Buying salmon is confusing. So we looked into it — and tasted different varieties
Salmon is confusing. On a visit to the fish counter, I see several kinds: a farmed salmon from Norway that is pale with thin stripes of fat (last week a similar farmed salmon came from Iceland), a wild Alaskan salmon that’s marked “previously frozen,” and is 10 shades redder than the Norwegian, and twice the price. Then there’s the Faroe Islands salmon that I keep noticing on restaurant menus, but hardly ever spot at the market. I hear about farmed North Atlantic salmon from Eastern Canada, and, in fact, I’d rather buy as local as possible, but that, too, isn’t widely available.
“Salmon now is like cod back in the ’70s. It’s on everybody’s menu,” says Kim Marden of Captain Marden’s Seafoods, a Wellesley-based retailer and wholesaler.
The coral-colored fish, says Legal Sea Foods executive chef Rich Vellante, who oversees 34 restaurants, is one of their most popular menu items. He has sampled it in blind tastings to come up with the source the company uses right now (more on that later) and cooks use a high-heat method of cooking it quickly to keep it juicy.
When the industry gathers at the Seafood Expo North America on March 17 (until March 19) at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, 265 of the expected 1,300-plus exhibits will feature salmon, both smoked and fresh.
Because of its fat content, fresh salmon is forgiving, which is ideal for both the home cook and the caterer. You can leave it in the oven a minute or two too long — something you can’t do with a white fish such as haddock or halibut — and salmon will still be moist. The fish is ubiquitous on wedding, bar mitzvah, and other celebration menus. When you fill out the RSVP card that says “chicken or fish,” or whatever the meat protein is, along with a seafood choice, you’re probably going to be served salmon. It looks pretty on the plate and most people, even those who don’t like other fish, will eat it.
We made and tasted more than half a dozen salmon that you’re likely to see in your fish case. Wild North Atlantic salmon is no longer fished commercially so everything marked North Atlantic is farmed. We sampled salmon from Eastern Canada, Norway, Iceland, British Columbia, Scotland, and the Faroe Islands, which are between Norway and Iceland; we also tasted wild Sockeye salmon from Alaska.
All of the farmed salmon looks similar — that familiar pinkish color with fat stripes in a zig-zag pattern. Only the Sockeye stands out for its intensely deep hue.
Salmon aquaculture began over 30 years ago in Norway. Among the early complaints was overcrowding in net pens floating in the sea, where the fish are usually raised. Consumer and environmental groups have questioned farming practices, citing pollution, use of antibiotics, and other concerns, which have been addressed with varying degrees of success over the years, says Marden, whose wholesale arm distributes to 300 restaurants. “A lot of lessons have been learned about what are good practices and what are poor practices,” he says.
Vellante of Legal’s says there are many farms that are poorly run and he thinks it’s important that companies buying fish should thoroughly investigate its source.
Wholesaler Wulf’s Fish in Boston works with its sister company, CleanFish, to import salmon from premier farms they chose because of careful practices. One is Loch Duart farm on the northwest coast of Scotland; on its website, Loch Duart shows photos from chefs around the world who use its fish. The other is Norway’s Salten Aqua salmon, which gets a top rating from Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, a ranking based on environmental practices.
Farmed salmon is fed the local fish in the waters in which it’s raised. One of the things that produces good tasting fish is the base of the feed, says Marden. In every region of the world where salmon is farmed, “the base of what you feed it is indigenous to the area.” Farmed salmon in Maine or Eastern Canada, for instance, are getting herring. In Norway and Scotland, it’s krill (tiny fish that look like shrimp).
Even so, salmon from Norway and Scotland can taste quite different, explains Marden, depending on what else is added to the formula, how much the fish are getting, the conditions in the water, and other aquaculture practices.
In the tasting, our two favorites were Wester Ross from Scotland and HiddenFjord from Faroe Islands (see accompanying story).
Faroe Islands is connected to a bit of controversy. Villagers in the remote islands, which are part of Denmark, carry out a centuries-old ritual of slaughtering pilot whales at the edge of the sea for meat and blubber, a practice international environmental groups have tried to halt for years.
Marden won’t weigh in on the Faroe whale tradition. Legal Sea Foods, which served Faroe salmon for a time, cannot support the whaling practices, says Vellante, so set about finding a substitute. In addition, they also saw too much Faroe salmon on the market and wanted to have something that was exclusively theirs.
After a tasting, Legal’s settled on Lochlander salmon from Scotland, which has been on all its menus for six months. “We were really impressed with the way it was raised,” says Vellante, who describes the salmon as “buttery with some meatiness.” The fish grows in the Western Highlands in rough waters, says the chef, which makes them swim harder and develop flavor. He thinks Lochlander, which takes three years to raise (some farms take less than two) is the closest farmed salmon to wild.
So if you want salmon, you’re buying with your pocketbook, your taste preferences, and your conscience. Did you think salmon was confusing before?
Here’s what we found:
Here are the tasting results with the prices I paid on the day I bought the salmon, all of it as fillets, with the skin intact on most. I set the fish skin side down in a baking dish, brushed the unskinned side with oil, sprinkled it with salt and pepper, and slid it under a broiler for 6 minutes (it can take up to 8). The internal temperature should reach 145 degrees. There are many farms in each region; we tasted some of what was available on the retail market.
Norway and Scotland salmon were on opposite ends of the taste spectrum. Norway salmon ($9.99/pound at Whole Foods Market, fish from Kvaroy Fish Farm) is what I think of as “wedding salmon.” This is what you get at events. The fish has big, deep, pink flakes, it’s moist, and if you close your eyes, you could be eating any mild fish. It has little salmon flavor.
The Scottish salmon we tasted ($14.95/pound at Captain Marden’s, raised at Wester Ross Fisheries) is everything salmon should be: perfect moist texture, delicious flavor that tastes of the sea, almost buttery. This topped our list of favorites, along with Faroe Islands.
Faroe Islands salmon ($14.99/pound at Marden’s, from HiddenFjord), tastes fattier than the Scottish, but not the least bit strong, with a dense, appealing texture. This fish and Scottish salmon tasted the best.
Iceland salmon ($8.99/pound at Whole Foods), a pale, almost pink, color, melts as you eat it; but the texture is too soft and the taste unremarkable.
Farmed Eastern Canada salmon ($12.99/pound at Captain Marden’s) is a little chewy, mild to the point of being bland. It’s a little dry and doesn’t flake easily.
Organic farmed King salmon from British Columbia ($25/pound at Captain Marden’s) is shiny with very white fat streaks. It has a mild salmon-y taste with a beautiful, firm texture. We didn’t think it was worth the premium price. (Note: Though this is farmed, it’s King salmon, not North Atlantic salmon.)
Wild Alaska Sockeye ($14.99/pound at Whole Foods, previously frozen) is very dark, almost red, with lean, firm flesh that seems meaty. It has more flavor than farmed, but the dense texture isn’t winning.
Wild Alaska Sockeye ($11.99/pound at Trader Joe’s, frozen) isn’t as red as its Whole Foods counterpart; it’s dry and has little flavor.