Sitting in front of the fish case, wondering what the difference is between Steelhead vs Salmon because they look very similar, and one is significantly cheaper per pound. Wondering which one is best, and which one will work well for your recipe of choice? Here’s what I’ve found.
While you will find many minor differences in nutritional value, taste, and texture, the truth is these two fish are very similar and can be used in many of the same recipes interchangeably.
Salmon has more flavor and would be better suited for a dip. Steelhead is not a salmon species, it has a delicate flavor with a softer texture and is equally suited for smoking or grilling with a dry rub.
|Nutrient (per 3.5 ounces|100g)
|Steelhead Trout (Cooked)
|Total Omega 3
As you can see from this chart, the nutritional value and health benefits of salmon and steelhead fish are very similar.
Because of its lower fat content, steelhead has fewer calories. Both fish are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids, known to help reduce inflammation and maintain heart health. If this is important to you, know that salmon contains at least double the amount steelhead has.
The two fish also contain numerous vitamins (Vitamin B and Vitamin D especially) and minerals such as potassium, selenium, and others that are not listed here.
The FDA shows that these fish are low in mercury as well. Compared to most fish species, mercury levels in both wild and farmed salmon are very low. In fact, raw farmed salmon has a negligible average of 0.05 micrograms of mercury per gram.
Steelhead usually has more mercury than salmon but still on the low end according to the Environmental Defense Fund, which says it’s safe to have 4+ servings of steelhead per month.
From a pure health perspective, salmon is slightly better for you based on these findings, however, the difference is not significant. So what other ways can we compare the two fish?
💲 Purchasing Factors
|Cheaper by $1-$3 per pound
|More Expensive by $1-$3 per pound
|Harder to find in some areas
|More readily available
|May sit in the store longer
|Easier to find fresh
|A thinner, smaller fish
|A larger, thicker fish
|White gums, white mouth, red or pink stripe on the flank. Orange Flesh
|Black gums, black mouth, silvery color, no striping. Orange to red flesh.
If you are choosing between the two fish, based purely on what you can see in the store, you will find that Steelhead trout will usually be cheaper per pound and have a smaller total weight. Because more salmon is sold, it might be easier to find it fresh in the store. Steelhead filets tend to be thinner cut than salmon.
You’ll typically see salmon fillets be a bit larger. That is because steelhead are a bit smaller unless they have migrated to the ocean. In that case, they can grow quite large.
A quick way to tell salmon and steelhead apart is to look at the gums. Steelheads have white gums, while Pacific salmon has black gums. Atlantic salmon is the exception as it has white gums, so if you’re out fishing you’ll know if there’s a chance you’re looking at a salmon based on your location.
Another characteristic that can tell you which is which, is steelhead’s red or pink stripes on the sides. While it’s not present for all steelheads, it’s a clear sign if you see it.
The color of the flesh may be tricky to differentiate. Salmon’s flesh varies in color from pale pink to vivid reddish-orange hues. The most influencing factors are the species and the diet.
Carotenoids are pigments found in various small organisms such as krill, small fish, and algae, which are part of the salmon’s natural diet. These pigments contribute to the color of the salmon’s flesh but also to their health. As a result, wild salmon will have a deeper and brighter flesh color compared to farm-raised.
In comparison, steelhead’s flesh is also pink, but usually a lighter shade compared to salmon.
Types of Salmon
There are several different types of salmon you will find at the store. Chinook, Pink salmon, Coho, Sockeye salmon, Atlantic, Farm Raised, and King are the most common varieties you’ll find. Most are found on the west coast of North America, with the exception of the Atlantic salmon.
Wild salmon will always be pricier than farmed salmon, but the latter is more easily available so buy whatever kind works for you. On the other hand, wild-caught salmon has a more varied diet and freedom of movement so it will have a superior taste and texture.
If you ever run across Copper River Salmon, treat yourself and pick it up. This is my favorite and it is only available for a short time each year (April through September) when the king salmon and coho salmon run in the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. The meat is a deep, dark red and is scrumptious! I stuffed mine with cream cheese and shrimp filling and wrapped them I wrapped it in cedar to cook! Check out the Grilled Copper River Salmon recipe.
Steelhead is the smaller of the two, reaching a peak length of 20-25 inches and a weight of approximately 20 pounds. Atlantic and Pacific King salmon typically weight between 40 and 60 pounds but can reach even 80 pounds or more.
A fully grown salmon will be at least 20 inches long, but usually over 25, reaching as much as 30-40 inches depending on the species.
Pink salmon is among the smallest, with an adult length of 20-25 inches. Sockeye salmon can grow slightly larger, reaching up to 30 inches.
Coho and chum salmon will both reach sizes between 25 and 30 inches during adulthood. Atlantic salmon has a length of 25-35 inches once it’s fully grown, while Chinook salmon is among the bigger species with lengths of 30-40 inches.
Key takeaway: Anything over 25 inches is likely a salmon but check the appearance section above just to make sure.
Steelhead and Rainbow Trout
Interestingly, steelhead is part of the rainbow trout species, Oncorhynchus mykiss. Rainbow trout remain in the fresh water habitat, while the steelhead migrate to the salt water. You’ll also find rainbows are significantly smaller.
🧑🍳 Cooking Attributes
|Similar but cooks faster
One of the most notable differences between salmon and steelhead trout when cooking is that the flesh of salmon tends to be more firm. This gives it structure when cooking. Steelhead trout has more fat content and is softer in texture. Because the filets also tend to be thinner in size, steelhead will cook faster than salmon.
Other differences include flavor. Salmon has a more robust flavor than steelhead, making it more appropriate for a recipe such as smoked salmon dip or sushi, where the entire flavor of the dish rests on the flavor of the meat.
Anywhere you will be using seasoning, smoke, or a dry rub, steelhead or salmon can be used interchangeably. Steelhead (sometimes called sea trout) might fall apart more during the cooking process, but other than that, the two fish are very similar and may even be indistinguishable.
🍳 Preparation Methods
Your preparation methods for both fish will be exactly the same.
To bake either fish, gently oil the fish and then add the seasoning of your choice. You can choose between a simple salt and pepper blend, a traditional seafood blend, or any dry rub with the flavor profile of your choosing. Bake for 10-12 minutes at 400º F and test for doneness.
To grill the fish, heat your grill first, add seasoning to the fish, and place it on the grill.
You might want to line your grill with foil since both fishes are soft and tender and tend to fall apart when cooked.
We love to cook either of these on a cedar plank with a dash of lemon as well.
Follow our recipes for short smoking or long smoking options. Both of these fish take the smoke flavor really well so you can choose any type of wood you like from the stronger hickory to a simple cherry wood smoke.
Add salt and pepper at a minimum or any dry rub you enjoy.
Use a cast-iron skillet with a lid to fry your fish just as we did with the grilled sheepshead. Add a small amount of oil to the pan to help the skin crisp up. Cook the fish flesh side down first with the lid on.
After a few minutes flip the fish to skin-side down and remove the lid to let the skin crisp up as the fish finishes cooking. This is not my favorite method, but it does work and gets a really nice crispy skin compared to other options.
A robust salad, roasted veggies, and rice pilaf are among my favorite salmon side dishes. If you have any suggestions I would love to know!
Is Steelhead Trout Salmon?
Steelhead, trout, and salmon are two different species, even though they look very similar. Both are part of the Salmonidae family, and they can both be cooked, grilled, and smoked the same way, but they are technically two different species.
Steelhead trout is a rainbow trout that actually travels to the ocean just like salmon and returns upstream to spawn. So, both of these fish are anadromous, however, unlike salmon, steelhead trout do not necessarily die after spawning and they usually spend most of their life in the open ocean or in estuaries. The taste of steelhead trout is very similar to salmon, and the exact relation to salmon is hotly debated.
Salmon is a fish born in freshwater streams that travels out to the ocean to eat and live but returns to its river of origin upstream to spawn before dying. This fish is mild, firm, and pleasant to the taste, even if it is wild vs farm raised.
These two fish are very similar both in life cycle and taste. The main difference is simply one of lineage, with steelhead trout coming from the rainbow trout family while salmon is in a class of its own. Practical differences include price, mercury levels, and percentage of fat content.
Yes. In most recipes, steelhead trout is the perfect substitute for salmon. The steelhead fish has a softer flesh and higher fat content, which might require you to make some accommodations such as lining your grill with foil or using a cast iron skillet to contain the fish in a smoker.
You can serve either fish on a salad, or next to a variety of side dishes depending on your flavor profile of choice. Both of these fish go exceptionally well with rice or risotto, can stand up next to mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes, and will pair well with salads, cole slaw, or roasted veggies. Both fish can be used for tacos as well.
Yes. Store leftover fish in your refrigerator for up to two days in an airtight container. Before the two days are over if you know you won’t eat the fish you can freeze it in an airtight container for up to three months and reheat it in a microwave.
Jason’s been firing up the grill for over 30 years after graduating from the US Coast Guard Academy. His love of finely-grilled steak and chicken led him to buy his first Weber grill to put on his apartment patio in 1992. Each military move led to a new grill (a mixture of gas and charcoal) until he fell in love with the Big Green Egg in 2008. Since then, he has added another 4 grills to the collection. Yes, he has a problem. Jason loves smoking in the ceramic BGE with exotic woods including olive wood from Egypt and hard to find varieties such as sassafras and orange wood. Jason takes the term “foodie” to a whole new level, jumping at the chance to take food tours and cooking classes during foreign travels. These have provided inspiration to incorporate new ideas into recipes when he gets back home. He has been featured in Fox News, Parade, Yahoo News, Kansas City Living and more. After retiring from the military and moving to southwest Florida, he has focused grilling and smoking locally sourced meats and fish (read: he likes to catch his own fish!)