Don't judge wild white salmon by its pale colour. May I instead suggest a blind taste test? That is how I came to appreciate and adore this fair-fleshed delicacy of the Pacific Northwest.
It was midsummer two years ago. A friend had caught two spring salmon over one weekend. Both were hooked near Vancouver and each weighed about 15 pounds. The fish looked almost identical until he cleaned them and revealed the meat inside: one was red; the other was white.
Back at home, he asked to borrow my palate for a not-so-scientific experiment. He took a thick centre-cut fillet from each fish (about 500 grams) and baked them side-by-side for 15 minutes at 400 F.
Lightly rested and simply seasoned with salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon, he brought them to the table where I awaited blindfolded.
The first fillet was rich and tender with a full-bodied fishy flavour. But the second fillet was way more rich and oily – almost creamy – with a milder flavour. Well, mild isn't exactly the right word. It tasted less fishy, yet bolder, purer and slightly sweet. It was a more refined mouthful of ocean-fresh salmon without a trace of muddy residue.
I abandoned the relatively dry first fillet, whipped off the sleeping mask and eagerly devoured the second. Yes, it was the white spring, often marketed as ivory salmon now that the fisherman's best-kept secret is turning into a premium catch.
"Ivory is the best Pacific salmon, in my opinion," says Pino Posteraro, owner and chef of Vancouver's Cioppino's Mediterranean Grill, who plans to wow his guests with a smoked white fish at an exclusive dinner next month for the Distinguished Restaurants of North America conference. "It's very close to what wild Atlantic salmon would taste like, if it was available."
White and red spring salmon are the same species, Oncorhynchus tshawytscha, also known as chinook. In the United States, it's called king. Of all salmon, spring is the only type with a white variety.
Until recently, it was commonly thought that white salmon remained white for dietary reasons. Wild salmon obtains its bright-red colour by eating shrimp, krill and crab, which contain natural pigments called carotenoids. If white salmon ate more squid and fewer crustaceans, that would explain why they didn't turn red.
Scientists now believe that white salmon are simply born that way. Ruth Withler, a research scientist with the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, disproved the diet theory by feeding shrimp to white salmon. They didn't change colour. Although inconclusive, her study points to a recessive gene. "We suspect, but we don't know, that they have some kind of enzyme deficiency that prevents them from taking up the carotenoid," she told The New York Times.
When it comes to wild salmon, redder has always been thought to be better. That's why sockeye, which has the deepest colour yet leanest meat, is the most expensive. Until about a decade ago, white was a throwaway fish that sold for peanuts.
"It's an awesome fish, but nobody wanted it," says Steve Johansen, owner of the Vancouver-based Organic Ocean Seafood. "It all went to the Jewish smokehouses in New York."
Perhaps that's why New York's top restaurants (Le Bernardin, Café Boulud and Blue Ribbon Sushi) discovered it long before we did.
Rob Clark, former executive chef at C Restaurant, has long rooted for the underdog white spring. "I remembered the first time I tried it," recalls the owner of an upcoming sustainable fish market called The Fish Counter.
"It was 1993 and I was working at Star Anise. Adam [Busby] brought them in. As a chef, he always recognized quality. They were fresh and beautiful and tasty, but dirt-cheap. I couldn't understand why no one appreciated them. They're so much richer and satisfying than red spring."
Among wild salmon, spring has the highest content of fatty acid (omega-3) oils. Because the white spring processes carotenoids rather than storing it in the muscle, the oily flavour is much cleaner and the flesh more fatty.
It's also a rarity. Only 3 to 5 per cent of the spring catch is white-fleshed. Some runs, such as the all-white Harrison River run coming up in early September, are higher. Yet it's still hard to come by.
And now that the secret is out, thanks to savvy marketers like Mr. Johansen, the price is skyrocketing. What used to sell for $2 a pound is now going for $18 (the same as red spring) at places like Granville Market.
Still, that's cheaper than sockeye, which won't be available this year. So why not close your eyes and take a taste trip on the white side. You'll be glad you did.
Recipe: Ivory Salmon with Chanterelle Mushrooms
Pino Posteraro, Cioppino's Mediterranean Grill
Ivory salmon is a very rich fish with thick connective tissue. It can stand up to the earthiness of mushrooms. And the chanterelle mushrooms from Saskatchewan are unbelievable at this time of year. This unilateral cooking method (from the bottom up, without flipping), gives you a very flaky, moist fish. Because it's so oily – with good omega-3s – it needs a little acidity. That's why I add spicy piri piri sauce, which is mainly lemon juice. If you can't find piri piri sauce, use a bit of cabernet verjus and white balsamic to make it a little rounder. Pour yourself a nice glass of pinot noir and you are set for the night.
2 fillets of ivory (white spring) salmon with skin (3 oz/85 g each)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp extra virgin olive oil (more for drizzling)
1 tsp butter
3 tbsp chanterelle mushrooms
4 – 5 g green onions (sliced)
6 sun gold tomatoes (cut in half)
20 ml white wine
60 ml vegetable stock
1 tbsp piri piri sauce
Preheat oven to 500 F.
Season fillets with salt and pepper.
Heat a large non-stick (oven-safe) skillet on the stovetop over medium-high heat. Add olive oil, swirl to coat the pan and warm for 3 to 5 minutes.
Remove pan from heat and place salmon pieces skin side down. Do not flip the salmon.
Place the pan with the salmon in the top part of the oven for 6 to 8 minutes.
After 6 to 8 minutes, turn the oven to high broil and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes.
Remove from oven and place the salmon on a plate.
In the same pan, place butter, mushrooms, tomatoes and green onions. Season lightly with salt.
Place the pan on the stovetop and cook over medium-high heat until the mushrooms are tender.
Remove from heat. Deglaze with white wine, vegetable stock and piri piri.
Spoon the mushroom mixture and sauce over the salmon.
Drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil over the fish and serve with fresh seasonal green vegetables.