Steelhead vs Salmon: Main Differences

Published Categorized as Fish Or Seafood, Guide

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If you’re planning to cook a healthy and delicious meal featuring fish as the main course, you may be trying to decide whether steelhead or salmon is the right choice.  If you aren’t really clear on the differences between steelhead and salmon, you’re not alone.  Both of these fish have a similar appearance and are commonly confused with one another.  So, just what is the steelhead vs salmon difference?  Keep reading, and I’ll lay it all out for you!

Table of Contents

Are Steelhead and Salmon the Same Thing?

No, despite being frequently confused with one another, steelhead and salmon are not the same thing.  Both steelhead and salmon are members of the salmonids family and live in saltwater, however they are not the same species.  Steelheads are actually a type of rainbow trout, not salmon.  In the next few sections, we’ll look at the characteristics of each fish species, as well as the key differences between the two.

What is Steelhead?

As I just shared, steelhead are a member of the salmonid family, but they are not a type of salmon.  Rather, they are a type of trout.  Actually, they are the same species as a rainbow trout, but just live slightly differently.  Whereas rainbow trout remain in freshwater throughout their lives, steelhead live in the sea for part of their life, then move to freshwater rivers when they are ready to breed.  Steelhead trout can be found across the globe, though they are native to the freshwater and oceans of North America.

If you’re looking for the steelhead trout vs steelhead salmon difference, you’re not really going to find it.  These are both just different terms that can be used to refer to the same fish.  Technically, steelhead trout is the most accurate because steelhead are a type of trout.  However, many people call this type of fish steelhead salmon because they migrate to the ocean and have a similar appearance to salmon.

What is Salmon?

Salmon are native to the Pacific Northwest, though now groups of salmon can be found all over.  Like steelhead, salmon are anadromous fish.  This means that part of their lives is spent in freshwater, while other parts are spent in the saltwater ocean.  Salmon are born in freshwater rivers.  Then, they swim to the saltwater ocean, where they’ll mature.  Once they are ready to spawn, they return to the freshwater river to deposit their eggs. 

Steelhead vs Salmon:  Main Differences

What is the Difference Between Salmon and Steelhead?

What is the difference between steelhead and salmon?  Now that we have a brief overview of each of these species, let’s take a deeper look at the key steelhead vs salmon differences.

Taste and Texture

While the taste of steelhead and salmon aren’t drastically different, they do each have a unique flavor.  Steelhead trout tend to have a milder taste that isn’t as ‘fishy’ as salmon.  This is even more true if you purchase farm-raised, as opposed to wild, steelhead.  Steelhead trout tends to taste a bit less sweet than salmon as well.    

When cooked correctly, both fish are very tender and flaky.  They can be used in a variety of recipes and tend to absorb the flavors you cook with, which keeps them from overpowering the meal.

There are some minor differences in the texture of salmon and steelhead, but they aren’t very noticeable.  Steelhead can be a bit firmer than salmon, while salmon may be a bit flakier.  

steelhead vs salmon


Steelhead trout and salmon have a similar appearance, which is another reason these two fish are often mistaken for one another.  They both have a silver-to-chrome colored body, which is relatively bright and shiny.  Additionally, the overall body shape of both types of fish is similar.  They both resemble torpedoes.

However, there are a few features to look for that can help you distinguish steelhead trout from salmon.  First, steelhead trout have pink or red stripes along their sides.  These stripes are pretty faint and may not always be visible.  

Another difference in the appearance of these two types of fish lies in the shape of their head.  While a salmon’s head comes to more of a point at their mouth, a steelhead trout’s head is a bit rounder.


One more key difference between steelhead and salmon is the color of their mouth and gum.  Steelhead trout will have white gums and a white interior mouth color.  On the other hand, the Pacific salmon species will have black or very dark gums.

However, this method of distinguishing the two types of fish isn’t foolproof.  If you’re looking at an Atlantic salmon species, it will also have white gums and a white mouth, like a steelhead.  So, when distinguishing steelhead vs Atlantic salmon, looking at the mouth and gums won’t be very helpful.

Size and Weight

While each fish’s specific habitat can impact their overall size and weight, generally speaking, salmon will be larger than steelhead trout.  The average length of a steelhead trout is between 20 and 25 inches, while most salmon species will be at least 25 to 30 inches long, with some being up to 40 inches.

Likewise, salmon also weigh more than steelhead trout.  Most steelhead trout have a maximum body weight around 20 pounds.  Some species of salmon, including Atlantic salmon and Pacific king salmon, often weigh between 40 and 60 pounds, with some weighing considerably more.

Steelhead vs Salmon:  Main Differences


Spawning is also different between salmon and steelhead.  Salmon tend to spawn between September and December, while steelhead spawn between January and April.

After spawning, salmon will die (with the exception of a few Atlantic salmon).  During the spawning process, a salmon’s body releases corticosteroids.  These steroid hormones cause their bodies to deteriorate quickly, causing the fish to die.  Some may die almost instantly, while others could continue to live for a few weeks.

For the most part, steelhead trout do not die after spawning.  They are able to return to the saltwater ocean after spawning is complete, and will often return back to the freshwater again in the years that follow to spawn multiple times.

This video shares more about why salmon die after spawning, while steelhead trout are able to return to the salt water.

Mercury Levels

When you’re comparing different types of fish, it is also important to look at mercury levels.  While all fish will have some mercury, some species absorb more than others.  Limiting your intake of mercury is important, but especially so if you are pregnant or nursing. 

Neither salmon nor steelhead trout contain very high levels of mercury.  However, salmon contains a lower amount and is included on the FDA’s best fish options in regards to mercury.  According to FDA recommendations, you can safely eat between two and three servings of salmon each week or one serving of sea trout, like steelhead trout.


What about the steelhead trout vs salmon price difference?  While the cost you will pay for each type of fish can be influenced by a number of factors, including your location, the season, and demand, salmon tends to be more expensive than steelhead trout.

Of the varieties of salmon, sockeye and king salmon are among the most expensive, while pink and Atlantic are a bit cheaper.

Steelhead and Salmon Health Benefits

Steelhead and salmon are both very healthy fish.  However, there are some differences between them, so let’s take a look at how steelhead trout nutrition vs salmon nutrition compares.  

Depending on who you ask, some will tell you that salmon is the healthier fish, while others will tell you that steelhead trout is healthiest.  Rather than picking a clear “winner,” let’s take a look at the amazing health benefits offered by both salmon and steelhead trout.

To start, both of these fish offer a large amount of omega-3 fatty acids.  These fatty acids offer a range of health benefits from decreasing the risk of stroke or heart disease by lowering cholesterol, helping make anti-inflammatory drugs more effective, and possibly even lessening symptoms of depression.

Salmon and steelhead trout also offer a healthy amount of protein and vitamins, such as thiamine, riboflavin, iron, folate, and niacin.  Steelhead trout has the edge when it comes to B vitamins, while salmon contains higher amounts of vitamin D.

steelhead vs salmon

How to Cook Salmon

Salmon is a very versatile fish that will taste good in a variety of dishes.  You can really cook it however you like —- from baking to grilling to air frying and everything in between.  Regardless of how you cook it, salmon will have a very flaky and tender texture.  Though, this won’t be the case if it is overcooked or undercooked, so be sure to follow the cooking times in the recipe you choose.

Salmon pairs nicely with a number of side dishes, too.  This can make planning a salmon meal even easier.  Depending on how you cook your salmon, you may choose to serve it with sweet potatoes, green beans, roasted vegetables, or even just on top of a salad.

How to Cook Steelhead Trout

You can also employ a variety of cooking methods when preparing steelhead trout, though some of the most common include baking, broiling, grilling, or roasting it.  Like salmon, a property-cooked steelhead trout should have a flaky and meatier texture.    

Can You Substitute Steelhead Trout for Salmon?

You should be able to substitute steelhead trout for salmon without issue for just about any recipe.  Both fish have a very similar flavor and texture, with steelhead trout being a bit milder.

However, be aware that steelhead trout does have more bones than salmon.  If you aren’t purchasing a deboned fish, be prepared to spend a bit more time deboning it before cooking.

If you’re looking for other substitutions for either salmon or steelhead trout when preparing a recipe, here are a few options to consider.

Substitutions for salmon:

  • Cod
  • Arctic char
  • Mackerel
  • Hake
  • Pollack
  • Halibut

Substitutions for steelhead trout:

  • Tilapia
  • Flounder
  • Tilefish
  • Halibut
  • Cod
  • Grouper
steelhead vs salmon

Steelhead vs Salmon: Which is for You?

The decision to try steelhead or salmon is ultimately up to you.  Use the information I shared above comparing their taste, texture, price, and preferred cooking methods to help you decide which fish you’d like to try.  Though, there is nothing saying you can’t try both!  Plan a few dinners over the next few weeks that incorporate both salmon and steelhead to experience each fish and really decide which is best in your opinion.


Is steelhead better than salmon?

Different individuals have varying opinions regarding whether steelhead or salmon is better.  Individuals who think that steelhead is the best fish point to its high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, lea protein, vitamin B, vitamin D, phosphorus, and iron.

Does steelhead taste like salmon?

Steelhead trout tastes a bit like salmon, though not exactly the same.  Steelhead has a milder and less ‘fishy’ taste than salmon.  Steelhead trout can also be a bit more tender and not quite as fatty as salmon.

What is the difference between steelhead trout and salmon?

The biggest difference between steelhead and salmon is that steelhead are actually a type of trout, not salmon.  Some other key differences include that salmon can be much larger than steelhead trout, steelhead trout often have a more tender difference than salmon, salmon has a fishier taste than steelhead, and steelhead offers more omega-3 fatty acids, but also slightly higher levels of mercury. 

Can salmon and steelhead crossbreed?

You may be curious as to whether salmon and steelhead trout can crossbreed.  After all, they are from the same fish genus and share a lot of similarities.  While they may technically be able to crossbreed, the different chromosomes in each fish would produce sterile and impaired offspring.

It is also important to note that since steelhead trout and salmon have different spawning periods, they wouldn’t be able to mate.