Scottish Salmon: The Complete Guide

Scottish Salmon is almost as iconic and globally revered as Whisky. The beautiful fish with its vibrant pink/red colouring is one of Scotland’s greatest natural ingredients. Farming has transformed something that was once only for the richest into one of the most popular foods in Scotland.

This great fish throws up many questions, but as Scots, food experts and the son of a fisheries scientist, we are here to answer them for you. What is Scottish Salmon? Should I buy wild or farmed? What should I do with it? Read on as we break down you all you need to know about this delicious fish.

What is Scottish Salmon?

Scottish Salmon are Salmo Salar, or Atlantic Salmon to you an I. Atlantic Salmon are mostly found in the Atlantic Ocean and the rivers that flow into it, but can also be found off the Chilean coast.

They are the largest of all the salmon types, growing up to 1m in length and weighing up to 8kg by 3 years old. Their pink flesh comes from their diet of shrimp and krill which contain a reddish/orange compound.

Salmon hatch in the rivers of Scotland and spend most of their lives at sea, only returning to the rivers to reproduce. You can fish for wild salmon during the Summer across the Scottish Highlands. Although licenses to fish wild salmon are quite expensive compared to other fish.

Most of the Scottish Salmon you will find is farmed off the West Coast of Scotland in big nets. These salmon tend to be pinker and lighter in colouring than the wild salmon. This is because they receive a special diet, so don’t eat the krill and shrimp.

In terms of flavour, there isn’t much difference between the two. Farmed salmon tends to be fattier with a slightly more buttery texture than wild but this is really splitting infinitives here. The only real difference you are likely to notice is the colour.

Wild Salmon or Farmed

This is a very hot topic and one that creates lots of debate: should you only be buying wild salmon or is farmed ok? Like all these things it’s a very complicated question and the answer really lies in what is most important to you.
Farmed vs Wild Scottish Salmon show slight variations in their colouring

Farmed vs Wild Scottish Salmon show slight variations in their colouring

Wild Salmon

Wild salmon is much more expensive than farmed, almost double the price in fact. It is much darker in colour and lower in saturated fats than farmed. Though it retains all the “good” fats found in oily fish. The environmental argument for wild salmon is fairly obvious: fewer chemicals, toxins and pollution that are found in farming. As the fish aren’t kept packed in with lots of others, they are much less likely to suffer from diseases. This removes the potential need for antibiotics, or other treatments, just to keep them healthy. The problem is that stocks of wild salmon are very low across Northern Europe. So it becomes a question of responsibility. Is it responsible to be fishing wild salmon with such low population levels? If all salmon consumption moved to wild only, the fishery stocks would collapse.

Farmed Salmon

If you’re buying salmon in a restaurant or a supermarket, it will be the farmed variety 99% of the time. The combination of price, availability and relative quality makes it incredibly rare for wild salmon to be found on the supermarket shelves. In fact, 99% of salmon consumed in Europe is the farmed kind. Farmed salmon is more of a light pink colour than the dark orangey-pink of wild. It has more saturated fat but is still loaded with minerals and omega-3 goodness. The issues surrounding farmed salmon are born from problems created by intensive farming. With disease and parasites able to rampage through the farms, chemicals and antibiotics have previously been administered by adding them to the water. This had a very negative effect on the local environment, causing damage to the surrounding ecosystems of the lochs. More recently the use of harmful products has been greatly reduced. Some have even removed them entirely, making farmed salmon much more environmentally friendly than it once was. If you are uncomfortable with the possible ecological damage done by salmon farming then I’d suggest hunting down some wild, if you can, or avoiding it altogether.
Katie and Matt, authors of The Plate Unknown

The Plate Unknown

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Smoked Salmon

Smoked Scottish Salmon

Smoked Scottish Salmon canapes are a real treat

Considering that Scottish salmon is a premium product, smoked salmon is a real delicacy. The salmon fillets are either hot or cold smoked over oak chips. The cold-smoked version is usually purchased and served very thinly sliced. Whereas the hot-smoked tends to be sold as whole fillets that are easily pulled apart into flakes.

Cold-smoked is far more common. You will see it in restaurants and hotels across Scotland, either as a starter or at breakfast.

Salmon from Loch Duart, set up in 1999, is considered the best quality smoked salmon in Scotland. It’s about 20-25% more expensive than others and is a favourite of Scottish chefs. You’d be hard-pressed to taste the difference in a blind taste test though.

Why is Scottish salmon considered the best?

Scottish Salmon is by far Scotland’s biggest food export. In 2014 it overtook confectionary to become the UK’s biggest food export. As far away as China, you will see “Scottish Salmon” proudly displayed on menus, whether it’s smoked salmon at breakfast or salmon fillets on the dinner menu.

Marine Harvest started the first salmon farm in Scotland in 1971. The company is now based in Norway which produces by far the most farmed salmon of any nation. Scottish salmon is around 10% more expensive than other farmed salmon. However, it is much less intensive and more money is spent to have better feed for the fish.

In 1992 Scottish salmon was awarded the Label Rouge (official endorsement of the French authorities for superior food products, specifically regarding taste). It was the first non-French food to receive this accolade. This, coupled with the reputation for quality and provenance built by the Scotch Whisky industry, helped catapult Scottish salmon as an international premium ingredient.

Now, Scotland exports 11,000 tonnes of salmon each year to the Far East alone, bringing in £73m ($94m). Even with issues surrounding farming and the environment, salmon remains the main food export for the UK with an international reputation for exceptional quality.

Best ways to enjoy Scottish Salmon

Scottish Salmon Sushi or Sashimi

One of the best ways to enjoy Scottish Salmon is as sushi or sashimi

With the abundance of salmon available across Scotland, it can be a touch overwhelming. You will find it served in pretty much every possible way imaginable to serve fish. Here we’ve picked out our favourite ways to enjoy it.

Smoked Salmon & Scrambled Egg 

Maybe you’re feeling like a slightly lighter breakfast than the full Scottish breakfast fry up. Or maybe you want to gently ease into the smoked fish for breakfast thing. Whatever your reasons, there is no greater way to start the day than with fluffy, light scrambled eggs and rich smoked salmon. Even more perfect if you have a glass of champagne with it!

Pan-Seared with almost anything

The colour of cooked salmon is not universally agreed upon, with variations in cooking times. Eric Ripert, head chef at 3 Michelin star Le Bernadin in New York, has it on his “barely touched” section of the menu. The Head Chef I worked for at the Michelin starred restaurant in Yorkshire cooked it “medium”. Whereas many will claim it is only ready when it is light pink all the way through in pink flakes. Personally I’m happy with either of the first two but it’s more common to find it done the third way in Scotland. However it’s cooked, crispy skin is a must. Whether it’s served with potatoes and two veg or firey noodles, it always makes a wonderful centrepiece.

Salmon en Croute

This is proper old-school French, but some things are “classics” for a reason. Also, I’m a huge fan of wrapping pretty much anything in pastry. You will most likely only see this on an old-fashioned menu in a plusher restaurant in the Scottish Highlands but, done properly, it is an absolute joy to eat.

Salmon Sushi or Sashimi

If you speak to an older Japanese person, the idea of salmon being used for sushi or sashimi would horrify them. In their eyes, salmon was for cooking, not for eating raw. However, in the UK it is one of the most popular fish for sushi. Tuna is the only one that’s more famous. Now it is a staple at many sushi/ sashimi restaurants in Edinburgh and Glasgow. The firm texture and relatively low-fat content make it ideal to eat in this way, and it is a great way to enjoy salmon in it’s “purest” form.

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