The appearance of unregulated Frankenfish in our food system is an aquatic apocalypse no one wants to imagine—least of all Michael Cimarusti, chef of Los Angeles’ seafood temple, Providence, and a long-time advocate of sustainable seafood.
“The USDA turns a blind eye to fish for the most part,” says Cimarusti, who recently opened the fish shop Cape Seafood and Provisions, which follows a strict code of sourcing ethics. “As Americans, we have become accustomed to knowing where the majority of our food comes from. When it comes to fish, we don’t seem to care.”
That lack of awareness has already been on full display in our blithe attitude towards the dwindling tuna population, which has prompted some kitchens to exclude it from their menus. “The next Bluefin tuna could literally be anything,” says Cimarusti. “Cod from the wrong place is in that same dire situation.” Not too far behind, it would seem, is salmon, which in 2013 surpassed its underwater cousin as the most popular fish in the United States.
Cimarusti’s core principle—that good fish is never cheap, and cheap fish is never good—is one widely acknowledged by food insiders. But even heeding this rule of thumb doesn’t always keep you out of harm’s way.
A report from Forbes indicates many instances of farmed salmon—the stuff that’s been dyed and raised on an unnatural diet of chicken and grains—being “fradulently labeled” as wild salmon. In the article, a Monterey Bay Aquarium spokesmen likens the process of raising farmed salmon to “a feedlot just like cattle, and they use antibiotics.”
Salmon is a household staple at dining room tables around the country, so what do you need to know when shopping for it in the supermarket? To get the facts straight, we asked two experts to lay down some important groundwork.
What’s the difference between wild salmon and farmed salmon?
Bassetti says: “Farmed salmon can be quite rich. They’re fed and farmed for this purpose: to be fatty and consistent in color and size. Wild salmon has a cleaner, more mild natural flavor. Imagine a conventional grocery store tomato from Mexico versus a heirloom farmer’s-market tomato. They both taste like tomatoes, but the difference is there. It’s important to consider the different species of wild salmon too. For instance, Sockeye is leaner and mild, more firm; Coho is mid-range in terms of fat, flavor, and texture. King is king—it’s the fattiest and most flavorful. Farmed salmon has one speed, which is max fat, and along with that comes a softer texture.“
Cimarusti says: “If you have something that was born in a clear, mountain stream, found its way down to the sea, and then had to return to the river where it was born, you can imagine all that struggle, all that life experience—it translates into flavor. All of that nuance and all of that deliciousness is not present in farm-raised fish. But it is in spades in wild fish. Farmed fish swim around in a pen, fat and happy. There is some sort of automatic feeder that sprays pellets at them, which may contain things like chicken and grains, and all sorts of things that salmon were never meant to eat; then they’re electrocuted on mass, filleted, and brought to your supermarket. Farm-raised fish taste like fish feed. At certain stages of year, you get wild salmon that’s incredibly fatty. Other times of the year, it will be rather lean. No matter where you catch that fish or whatever stage in its life it is, it’s still going to be delicious, and it’s going to be completely different and taste like itself.”
Why is salmon priced the way it is?
Bassetti says: “There is a hierarchy: First King, then Coho, and then Sockeye, generally speaking. Sockeye is the most abundant salmon, and is also the smallest and leanest. It’s nearly always the least expensive salmon of the big three. Coho ranks next in terms of cost and population. Kings are the least abundant and thus most expensive. They are also the largest salmon. They stay out at sea longer, grow bigger, and contain more fat. It’s a matter of supply and demand.
You also have to consider seasonality. Generally speaking, salmon season runs May/June thru September/October. This is when salmon return to their home rivers to spawn, and fishermen target them. During the off-season, the only salmon available would be troll-caught kings from Alaska (and Canada). These troll fish are scarce and spendy. There are other small seasonal openings that occur. For example, the Columbia River has what they call a “test fishery.” Fishermen are allowed to catch fish so the state and feds can assess/estimate the number of fish that might return to the river for the season. These fish are then sold at a premium.”
Does a bigger fish mean better taste?
Bassetti says: “No. Quite often smaller and mid-sized fish are thought to have better texture and flavor. Personally, I don’t put too much into that theory. A big Sockeye versus a small Sockeye will not be that great a difference. However, a big King salmon versus a small Sockeye—that’s a big difference.”
Cimarusti says: “A wild salmon will have intramuscular fat, which means there is fat within the muscle of the fish. In terms of farm-raised fish, they feed them so much that they actually have extra muscular fat, which they’re not supposed to have. Wild salmon can’t afford that luxury. They wouldn’t survive if they were that fat. They would get eaten by a bear or a seal or something else if they’re swimming around all fat and happy.”
Is “sushi-grade” the most important term for considering whether a salmon is desirable?
Cimarusti says: Well, you can call anything sushi grade. You really shouldn’t eat wild salmon raw because there are issues with parasites. You’d want to freeze it first. We never serve raw salmon—to eat it like sashimi like you would with a sea bass or a mackerel shouldn’t be done. I don’t know what most sushi restaurants do, if they super freeze it before they serve it to their guests.”
Is lox the same thing as smoked salmon?
Cimarusti says: “Lox is only preserved with salt, and smoked salmon is preserved with both salt and smoke. They go through a similar process up to the point to where you would put the salmon in the smoker.”
Should all salmon be the same orange color?
Bassetti says: “Farms supplement a salmon’s diet to attain consistent color for the retail marketplace. Wild salmon are like people: we all may share a common diet yet have differences in pigment. Wild salmon get their hue from their diet, which consists of krill and creatures that eat krill, which give them that signature reddish color. Leaner wild salmon tend to be more reddish. Sockeye is the most red. Coho and Kings less red. A wild salmon may be paler, white, or mottled in inner-flesh color, yet that salmon swims in the same school and eats the same diet. Clever marketers have been able to sell pale/white salmon as “ivory”—even though we know they’re just as rich and flavorful, the color is not appealing for the retail market. To sum it all up, yes, orange is good, but don’t let it be the only deciding factor.”
Cimarusti says: “What’s unnatural is having 10,000 fish that all come out of the same feed pond with exactly the same color. In the wild, sometimes you will get Kings that are white. That’s a genetic mutation. Sometimes you’ll get marbled flesh that looks like a swirl lollipop. And those are really beautiful. But they command a lower price.”
What are red flags that the salmon is not good to eat?
Bassetti says: “The eyes cloud and sink into the skull with time. Bright clear eyes are a good indicator of freshness. Otherwise, fresh salmon retain more of their scales since they lose scales with time and handling. The outer skin should be shiny and appear moist. If the salmon still has gills they should be bright red. Smell is a good indicator—a light scent of the sea, never a strong smell.”
Cimarusti says: “[If you want to identify] farm-raised fish, its dorsal fins and tail will be beaten down to little nubs because they’re in an enclosure all their life. They’re just grotesquely fat.”