What's the difference in flavor between wild and farmed salmon? Setting environmental and sustainability issues aside, we compared wild salmon fillets with farmed salmon fillets, noting variations in fattiness, flavor, aroma, and color. We tasted fresh wild Alaskan king salmon ($15.99 a pound), which is available year-round either fresh, frozen, or thawed (wild-caught salmon from Washington, Oregon, or California is available only seasonally), alongside fresh farmed salmon ($11.99 a pound) from Norway in a basic pan-fried application as well as in a salmon cake recipe. Sometimes labeled "Atlantic salmon," farmed salmon is also widely bred in Canada, Chile, and the United Kingdom.
Both raw and cooked, the wild salmon had a rich, rosy-pink hue, while the farmed salmon was lighter pink. Wild salmon
attain their color by absorbing a carotenoid called astaxanthin from their krill-based diet, while farmed salmon eat fish feed supplemented with various sources of astaxanthin to enhance their grayish color. The feed is available in a variety of compositions, enabling fish farmers to select the precise pink to reddish hue of the flesh they'd like to sell (much like using a color swatch).
The wild salmon exuded more oil in the pan than the farmed salmon but tasted leaner overall, with a "buttery, pleasant texture" and a sweet, fresh flavor. The farmed salmon, which get less exercise and consume more fat than wild salmon, tasted "fishy," with "slimy, soft" flesh and a "musty, fatty" aftertaste. When mashed, seasoned, formed into cakes, and pan-fried, the differences remained. Tasters overwhelmingly preferred the wild salmon, which had a rich, full but delicate flavor. In comparison, the farmed salmon had a "canned" flavor.
The flavor and texture of wild and farmed salmon will vary depending on a host of factors, including the species of salmon, the season, and the place of origin. In this particular instance, however, we found that the wild Alaskan salmon was preferable to the Norwegian farmed salmon.