Steelhead Trout vs Rainbow Trout – What’s The Difference?

Steelhead and rainbow trout are both popular fish people love to eat. They’re similar to each other making some people wonder the differences between the two. Therefore, let’s answer the question, what is the difference between steelhead trout and rainbow trout.

The difference between steelhead trout and rainbow trout is steelhead is found in fresh and saltwater while rainbow trout remain in freshwater. Steelhead trout grows to 27″ and 20 pounds. Rainbow grows to 11-18″ long and weighs 2-8 pounds. Steelhead tastes more fishy and stronger than the milder rainbow.

This article will compare their tastes, textures, cooking methods, costs, mercury levels and whether one can substitute for the other in recipes. In addition, I’ll do a side-by-side comparison of their nutrients, habitats, size, weight and more.

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Steelhead Trout and Rainbow Trout Nutritional Value

The following table is a side-by-side comparison of all the nutrients in steelhead trout and rainbow trout:

Nutrient Steelhead Trout, raw (4 Ounces) Rainbow Trout, raw (4 Ounces)
Calories 160 135
Fat 7.0 g 3.9 g
Saturated Fat 1.5 g 0.8 g
Cholesterol 65 mg 67 mg
Protein 22 g 23 g
Sodium 60 mg 35 mg
Omega-3 1.09 g 0.79 g
B-6 0.4 mg 0.4 mg
B-12 5.0 mcg 5.0 mcg
Thiamin 0.13 mg 0.13 mg
Riboflavin 0.11 mg 0.11 mg
B5 1.0 mg 1.0 mg
Iron 0.8 mg 0.7 mg
Niacin 6.1 mg 6.1 mg
Folate 13.6 mcg 13.6 mcg
Potassium 422 mg 545 mg
Magnesium 37 mg 35 mg
Phosphorus 317 mg 307 mg
Calcium 25.7 mg 75.9 mg
Zinc 1.4 mg 1.2 mg
Selenium 26.0 mcg 14.3 mcg

Nutrient Sources 1 2 3 4

Both fish contain a good number of minerals and vitamins. At first glance it’s difficult to determine which fish provides more. Therefore, is steelhead trout or rainbow trout healthier?

Steelhead trout is healthier due to its higher percentage of heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids and minerals. Steelhead trout provides more iron, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc and selenium than rainbow trout. They both contain a similar number of B vitamins, protein and cholesterol.

Rainbow trout is no slouch either and contains a similar variety of vitamins and minerals. Rainbow trout provides a higher percentage of calcium, potassium and contains less calories and fat.

Although the lesser fat is due to its less omega-3s. Omega-3 fatty acids are important for your health. I’ll explain why in the next section about both fishes health benefits.

Steelhead Trout and Rainbow Trout Health Benefits

B Vitamins

Of the seven B vitamins listed in the table above, steelhead and rainbow trout contain a similar amount of each. The B vitamins in the table include B6, B12, B5, B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin) and B9 (folate).

B vitamins help support the following:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Red blood cells
  • Brain function
  • Nerve function
  • Digestion
  • Energy levels

Steelhead Trout Health Benefits

Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Steelhead trout provides 1.09 grams of omega-3 and rainbow trout 0.79 grams per four ounces raw. Steelhead trout contains approximately 40% more which leads to the question, why does omega-3 fatty acids matter so much?

It’s because omega-3 fatty acids are heart healthy and help keep arteries healthy. The omega-3s in steelhead trout may help with the following:

  • Keeping bad cholesterol low.
  • Keeping good cholesterol high.
  • Reducing inflammation.
  • Reducing plaque build-up.
  • Lowering triglycerides
  • Help keep the heart rhythms more normal.

DHA and EPA, two of the fatty acids, are associated with lowering blood pressure and improving the health of blood vessels 5.

Studies suggest omega-3s can help reduce joint pain and stiffness in people with rheumatoid arthritis. They may also boost the effectiveness of anti-inflammatory drugs.


Steelhead trout provides 37 mg and rainbow trout 35 mg per four ounces. Adding magnesium to your diet could be instrumental in improving sleep related issues like insomnia. Magnesium relaxes and calms the whole body including the blood vessels 6.

More so, it helps keep blood pressure levels balanced and stable. A recent study researched 22 studies and concluded magnesium supplementation decreased diastolic and systolic blood pressure 7.

Magnesium helps control muscle and nerve function, blood sugar and blood pressure. In the muscles and heart, magnesium competes with calcium to help the muscles relax after contracting.

When the body is low in magnesium, calcium can over stimulate the heart muscle’s cells causing a rapid or irregular heartbeat.


Steelhead trout contains 26.0 mcg of selenium per four ounces and rainbow trout 14.3 mcg. Selenium is an underreported nutrient. I’m unsure why because studies 8 show selenium may help to protect the following:

  • Heart disease
  • Thyroid
  • The immune system
  • Cognitive issues

Rainbow Trout Health Benefits


Rainbow trout provides 75.9 mg of calcium per four ounces and steelhead trout 25.7 mg. Calcium is important for blood pressure and the heart.

Harvard Health reports calcium helps maintain blood pressure because it helps to control the relaxing and tightening of blood vessels 9. Calcium also helps the following:

  • Build and maintain strong bones.
  • Muscles need calcium to function properly.
  • Improve nerve function.


Rainbow trout contains 545 mg per four raw ounces and steelhead 422 mg. Since the recommended daily amount is 4,700 mg, they both provide an excellent number. Potassium is beneficial for reducing sodium intake.

It helps the body reduce fluids and rids excess sodium 10. This process helps to reduce blood pressure.

The more potassium you consume, the more sodium your body will lose. Consuming too much sodium or not enough potassium throws off the delicate balance the kidneys need to remove the excess water 11.

According to Harvard Health, a number of studies have shown a connection between low potassium levels and increased blood pressure 12.

Both trout and other seafood are renowned for being a part of many diets like keto or heart healthy.

If you’re eating low-carb or want to give keto a try, many of my clients have followed this 28-Day Keto Challenge with great success. Visit their website and check it out.

Steelhead Trout and Rainbow Trout: Tastes and Textures

One of the most important things people takes into consideration when choosing a fish is its taste. When comparing the two fish, does steelhead trout taste like rainbow trout?

Steelhead trout and rainbow trout both have a mild flavor although steelhead has a more fishy taste. Rainbow trout has a slightly nutty flavor steelhead doesn’t possess. Steelhead is firmer and less flaky than rainbow trout.

Rainbow trout has a mild taste and is not fishy. Its taste is often described as a slightly nutty flavor. Rainbow trout’s texture is delicate, soft and flaky when cooked.

Steelhead trout has a mild taste and a slight fishy flavor. It’s less fishy than the similar tasting salmon. Steelhead’s texture is more firm than tender with some flakiness. A farm raised steelhead tastes milder, non-fishy and more like a rainbow trout.

Both trouts have different diets which can affect how they taste and why one trout is larger than the other. Check out what each trout consumes as food down further in the article.

Steelhead Trout and Rainbow Trout Substitutions

When preparing recipes for dinner it’s not always possible to locate the type of fish called for. If you have some steelhead, you may ask, can I substitute steelhead trout for rainbow trout?

Steelhead trout can substitute for rainbow trout due to their similar mild tastes although steelhead’s flavor is slightly fishier if wild caught. Both trout have a firm texture allowing for similar cooking methods in recipes. Steelhead trout and rainbow trout can be grilled baked, roasted, poached, fried or seared. 

The best steelhead trout substitutes include the following:

  • Rainbow trout
  • Halibut
  • Arctic char
  • Halibut
  • Flounder
  • Salmon
  • Cod

The best rainbow trout substitutes are:

  • Salmon
  • Arctic char
  • Bluefish
  • Steelhead trout
  • Mahi mahi
  • Mackerel

When substituting rainbow trout or cod always stick to the following:

  • Same size and weight.
  • Stick with similar fillets, whole fillet or cross section.
  • Stick with skinless or skin when the recipe calls for one.
  • Texture is more important for certain cooking methods. Like using a firmer texture when grilling 13.

Check out the best replacements for trout in my article, Trout Replacements: The 12 Best Healthy Substitutes.

How to Cook Steelhead Trout

Steelhead trout can be cooked in the same ways as salmon as steelhead trout is typically grilled, baked, broiled, or roasted. However, people typically don’t sear or poach steelhead trout like they do salmon.

It is most often grilled, so in the summer when you fire up the BBQ, put some seasoned steelhead trout on it and see if you like it. Although it is typically only seasoned with salt and pepper, steelhead trout works with a variety of flavors.

How To Cook Rainbow Trout

Rainbow trout can be cooked in a variety of ways. Any way that you could cook chicken will probably work on trout too. To be safe to eat, fish needs to be heated to at least 145 degrees, so keep that in mind when choosing cooking times and temperatures.

Flavor Pairing

Cooking up your rainbow trout without any seasonings will result in a rather bland-tasting meal. You’ll want to marinate or cook your trout in some tasty oils, seasonings, and sauces to get the best flavor out of this popular fish.

Each type of fish has a slightly different flavor and therefore tastes best when paired with certain spices. Some common good seasonings to add to your trout are:

  • Lemon
  • Dill
  • Garlic
  • Butter
  • Scallions
  • Rosemary

Because of its mild flavor, using strong or citrus flavors when cooking rainbow trout is a good idea. The intense flavors of your seasonings complement them and add to the taste of the trout.

How Much Does Steelhead Trout and Rainbow Trout Cost

The costs for rainbow trout or steelhead will vary depending on how the fish are caught. A steelhead caught in the ocean will definitely be more expensive than farm-raised.

When purchasing fish, be sure to check the label to see if it is wild-caught or farm raised. Therefore, which is more expensive, steelhead trout or rainbow trout?

Steelhead trout and rainbow trout are similar costs. The average cost for farm raised rainbow trout is $9.99 per pound while the average cost for farm raised steelhead trout is $9.99 per pound. The cost will vary depending on location, whether it is farm-raised or wild-caught, fresh or frozen.

I checked the local Freshdirect online supermarket for the current prices of rainbow trout and cod.

  • Fresh, farm steelhead trout
    • $15.99 per pound
  • Wild rainbow trout butterflied
    • $11.99 per pound

I then checked my local Shoprite supermarket:

  • Fresh, farm raised rainbow trout fillet
    • $9.99 per pound
  • Fresh, farm steelhead fillet
    • $9.99 per pound

Steelhead Trout and Rainbow Trout Mercury Levels

The EPA and FDA have issued warnings and suggestions regarding mercury levels in fish and how often they should be consumed 14. This is especially important for young infants, developing children and pregnant women.

They established a list of best fish, good choices and ones to avoid based on their mercury levels. Therefore, does rainbow trout or steelhead trout have more mercury?

Steelhead trout contains more mercury than rainbow trout. Rainbow and fresh water trout are listed on the FDA’s best choices of fish to consume regarding their mercury levels. Steelhead trout is listed on the good choices list. The recommendation is consuming freshwater trout 2 servings a week or sea trout once.

Always check with a physician prior to eating new foods or changing your dietary habits.

Steelhead Trout vs Rainbow Trout: Habitats, Size, Weight, Appearance

What is the difference between rainbow trout and steelhead trout?

The average steelhead trout is longer and weighs more than rainbow trout. Rainbow trout has more color with olive to dark blue and silver coloring while steelhead trout is silvery. Rainbow trout is found in freshwater while steelhead is found in fresh and salt water. Steelhead lives 11 years compared to 7 years for rainbow.

Scientific Classifications, Families, Species

Rainbow trout and steelhead trout are from:

  • The salmonidae family
  • Oncorhynchus genus
  • The species O. mykiss.


  • Rainbow trout are found in tributaries (rivers and streams) or lakes in North America. Some of the rivers and streams where they’re found flow into larger rivers or streams but not into the ocean.
  • Like rainbow trout, steelhead are found in rivers, streams or lakes in North America. They migrate to the Pacific Ocean and return to the freshwater tributaries to spawn.

Both trout are hatched in freshwater streams, rivers and lakes. Steelhead and rainbow start their lives the same way. Rainbow trout remain in the freshwaters and never leave. After 1-3 years the steelhead trout start migrating to the sea.

Steelhead may spend up to five years in the saltwater and when the time comes they return to the freshwater area to spawn. Unlike salmon which only do this once, steelhead migrates and spawns several times.

Rainbow trout were introduced to the Great Lakes in 1895. They are not native to the lakes. They grow larger than the rainbows native to the streams and rivers. For this reason some people will call them steelheads.

Steelhead trout fun facts:
    • They have been known to jump as high as 11 feet in the air.
    • Steelhead can accelerate from 0-25 miles per hour in one second.


  • On the back the rainbow trout’s colors range from brown to olive to dark blue. The sides are silvery to pearl white. They have a pinkish to red lateral line from the gills down. The body has black spots.
  • Steelhead are silvery or brassy in color. There are black dots and a fainter reddish lateral line from the gills down.


  • Rainbow trout is the typical long, narrow body shape and has two dorsal fins.
  • Steelhead trout are more streamlined with a rounder head and two dorsal fins.

Size and Weight

  • Rainbow trout grows an average 11-18″ in length and weighs 2-8 pounds.
  • Steelhead trout grows to an average 27″ in length and weighs an average 20 pounds if spending more time in the ocean.

Some steelhead spends more or less time in the ocean affecting their size:

  • One-salt or half pounders are in the ocean approximately one year and weigh 2-6 pounds.
  • Two-salt are in the ocean approximately two years and weigh about 10 pounds.
  • Three, four and five-salt spend approximately up to five years in the ocean and weigh 20-30 pounds.


  • Rainbow trout averages 7 years but the maximum known age is 11 years.
  • Steelhead trout lives up to 11 years.


During their younger years and spawning stages, both trout have the same feeding habits. When the steelhead trout migrate to the ocean, their diets change with their surroundings as more fish are available in greater numbers.

For this reason, steelhead grows and weighs more the longer they stay in the ocean. Steelhead trout consumes the following diet:

  • Sardines
  • Herrings
  • Shrimp
  • Crabs
  • Zooplankton
  • Mollusks
  • Squid
  • Plus everything in the rainbow trout’s diet below when in the freshwater.

Rainbow trout’s diet is more limited and can only consume what is available in the freshwater areas. Rainbow trout consumes the following diet:

  • Crustaceans
  • Mollusks
  • Gobies
  • Fish eggs
  • Nymphs
  • Sunfish
  • Shiners
  • Minnows
  • Insects

Species Resources 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22


What makes a rainbow trout a steelhead?

A rainbow trout becomes a steelhead if the rainbow trout leaves the freshwater streams and rivers and migrates to the ocean. The steelhead trout will return to the freshwater again to spawn. A rainbow trout remaining in the freshwaters for its entire life remains a rainbow trout.

Do rainbow trout turn into steelhead trout?

Some rainbow trout turn into steelhead trout but not all. The rainbow trout migrating to the ocean from the freshwater environments turn into steelhead trout. The rainbow trout remaining in the rivers and streams do not turn into a steelhead trout.

Are steelhead trout and rainbow trout genetically the same?

Steelhead trout and rainbow trout are both genetically the same. They are from the same family and are the same species. Steelhead and rainbow trout belong to the same salmonidae family, Oncorhynchus genus and O. mykiss species.

Read Next – More Fish vs Fish Articles!

Rainbow Trout vs Salmon: Is One Better?

Trout vs Salmon: Is One More Healthier Than The Other?

Steelhead vs Salmon: Which Is Better?

Rainbow Trout vs Cod: Which Is Better? Let’s Compare


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  2. Nutrition Value: Fish, raw, wild, rainbow, trout[]
  3. Nutrition Value: Steelhead trout[]
  4. NutritionData: Steelhead Trout[]
  5. National Center for Biotechnology: Marine Omega-3 Supplementation and Cardiovascular Disease[]
  6. National Institutes of Health: Magnesium[]
  7. National Center for Biotechnology Information: Effect of magnesium supplementation on blood pressure: a meta-analysis[]
  8. National Institutes of Health: Selenium[]
  9. Harvard Health: Key minerals to help control blood pressure[]
  10. American Heart Association: How Potassium Can Help Control High Blood Pressure[]
  11. National Center for Biotechnology Information: The Effect of the Sodium to Potassium Ratio on Hypertension Prevalence: A Propensity Score Matching Approach[]
  12. Harvard Health: Potassium lowers blood pressure[]
  13. Sea Grant North Carolina: Fish Flavors and Substitutions[]
  14. FDA: Advice about Eating Fish[]
  15. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Rainbow Trout[]
  16. The National Wildlife Federation: Rainbow Trout and Steelhead[]
  17. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: Rainbow trout[]
  18. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife: Rainbow trout[]
  19. Wikipedia: Rainbow trout[]
  20. National Park Service: Rainbow Trout[]
  21. NOAA Fisheries: Steelhead Trout[]
  22. Wikipedia: Steelhead trout[]

Kevin Garce

Kevin Garce is a Certified Health Coach who encourages people by informing them on nutrition and food topics important to them. His years of research and knowledge inspire people to achieve their goals. Read more here About Me

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