Farmed salmon beats wild salmon in a taste test

Special to The Washington PostOctober 1, 2013 


Do you prefer farmed or wild salmon?


  • The best-tasting Salmon

    The fish, in order of panel preference (overall ratings 1-10, with 10 being the highest score):

    1. Costco farmed Atlantic, frozen in 4 percent salt solution, from Norway; $6 per pound (7.6 out of 10)

    2. Trader Joe’s farmed Atlantic, from Norway; $10.99 per pound (6.4)

    3. Loch Duart farmed Atlantic, from Scotland; $15 to $18 per pound (6.1)

    4. Verlasso farmed Atlantic, from Chile; $12 to $15 per pound (6)

    5. Whole Foods farmed Atlantic salmon, from Scotland; $14.99 per pound (5.6)

    6. ProFish wild king (netted), from Willapa Bay, Wash.; $16 to $20 per pound (5.3)

    7. AquaChile farmed Atlantic, from Chile; $12 to $15 per pound (4.9)

    8. ProFish wild coho (trolled), from Alaska; $16 to $20 per pound. (4.4)

    9. ProFish wild king (trolled), from Willapa Bay; $16 to $20 per pound (4)

    10. Costco wild coho, from Alaska; $10.99 per pound (3.9)

Read a story about salmon, and the odds are good that, somewhere, it’ll tell you that wild salmon tastes better than farmed. But does it? We decided to find out in a blind tasting, and assembled a panel that included noted Washington seafood chefs and a seafood wholesaler.

The fish swam the gamut. We had wild king from Washington, frozen farmed from Costco, and eight in between, including Verlasso farmed salmon from Chile, which is the first open-pen farmed salmon to get a Seafood Watch “buy” recommendation. The tasters came from The Post Food section and the D.C.-area seafood scene.

Scott Drewno, executive chef of the Source by Wolfgang Puck, was gracious enough to prepare the fish; this was like Usain Bolt consenting to go for a jog. Drewno steamed portioned fillets simply, with a little salt.

The judgments were definitive – and surprising. Farmed salmon beat wild salmon, hands down. The overall winner was the Costco frozen Atlantic salmon (Norwegian), added to the tasting late in the game – to provide a counterpoint to all that lovely fresh fish, we thought.

There is an important caveat about the winning salmon: It was packed in a 4 percent salt solution. Many of the tasters noted, and liked, the saltiness. Chef-restaurateur Kaz Okochi (Kaz Sushi Bistro, Masa 14) mentioned that salt doesn’t only affect flavor but also helps make the texture of the fish firmer. Salting is “a typical Japanese technique for fish” and one he uses on salmon sushi. The Costco/Kirkland label product was a fine piece of fish, and one any of us would put on the table. Yet it wasn’t strictly comparable to the others. It was also about $5 per pound cheaper than any of them.

The next three top-rated fish, with closely grouped scores, also were farmed: Trader Joe’s, from Norway; Loch Duart, from Scotland; and Verlasso.

Ancora chef-restaurateur Bob Kinkead, who estimates that he personally has garnished upward of 350,000 servings of Pepita Salmon, a signature dish at the now-closed Kinkead’s (“Salmon built my house,” he says), seemed disheartened that there was so little difference among the fish. “None stood out and said, ‘Buy me,’” he said.

When standout flavors were detected, it wasn’t in a good way. A couple of samples had off-flavors that were picked up by some tasters but not by all. And, although some samples had either the large flake and high fat content that gave them away as farmed, or the finer grain and meaty texture that identified them as wild, we could not consistently tell which was which.

One thing, though, is certain. You'll never catch any of us saying wild salmon tastes better than farmed.

Other panelists: Bonnie S. Benwick, Tim Carman and Jane Touzalin of The Washington Post and John Rorapaugh, director of sustainable initiatives at ProFish.

To see a printable recipe, click on link below:

Scandanavian Salmon Stew with Dill

Scandinavian Salmon Stew with Dill This was a popular menu item at Kinkead’s, the long-running, now-closed seafood restaurant in Washington, D.C. Salmon trimmings and smaller cuts were used in the dish, so it was a cost-saver for the kitchen. Here, we’ve called for large cubes of the fish, but like the restaurant you could substitute good-quality trimmings. The thin stew can be served as a hearty first course or with a bibb lettuce salad as a light dinner. Large crackers, oyster crackers or crusty bread make nice accompaniments. From chef Bob Kinkead of Ancora in Washington. 12 ounces skinned salmon fillets (preferably Atlantic), pin bones removed; see headnote. 3 cups fish stock (may substitute 2 cups clam juice plus 1 cup water or no-salt-added chicken broth) 1/4 cup dry white wine 2 cups heavy cream 2 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice (about 2 cups; may substitute other potatoes that are waxy) 2 ounces pancetta, diced 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter 2 medium shallots, minced (about 1/4cup) 12 medium button mushrooms, stemmed and cut into quarters (about 2 cups) 1 teaspoon sea salt, or more as needed 1/2 teaspoon fresh cracked white pepper, or more as needed 1 medium leek, white part only, minced 2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

CUT salmon into 1-inch cubes; wrap them tightly and refrigerate until ready to use.

COMBINE fish stock and wine in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, then cook until reduced by a third, 15 to 20 minutes.

ADD heavy cream and potatoes to the saucepan; once liquid returns to a boil, reduce heat to medium or medium-low, so it’s barely bubbling, and cook for 5 minutes. The potatoes should be just tender.

LINE a plate with a few layers of paper towels. Cook the pancetta in a medium skillet over medium-high heat until it has crisped and browned, then transfer it to the paper towel-lined plate to drain.

ADD 1 tablespoon of the butter to the same skillet, along with half of shallots and all mushrooms, stirring until butter has melted. Cook until the moisture released by the mushrooms has evaporated and they have browned. Scrape mushroom-shallot mixture into the saucepan. Season with salt and pepper.

MELT 2 tablespoons butter in the same skillet over medium heat. Add leek and remaining shallots, stirring to coat. Cook, stirring once or twice, until vegetables have softened, then add them to the saucepan along with pancetta and chilled cubes of salmon, stirring gently to incorporate.

ONCE liquid starts to bubble, cook for 1 minute, then remove the saucepan from the heat. The salmon should be just cooked through. Taste, adjust the seasoning as needed and whisk in the remaining 1 tablespoon butter, making sure it has been thoroughly incorporated. Before serving, stir in dill. Divide among individual bowls. Serve warm.

Yield: about 8 cups (6 to 8 servings) Per serving (based on 8): 400 calories, 13 g protein, 13 g carbohydrates, 33 g fat, 19 g saturated fat, 125 mg cholesterol, 630 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar

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