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Copper River Salmon Tasting

#1 User is offline   Worzel_Gummidge 

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Posted 28 May 2009 - 09:13 AM

We have had some lively discussion here about whether Copper River Salmon is better than other wild salmon (or farmed salmon, for that matter). Last night I had the chance to taste Copper River against two other salmons in a blind tasting organized by Nancy Nichols, Food Editor of D Magazine (SideDish Tasting Club?). A group of us assembled at TJ’s Seafood Market at Preston/Forest armed with scoring sheets and pencils.

The three samples were each cooked the same way by TJ’s chef. He simply pan-fried each piece (about 1-1.5oz) in olive oil. In each case the exterior developed a crisp crust and the interior solidified into the familiar bouncy cooked salmon texture. The protocol was that we would be served the three samples separately, each one served on the same type of plane plastic disposable plate. Further, to prevent appearance leading to bias we would wear blindfolds apparently sourced from the extensive Nichols Belle Epoch wardrobe. After stabbing myself twice with my fork I gave up on the blindfold. Our tasting sheets required us to rate each sample in three categories: Taste, Texture and Moisture. In each category a score could vary from 1 (worst) to 5 (best).

As they say on the home page…on to the food:

Sample 1: Clearly delineated large flakes. Very moist flesh. Did not require wine or other beverage to enjoy. You could put this fish in a sandwich and not feel like you needed a drink to go with it. The texture was loose knit. The flesh would separate under the slightest pressure. Flavor was restrained fleshiness and sweetness. Pink/white color.
My score: 11/15

Sample 2: Tight knit texture (like a sirloin steak) Not as prone to flake as sample 1. Not as moist either. Flavor more fleshy. Deep red inside the exterior Maillard shell but this did not presage a greater flavor intensity.
My score: 9/15

Sample 3: Dryest. Flakes clearly delineated. Flavor fleshy and about as intense as 1. Less browning on exterior so this piece appeared more red than #2. In fact, the interior revealed it was slightly less red.
My score: 6/15

After the tasting we were told that one of the samples was ‘Wild Troll King Salmon’. One was ‘Atlantic Farmed Bay of Fundy’ and the other was the Copper River.

With attendees sense of anticipation at fever pitch the identities were revealed.

Salmon #1: Atlantic Farmed Bay of Fundy Salmon. Approx. $14/LB

Salmon #2: Wild Troll King Salmon. Approx. ?/LB

Salmon #3: Copper River Salmon. Approx. $40/LB

So I ranked a beaten up, antibiotic-doped, mange-ridden piece of fish raised in an aquatic concentration camp higher than the most hyped, eulogised wild salmon raised against the background of the dramatic Alaskan wilderness with the theme from ‘The Sound of Music’ played 24 hours a day.

The group did not agree. They ranked the samples in reverse order.

One explanation is that my palette is/was shot. Stop reading here if that works for you.

Another explanation looks at the score and the test more closely.

The aggregate score over all twelve tasters for the lowest ranked sample was only two votes less than for the highest ranked sample. That means that the result was very indecisive. No salmon really emerged supreme.

We compared these samples based on a fleeting test of what had gone before (and had been whisked away). There was no possibility of re-tastes here and taste memory had to be created very quickly.

The samples were cooked. I ranked the Copper River lowest in part because of its dryness. Was this a result of overlong cooking (the interior was very well done)?

Sample variation. A sample of one is ample for a 60-minutes expose but not for scientific research.

I think taste tests of foods are useful but unusual. They would benefit from the techniques of spheres where comparative tastings are already in widespread use. An obvious comparative sphere is wine tasting, which would lead one to modify a salmon tasting as follows:

1) Serve all of the samples simultaneously. Then they can be immediately compared and re-sampled;

2) Do not wear blindfolds. Its not NN’s sense of fashion, its that the color of the fish is part of the comparison. Contrary to what you might think, wild salmon is not redder than farmed salmon. I had the good fortune to sit next to the only professional chef at the tasting. He explained that your trade farmed salmon supplier will ask you when you place your order how red you want it and the fish is dyed accordingly. So salmon can be as red as you want. If not dyed, farmed salmon it is an anemic pink/grey.

3) Repeat the tasting to account for sample variation.

One design consideration that does not come from the wine world: Serve all salmon raw. I suspect the sweetness I detected in sample #1 was the result of the cooking and oil and seasoning mix in which multiple batches of fish had been cooked. Remove doubt by going the sashimi route.

With all those caveats, this was fun. That’s two Copper River salmon samples in a week that failed to impress. While the jury is still out, so far the hype is fishy and the fishy is hype.

#2 User is offline   FatCap 

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Posted 28 May 2009 - 11:13 AM

Nice write up, Worzel. Thanks.

Did they say whether the CR salmon was king or some other variety? sockeye? coho?

It wouldn't be a fair comparison to put king and sockeye side by side.

Where was the trolled king salmon from? If specific regionality (e.g. "Copper River", "Bay of Fundy") weren't important, we wouldn't be having this tasting.

Did "Bay of Fundy" describe the fish stock or farm location or both?
would it surprise you to know that a large portion of "Atlantic salmon" sold in America is farmed in Chile? You can get Scottish salmon farmed in Canada and Norwegian salmon farmed elsewhere, too. That said, it would be inaccurate to classify all farmed salmon as being of inferior quality. There's some darned good farmed salmon available (for the right price).

I'm slightly less puzzled by the blindfolds. As if appearance isn't part of the enjoyment? I know the intent was to prevent taster bias, but it shortchanges the test.

I also generally agree with your points/suggestions about taste tests.

Most commonly, farmed salmon is "dyed" by the addition of coloring to their feed. Just as factory-farmed cattle, they can be "finished" with a richer, and, in this case, dyed, feed mix. "Anemic pink" is a great description of un-dyed farmed salmon. Pallid would be another.

Wild salmon has a naturally richer color because of their diet, including shrimp, which is usually too expensive to add, in quantity, to fish pellet/feed manufacture.

Flavor can be tweaked with the finish feed, as well.

I'd also augment your suggestions with the thought that a better taste test would include several different preparations. Color, texture, and flavor, not to mention tasters' preferences, vary with preparation. CR salmon's supposed richer oil content and firmer raw texture would be indistinguishable in many recipes and inappropriate in others.

Anyways, at least D and TJ's had the initiative to put this on. I'm thankful for that.

#3 User is offline   Kirk 

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Posted 28 May 2009 - 01:01 PM

Pan frying salmon in olive oil is one of the worst ways to cook it, if you are trying to taste flavor and judge texture. Cooking it to 130F in a covered pan over a small amount of simmering water is a far better way to do it. Unless you don't like fish, of course.

#4 User is offline   Scott 

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Posted 28 May 2009 - 02:37 PM

Nancy Nichols posted her recap of the event on SideDish. (Looks like you weren't alone in preferring the farm-raised salmon, Worzel. Nichols says she also rated it the best of the three.)

Great report, Worzel. And great follow-up comments/questions, FatCap.

Tasting results are so tied to the experience and palates of the tasters that I'm always interested in seeing detailed breakdowns of who scored what how, before trying to interpret them. Perhaps the totaled scores of a dozen people show a virtual tie between wild and farmed salmon. But what if four of the panelists were sushi chefs who scored the wild salmon decisively higher? What if four of the panelists who greatly preferred farm-raised salmon rarely eat fish that isn't breaded or shaken out of a can? (I know that's not you, Worzel. Just throwing out a hypothetical.) Are their scorecards to be weighted equally?

Scott

#5 User is offline   nickloubuc 

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Posted 28 May 2009 - 03:31 PM

Worzel, great report. Aside from the last minute changes in product and my blindfold faux pas, it was an interesting night. Usually when I do these groups, I serve all of the samples together so participants can go back and forth, test and retest, and adjust their scores. I looked at all of the fish before everyone arrived and I felt that the color—one was a deep red—would throw off the balloting. Worzel didn’t wear his blindfold (shocker, I know) and he picked the farm-raised. I didn’t know which was which and didn’t wear a blindfold and I also preferred the farm-raised. If I had it to do over again, I would tweak the scoring and cooking method, but it was still a nice exercise and learning experience. The points FC brings up about farm-raised, especially in other countries, is a serious problem that most consumers are unaware of. And yes, all of our samples were King salmon, which is a whole other topic. The Monterey Aquarium’s Seafood Watch site is a great place for information. You can download pocket guides that allow you to make good choices on seafood you order and avoid eating over-fished varieties. We’re talking about doing a caviar tasting at some point. Looking for refined palates.
Nancy Nichols

#6 User is offline   Worzel_Gummidge 

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Posted 28 May 2009 - 08:21 PM

From this tasting I came up with two posts. One was a review of the tasting, the other discussed some of the broader fishy issues that surround the salmon debate. The tasting review is what you saw. The other issues you mention almost all came up in the discussion at the event.

In particular, the uninformative sourcing classification you mention and the permissive attitude towards dyeing are both anti-consumer.

And a puzzle. We are told that Copper River salmon are fattier because they swim further and against a stronger current. However, they are caught at the bottom of the river, before the climb. Are they predisposed to develop the fat, etc. in advance? If so, what causes this?

FatCap said:

Did they say whether the CR salmon was king or some other variety? sockeye? coho?

We were told that all three types were King Salmon. However, Billusa99 reports on
SideDish that King Salmon does not live in the Bay of Fundy and Wikipedia appears to support him.

FatCap said:

Where was the trolled king salmon from?

The trolled King salmon was from ‘the ocean’ (?).

#7 User is offline   nickloubuc 

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Posted 28 May 2009 - 08:52 PM

Yes, I am with you on the hunt for answers. Today I put out some feelers to help fill in some of the blanks. Tonight I had dinner at Cafe on the Green at Four Seasons in Las Colinas. I ordered what the menu advertised as “wild Alaskan salmon.” When I asked what kind of salmon it was, I was told it was wild Alaskan salmon. (Not King or sockeye, etc.) When it was served, the color was nothing like what we experienced at TJ’s—it was cherry/beet red. I have a call into the chef, a national supplier, and Jon at TJ’s to discuss. I’ll report back. Good stuff. Let’s go. Thanks for keeping this discussion going.
Nancy Nichols

#8 User is offline   TuckerGreyhound 

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Posted 29 May 2009 - 06:44 AM

I wouldn't call the test conclusive either and I think that tasting the raw fish would really be the only way to tell which had the better flavor. I asked why we didn't taste it raw and was told that by law sashimi salmon has to be frozen to kill bacteria. We could have bought our own portions and tasted but it could not legally be served to us since all three samples had never been frozen.

I thought it was a fun test and I picked the copper river but only by a point.

I also prefer eating Wild King Salmon and do eat it regularly.

#9 User is offline   FatCap 

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Posted 29 May 2009 - 07:41 AM

As billusa99 had written on SideDish, there is no such thing as Atlantic king salmon. I would call into suspicion the knowledge of anyone--especially a fishmonger of tenure--who didn't know this. Also, only imported fish has to be frozen--to a prescribed minimum temp for a prescribed period of time, depending on weight--to kill PARASITES (not bacteria). Again, a good fishmonger SHOULD know that. Look it up on the USDA web site.

80% of the world's supply of king, sockeye, and coho salmon comes from Alaska. An inordinately large portion of that supply, especially the best king, goes to Japan, where people will pay multiples of the $40/lb you saw at TJ's, for superior fish. I can show you photos from my travels of salmon that had marbling similar to what you'd see in a beef steak of "select" or lower "choice" USDA grades. These are fish that even national (US) supplier seldom sees, instead going straight to exporters who will pay a considerably higher price.

From my readings and my own subjective tastings, Copper River, and to an even greater extent, Yukon River (running some 2000 miles clear across the State of Alaska, but not as steeply as Copper River, which is 300 miles long) salmon indeed have more fish oil--why? we don't yet know that any better than we understand the homing mechanisms that so many animals (fish, birds, etc.) have, but it seems intuitive that they are linked.

The reddest (if that is a word) salmon is Alaskan wild sockeye; in Alaska they are called "reds". NN's beet red salmon, I would guess, is sockeye, which is in season right now. It's considerably lower in oil content and lower in price than king salmon (and almost as tasty). NN, too bad the resto didn't have a ready answer for you--reference my earlier expressed frustration that restaurants don't prepare their staff with this kind of information. This was the Four Seasons, after all. But then again, if chefs and retailers alike are getting erroneous info from their purveyors....

You might also find, in season, red-colored salmon from the landlocked population of Atlantic, King, and Coho salmons introduced into the Great Lakes. They take on some of the coloring of trout...

The fact that the CR salmon you had at TJ's and D's tasting wasn't too red supports the notion that it was indeed of the King variety.

Worzel, FYI, some of the best tasting ocean caught salmon, where "troll-caught" is less environmentally damaging than gillnet- or purse seine-caught fish (because troll-caught results in almost no by-catch and doesn't "dredge" the ocean bottom), come from Cook Inlet, SW of Anchorage, and from Bristol Bay (which is also where great sockeye comes from). I've had a many fishing adventure in Cook Inlet, but only one in 10 or so salmon that I caught there was Chinook (king). Pink and Chum (the 2 lowest grade species of salmon--chum salmon is really only appropriate for making salmon jerky and pink only for canning) predominate, followed by sockeye and coho. Trolling catches king, coho, and pink salmon. Gill netting catches coho and sockeye. Purse seining targets pink, mostly.

Again, I'm stoked that this kind of event was available in Dallas and wish that I could have participated. I'm even more stoked that there's such curiosity and interest. Good stuff.

#10 User is offline   nickloubuc 

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Posted 29 May 2009 - 08:19 AM

Hey FC,
I am about to get on the phone with a seafood guy in Boston. I have a list of questions and I've copied and pasted your last post to my list. I'll report back later. If you have anything you want me to ask him, email me at nancyn@dmagazine.com.
Nancy Nichols

#11 User is offline   FatCap 

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Posted 29 May 2009 - 08:38 AM

FatCap said:

Look it up on the USDA web site.


I meant to direct to the FDA web site, not USDA (although the info is likely also available there).

I also want to clarify that freezing DOES inactivate bacteria (which "awaken" when product is thawed) and kills some (e.g. listeria), but the rule was put in effect primarily to target parasites, which can be permanently neutralized by extended cold.

The University of California has an easier to read (than government rules? You must be kidding) digest here:
http://seafood.ucdav...du/haccp/compen ... tm#Control

That whole site is jam-packed with info...


Sorry if I added to what is already very confusing...

and thanks NN; I'll be glad to hear the Boston guy's take (including anything I need to be set straight on)...I got a lot of my info via State of Alaska publications and a little more from talking to fisher-folks there.
It's one of my favorite places on earth, although calling it "one" place seems so inadequate...

#12 User is offline   BK 

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Posted 29 May 2009 - 10:24 AM

FatCap said:

As billusa99 had written on SideDish, there is no such thing as Atlantic king salmon. I would call into suspicion the knowledge of anyone--especially a fishmonger of tenure--who didn't know this............
.......................
..............

Thanks for backing up and repeating 90% of what I posted on Eats and SD over the past 10 days. I would have repeated it here, myself, but didn't think it worth the effort.

"From my readings...",
Yukon river, longer than the Copper, gill nets, troll caught,... You ARE good.

By the way, Sockeye are not troll caught because, genetically, they don't feed on what they troll with. Thus, they are gill net caught.
And more reading for you: there is no commercially available Atlantic salmon available from any Great Lake. Only Coho and Chinook.
http://www.great-lakes.org/fishid.html
http://www.seagrant....nticsalmon.html

You read it here first. Thanks Scott!

#13 User is offline   tgubbins 

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Posted 29 May 2009 - 10:33 AM

I just wanted to add my 2 cents here, which is that, basically, there is no such thing as Atlantic king salmon. (i added the "basically".)

#14 User is offline   BK 

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Posted 29 May 2009 - 11:10 AM

WG... thanks for the good report. I'm not surprised that you picked the bay of Fundy fish. It was likely the freshest. :roll:

CR salmon was open in a 12 hour period on May 14. From my readings, I also saw that they opened 2 additional periods this year, on the 18th and the 21st (but have been unable to confirm on any AK fisheries website). That means that your CR salmon could have been anywhere from 6 days to how old!

Sitting on ice all that time, the texture of the flesh will be compromised. If it's belly down, it'll absorb moisture from the ice. If it's belly up, then it will dry in that ultra-cold setting -- likely your case.

Plus, as Kirk said, to cook a salmon it should have been poached --it does not need extra oil. Esp. in a "taste test."

#15 User is offline   crumudgeon 

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Posted 29 May 2009 - 11:38 AM

I thought the tasting was alot of fun and all the samples were very good including the Bay of Fundy, to my surprise! All in all if I were at a restaurant and was offered farm raised or wild I would still go wild. What I really think is cool is it is a controlled catch, by tonage, to keep the stain alive and profitable and it is "free range" eating what it wants, gets lots of exercise to build muscle and supports independant fishermen more so than the farm raised.
In this world that is contiuning the trend toward geneticlly alter food supplies it is great to eat unaltered food and get the true taste.....just my ramblin thoughts.

#16 User is offline   jonalexis 

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Posted 29 May 2009 - 12:24 PM

hey guys, jon from TJ's.

First and foremost, we never said the atlantic salmon was king salmon. as you said, there is no such thing. i think we might have been answering a question from table 1 and someone at table 2 might have thought we were answering a different question.

(i don't mean this in a rude way, but some people questioned TJ's fish knowledge given this assertion.)

a few answers to questions above.

1) where was the troll ocean king salmon from?

you never really know where troll salmon is from...its in the open waters of the ocean. you hit the nail on the head...if you can ID where its from by getting it at the mouth of a river, the salmon is considered a more desirable salmon

2) Did "Bay of Fundy" describe the fish stock or farm location or both?


the location of the aquafarm. you are correct that "atlantic salmon" is a species, not necessarily where the fish was farmed. there are even atlantic salmon fisheries in the pacific ocean!

ps. DON'T buy chilean salmon right now, there is an immune difficiency crippling the salmon down there.

3) several questions about dyeing salmon

can't speak about every product, but no product we sampled was dyed and tj's does not sell dyed salmon ever.

4) "Pan frying salmon in olive oil is one of the worst ways to cook it, if you are trying to taste flavor and judge texture."

the salmon was PAN SEARED and finished in the oven, not pan fried. we at Tj's agree with your assertion about panfrying thick steaky fish...not preferable!

5) We are told that Copper River salmon are fattier because they swim further and against a stronger current. However, they are caught at the bottom of the river, before the climb. Are they predisposed to develop the fat, etc. in advance? If so, what causes this?

nature/god/instinct whatever you want to call it. how do bears know to eat a lot before they hibernate? its an amazing planet we live on!

6) The fact that the CR salmon you had at TJ's and D's tasting wasn't too red supports the notion that it was indeed of the King variety.


correct. however the RAW salmon is significantly redder than other salmon, as our guests saw after the tasting when they compared the raw sides of salmon


come check out TJ's

11661 Preston Road #149
Dallas, TExas 75230
214-691-2369
jon@tjsseafood.com
www.tjsseafood.com

#17 User is offline   Kirk 

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Posted 29 May 2009 - 01:17 PM

Jon: Thanks for setting the record straight on some of these issues. It's good to hear from the purveyor/chef, especially when the facts and details were muddled.

#18 User is offline   jonalexis 

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Posted 29 May 2009 - 01:32 PM

we are not professional taste testers and learned a lot how to improve the mechanics of our next taste test.

hopefully word will spread on this board and you guys will be able to attend.


if anyone would like to get TJ's email newsletter with notes on what's coming in and out of season, recipes etc, email me and i'll add you.

jon@tjsseafood.com

#19 User is offline   Scott 

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Posted 29 May 2009 - 02:03 PM

Jon,

Nice to have you chime in with more info.

Another question for you. Earlier in this thread, a participant at the tasting said he was told that none of the three fish served had ever been frozen. Is that accurate?

Thanks.

Scott

#20 User is offline   nickloubuc 

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Posted 29 May 2009 - 03:18 PM

Here is my interview with a couple of smart guys from Steve Connolly Seafood in Boston. I lost part of the Q&A as the result of a computer meltdown, but managed to get most of it.

FYI, they have invited me to come up to see the facility, tour the plant, and go out with the fisherman. Anybody up for a road trip?
Nancy Nichols

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