Using the Whole Fish

Using the Whole Fish

Summers are filled with salmon in Alaska. The seasonal migration of fish swimming back to their natal streams bring vital nutrients from the ocean to shore, providing Alaskans with wild food that will feed families throughout the summer and winter months. Alaskans whose lives are connected to salmon celebrate subsistence by sharing and using each and every bit of the fish they catch, getting the most out of their bounty and preserving an incredible food source through creative recipes and traditional techniques. As stewards of our oceans, rivers, and streams and their inhabitants, when we harvest food from our waterways it is our duty to use as much of each offering as we can.

Read on to learn how to make Smoked Salmon Fish Head Soup and Pickled Salmon from Cordova, Alaska's Raven Madison, traditions her family have passed down for generations. Don't miss Susie Jenkins-Brito's favorite ways to use salmon fins, bones, heads, guts, skin and roe. Learn how to process your catch from filleting to vacuum packing for the freezer, and access resources for commercial fishermen who are the greatest advocates for quality of their catch. 

Photos by Raven Madison  

Smoked Salmon Fish Head Soup & Pickled Salmon

By Raven Madison | Cordova, Alaska

"My name is Raven Madison, and I am a descendant of Alice Clock of Peak Island. My mother is Alicia Jensen, my Umma (grandmother in Supiaq/Alutiiq) Barb Jensen, and my great grandmother Dolly Scott. I tell you my matrilineal line because I learned how to smoke fish through it. The recipe that has been handed down for generation-to-generation, from mother to daughter, is over 100 years old. I won't be sharing that with you because it is learned by doing, not telling… but I will share my smoked salmon head soup recipe."

"I prefer wild Copper River King Salmon when I'm making this recipe, but I know not everyone is so lucky to live in an area abundant with them, so any wild salmon will suffice."

"After you have cut the fillets from the salmon you are left with the head, backbone, and tail. I grew up utilizing every part of the fish. I was taught to cut the head off the salmon so that the head and backbone/tail are separated. I then brine my heads and backbones in 100% brine for approximately 8 minutes. After the brine I hang my heads up in the smoke house and keep a solid smoke on them for 24 hours (this can be more or less, it depends on how much smoke you like). After the smoking is finished, I cut the backbone into smaller useable pieces (approximately 5-8 inches), and the heads in half. I cut the tail off for my dog (I will bake that in the oven for him later on). I usually smoke fish in large amounts so I will vacuum seal and freeze one head (two halves) together and individually vacuum pack and freeze the backbones."

Smoked Salmon Head Soup Recipe

By Raven Madison

I boil one half of the salmon head and one piece of backbone in 4 quarts (1 gallon) of water. First I let my salmon head and backbone boil in water with salt and pepper for approx. one hour, or until cooked. Once the salmon head and backbone is cooked I take it out and pick apart the head and back meat, cheek and eyeball and set that aside.

In the soup pot, I then add:

1 medium yellow onion chopped

2 heads of garlic minced

1 head of celery chopped

4 large carrots chopped

3 large potatoes chopped

1 bunch of fresh parsley chopped

1 large jalapeño minced

¼ cup soy sauce

2 tablespoons brown sugar

Smoked paprika to taste

Thyme to taste

Salt and Pepper to taste

I let that cook until the potatoes are fully cooked. Once finished I will take a jar of smoked salmon and flake it into each individual bowl and add evaporated milk to serve. 


Pickled Salmon Recipe

By Raven Madison

Ingredients (per gallon jar)

  • 1 yellow or sweet onion sliced
  • 1 white onion sliced
  • 1 orange sliced
  • 1 lemon sliced
  • 1 head of garlic
  • 1 1/2 c. diced serranoes or jalapenos peppers
  • ½ c. brown sugar
  • ½ c. red pepper flakes
  • Pickling spices
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Salted salmon


Salting fish:

Add one-inch layer of salt on the bottom of a 5-gallon bucket

Put salmon skin side down (I usually cut a fillet into 4 pieces)

Add another layer of salt, just enough to cover the salmon flesh

Put more salmon flesh side down


Salt for about 5 months or until preference of texture

Take the fish out of the bucket and rinse all the salt off. Put them in the sink or use a bucket and cover fish for an hour. Drain the water and cover them in water again. Do this until you like the amount of salt content in the fish. I do this for about 3 ½ hours.

Let fish air dry flesh side down on paper towels and cardboard in fridge or cold area overnight.

Cut fish into bite size pieces

Slice onions, oranges, and lemons

Dice jalapenos

Smash garlic

Begin to layer your jar

  • Start with pickling spices that cover the bottom
  • Layer half of the onions, lemons, oranges, and garlic
  • Add more pickling spices
  • Add in fish, jalapenos and red pepper flakes
  • Repeat layering onions, lemons, oranges and garlic
  • Add more pickling spice
  • Add ½ c. brown sugar
  • Fill jar with apple cider vinegar until everything is submerged

Let sit for 10-14 day. Enjoy!


Salmon in Pieces

By Susie Jenkins-Brito | Bristol Bay, Alaska


To learn more about using the whole fish, Susie Jenkins-Brito breaks down how to turn a salmon's underutilized components into something delicious with these creative and resourceful recipes. From the heads, to the roe, skin, bones, fins and guts everything can be put to use. As Susie writes, "Consuming or using each individual part of what is taken is a way of expressing respect, reducing waste, and being closer to our food." Check out the complete recipes from "Salmon in Pieces" in Edible Alaska. 


Processing Your Fresh Catch

If you're new to processing fish, it may seem like a daunting task at the end of a long day at sea or on the river. However, it's probably the single-most important thing you can do to ensure quality food and to make sure you don't waste any of your catch. Read Processing Your Catch by Nigel Fox in Alaska Fishing Magazine for a walk-through of keeping your fish cold, filleting, vacuum-packing, and freezing fish. And see the handy "How to Fillet a Fish" guide by Salmon Sisters owner Emma below. 

Quality Resources for Commercial Fishermen

There are great resources for commercial fishermen to ensure that they're maintaining the best quality of their catch throughout the summer. The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) offers tips, videos for each gear type, and Alaska's quality guidelines here. Alaska's fishermen are the best advocates for quality, because we know how much work it takes to get our boats ready, our crew trained, our gear prepared just to be able to leave the harbor and set our nets. Catching fish is the fun and rewarding part, and we take great pride in caring for the beautiful food we harvest and share with the world. 

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  • Awesome, I’m always on the lookout for new and old ways to serve up the salmon, Quyana for your recipes!

    Wendy on
  • I used to work in the seafood department in the supermarket chain I worked for. I got the position of manager when the former manager walked out and quit and I went from a deli assistant manager to seafood, merely because I knew the paperwork involved, I had to self-train myself how to properly prepare a whole fish for customers. My biggest peeve was how to avoid the mess created when you take the scales off the skin of the fish. Salmon was the biggest fish we offered in whole fish, even though I got parts from bigger fish to cut up (like shark and cod). My biggest problem with cutting up a salmon was the heads. I didn’t have the physical strength to half the head with my knife, plus the knives I had would not fully cut through the heads without ruining the cut edge of the blade, which meant I had a dull (and very needed) knife until the knife cutter service came to exchange blades for servicing. As you mention in your recipe that you halved the heads, I was wondering how you did that, without ruining the cut edge of the blade and you must be extremely strong in hand strength to do it. Whenever I cut steak cuts I would gently tap knife with a mallet hammer to push through the bone. Your dog must have an excellent coat from eating all those salmon tails (minus the bones I hope). I would make fillet cuts out of those tails whenever I steaked a whole salmon for customers.

    MariaRose on

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