as possible all contribute to a salmon well put away. The Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association (BBRSDA) has a fantastic new publication pictured below that is intended for commercial fishermen to step up their handling/holding game but certainly can be a great resource for all fishermen.
Once your fish is ready for processing to steaked form, the first step is to gut the salmon and throughly clean the bloodline. Removal of the guts as soon as possible prevents a phenomenon known as “belly burn” in which the acidic stomach contents degrade the stomach lining membrane and allow the bile to “burn” the meat outside of the internal belly cavity. Removal of the bloodline prevents the blood from souring and also negatively affecting the quality of the meat. I make it a rule to always gut and clean the bloodline from my salmon as soon as possible, even if I cannot fillet or steak them all right away. Once gutted and properly cleaned, a salmon in cold slush-ice water or refrigerated sea water (33-38 degrees F) can stay incredibly fresh for a lot longer than an an uncleaned fish. A beneficial step for individuals dealing with multiple fish at once.
To properly gut the salmon, I use a small serrated blade (I prefer a Victorinox) and gently insert it into the anal opening and slice the belly flesh from anus to the apex of the jaw in one clean line. I then, using my hands, removal all of the belly cavity contents, carefully setting aside any roe, and slice away the esophagus with my blade. To clean the bloodline, gently insert your blade into membrane, split open as pictured, and scrape all the congealed blood contents away with a kitchen spoon. Rinse the internal cavity well with cold water – a strong mist is preferable to an aggressive spray to avoid damaging the meat. Roe can be frozen in the intact skein for processing later into caviar or boiled eggs, the perferred method is to vacuum seal on a gentle setting.
Next sever the head from the spine with a large butcher style knife. I place my cut just below the first fins, thus keeping the collar meat attached to the head. Once removed, I process the head by placing it collar down on the table, and split the head from the tip of the nose, between the eyes clean through as pictured. The final step is cutting away the gill plate. This, just as cleaning the bloodline does, prevents any souring of the meat from blood or other matter caught in the gills.
Salmon heads are a favorite in the Brito household. I bake them, once split and cleaned, on a parchment lined cookie sheet @ 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 20-30 minutes depending on size, until their delicious aroma fills the air and the collar meat turns light pink dripping with fat. We pluck the meat away with our fingers, devouring the muscle behind the eye and their sizable cheeks as delicacies. An added benefit is they freeze well vacuum sealed.
The next step is to steak the remainder of the fish. I do this by first removing the remaining fins with my serrated blade to allow for ease of cutting, and then position the fish with its spine facing me. I place a shallow cut approximately every two inches to mark my intended steaks, in an effort to create steaks of even thicknesses. Then I cut through the meat from one side of the belly flesh beginning at the cavity opening, up to the back where my mark is placed, flip the fish over and cut down the other side through the opposite belly flesh. At this point I sever the vertebrae with one clean downward motion and set my steak aside to cut the next as pictured. I finish by removing the tail or alternatively once I reach the anus I grip the tail just about the fin and fillet away the tail meat on either side to create to mini fillets and thereby don’t need to cut small in diameter steaks.