Last night twelve diligent Dishers showed up at TJ’s Seafood Market to learn about and taste different types of salmon. The event was sparked by a debate last week on whether Copper River salmon is more flavorful than other wild salmon or if it is just marketed more effectively. One seafood industry insider said, “We in the fish business call Copper River Salmon, Stupid River Salmon. Way over priced.”
We set out to see if this was true. The goal was to taste test three wild salmon samples in a blind test. The first “problem” was, due to the Memorial Day weekend, the supplier couldn’t secure three wild varieties so we had to substitute an Atlantic farm raised salmon from the Bay of Fundy at the last minute.
The second mishap was my fault–I insisted the tasters wear blindfolds. I thought they would be influenced by the color of the fish. It worked–they couldn’t see the differences in color, but they also couldn’t see their evaluation sheets. Then, halfway through the program, I learned from a chef at the table that Copper River isn’t necessarily redder than other salmon and that some vendors “dye the fish to [a restaurant’s] order.”
That was just one of the eye opening lessons we learned last night. TJ’s marketing director Jon Alexis gave a nice Salmon 101 class and his mother, owner Caren, enlightened the group with stories from her years of experience as a fishmonger. Jump for the full report.
UPDATE: Click here for Worzel’s report.
• Three salmons were tested and rated on taste, texture, and juiciness:
1. Atlantic farm-raised salmon from the Bay of Fundy ($13.99/pound at TJ’s) is known as the best of farm-raised variety because of the extreme tides in the bay. The difference in water level between high tide and low tide can range up to 48 feet. This constant flow and circulation of water keeps the “farms” cleaner and filled with natural nutrients.
2. Ocean caught wild troll king. ($18-$25/pound at TJ’s). Fish caught in the ocean.
3. Copper River. ($38.99/pound at TJ’s). “NFL Athletes of the salmon world,” said Jon. They swim up a 300-mile river full of rapids.
• The scoring was tight: #1 Copper River (124 total points), #2 Ocean caught (122 total points), and #3 Atlantic farm-raised (121 total points). (I picked farm-raised as the best.)
• All of the samples were cooked the same—lightly oiled, pan-seared, and seasoned lightly with salt and pepper—by TJ’s chef Chase Cheatham.
• Our group, the SideDish Tasters, included a couple of CPAs, a chef, a sommelier, a couple of software geniuses, a former newspaper reporter, a psychological analyst, a wine rep, and a former Alaskan resident and fisherman. The nice wine rep provided the group with wine. (Thanks, Horizon Wines.)
• Jon said salmon is full of Omega 3’s; is a “liquid plumber for arteries”; and reverses aging. (I have trouble with the last bit but that is just me.)
• River fishing vs.sea fishing. The salmon that actually make it to the rivers and up the rapid currents are not just the “Olympians” of the salmon world, they taste better because they are higher in fat, stored as energy. The fish is highest in fat (and energy) just as they reach the mouth of the river and begin their journey up the rushing river. Some people feel that a salmon that swims too far up stream—in some cases 300 miles– is less tasty because they’ve used up most of their fat supply.
• Besides the farm-raised vs. river-caught debate, you should also know the kind of salmon you are eating. All of our samples were the best—King or Chinook—known for its softer texture and rich fatty flavor. There is also coho (more firm), sockeye (used for canning as well), and pink (not as fatty). If you order Copper River you must also ask what kind of salmon you are getting. It gets complicated. And you’d be surprised how many servers–even chefs–don’t even know what they’re selling. When you ask what kind of salmon they say, “Copper River.” Wrong answer.
• I have a “Seafood Watch” pocket guide. It’s a great tool for hammering waiters and chefs with questions. You can download one here. Also spend some time on this site as it is full of great information.
• Our salmon tasters want to do more of these types of tastings. We are considering holding a caviar tasting. Stay tuned.