Salmon Head Soup Recipe

A rich, creamy soup studded with tender salmon head morsels and flavored with dill.

A bowl of salmon head soup.

Serious Eats / Chichi Wang

Why It Works

  • Picking the meat, cartilage, and eyes from the cooked salmon heads allows diners to enjoy the varied textures of this cut without laboring at the table.
  • Simmering the salmon heads with dill stems (which are discarded with the bones) and then finishing the soup with chopped dill fronds infuses it with extra flavor.
  • Adding cream to the salmon-head broth tempers its fishiness.

Whenever I am shopping for groceries, I think of that line from TS Eliot's poem, "Love Song for Alfred Prufrock," which goes, " In a minute there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse."

Decisions and revisions. Broccoli rabe instead of bok choy, mussels instead of clams, polenta instead of porridge. Part of the fun of cooking is working with what you have.

Yet fish head soup just wouldn't be the same, or even close to it, without a good fish head. You could use the whole fish, or a meaty fillet, but then you couldn't enjoy the diversity of textures and tastes to be gotten in one head. The gelatinous eyeballs, which are fatty-tasting, slippery little suckers. The cheek meat, which is often denser and finer in texture than the rest of the fish. Sections that are neither strictly fish flesh nor fat, but are spongy and pudding-like. Even cartilage, which we normally associate with poultry and pigs instead of seafood, but which can be found in some quantity in a fish's head. And if you make friends with your fishmonger, you'll probably get the rest of the fish frame, too.

Overhead shot of a cutting board. A severed salmon head lies on the left side of the cutting board and assorted salmon scraps are piled on the right.

Serious Eats / Chichi Wang

In some cuisines, soups with whole fish heads floating about in a soup tureen are perfectly acceptable, even preferred. My Chinese mother wouldn't dream of deboning a fish head. She'd simmer the head with pickled greens and rice wine, add in some noodles, and serve it forth. The fun would be in excavating the fish yourself and using your chopsticks to pluck out succulent morsels.

But not everyone wants to put in the work to reap his or her reward. Some lazy people—I mean, some people—just want to eat their soup out of a bowl with a spoon. This is nice too, on a wintry day when you want a steadying meal and you want to imbibe your soup without having to worry about distractions.

For a deboned fish head's soup, I like salmon heads. You can use any fish head you like, so long as it's large and meaty enough to be worth your time, but if you use salmon heads, consider dill and cream. The procedure is easy enough—sauté some onions or leeks, add the salmon heads, dill, and some potatoes or other vegetables if you like. Simmer, then separate the fish meat from the bones and reintroduce the morsels of tender salmon to the soup, along with more dill and cream. The taste of the broth is fishy without being too overwhelming, especially since it's enriched with cream.

That's the only catch: as the cook, you have to be willing to do the work, to stand over a pile of steaming-hot fish heads once simmered and sift through the detritus. There's some satisfaction in the work of creating order among chaos, but it's tedious too. It lends new meaning to the notion of cooking with love. If you love the people you serve, or simply don't want to injure them, then you want to do a thorough job of picking through the bones. You want to use the utmost care when extricating the eyeballs and the cartilage from the skeleton. There may be people at your table who like such things, even prefer them to plain old fish fillets.

January 2012

Recipe Facts

Prep: 10 mins
Cook: 35 mins
Active: 45 mins
Total: 45 mins
Serves: 4 servings

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Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons butter

  • 1 large onion, thinly sliced

  • 2 salmon heads, or one salmon frame (head, tails, and scraps)

  • 8 ounces potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 2 inch cubes

  • 2 bay leaves

  • 1 large bunch fresh dill

  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste

  • 1/2 cup cream, or to taste

To garnish:

  • About 1/3 cup chopped fresh dill

Directions

  1. Over medium heat, melt butter in a sauté pan. Add onions and sauté until softened but not browned, about 7 minutes. Add salmon parts, potatoes, bay leaves, salt, and all but a few stalks of the dill. Add enough water to just cover the fish. Bring water to a steady simmer and cook until fish and potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes.

  2. Using a slotted spoon, remove fish parts, dill, and bay leaves from the liquid. When the fish is cool enough to handle, separate the meat and other edible parts (eyeballs, cartilage, etc.) from the skeleton.

    A large mixing bowl holds fish bones cleaned of their meat and simmered herbs. A small bowl on the right holds the picked salmon meat.

    Serious Eats / Chichi Wang

  3. Add the picked meat, eyeballs, and other edible parts back to the soup. Reheat gently at a low simmer, taking care not to break up the fish meat. Add cream and chopped fresh dill. Add more salt, if needed, and freshly ground black pepper. Serve immediately. Leftovers may be kept in the refrigerator for up to 3 days and reheated over a low simmer.

    A bowl of salmon head soup.

    Serious Eats / Chichi Wang

Special Equipment

3 quart sauté pan

Nutrition Facts (per serving)
516 Calories
37g Fat
16g Carbs
30g Protein
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 4
Amount per serving
Calories 516
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 37g 47%
Saturated Fat 18g 89%
Cholesterol 146mg 49%
Sodium 462mg 20%
Total Carbohydrate 16g 6%
Dietary Fiber 2g 6%
Total Sugars 3g
Protein 30g
Vitamin C 11mg 53%
Calcium 61mg 5%
Iron 2mg 12%
Potassium 791mg 17%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)