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An unscientific taste test gives Alaska salmon the edge — at least among Alaskans

Mike Dunham
Wild salmon and farmed salmon are blacked and prepared for a taste test by Mike Dunham. Samplers identified the salmon by place names in the blind test about which was which.
Marc Lester
Wild salmon and farmed salmon are blacked and prepared for a taste test by Mike Dunham.
Marc Lester

Which kind of salmon do you like best -- wild Alaska sockeye or farmed Atlantic?

In an unscientific face-off, the Daily News test kitchen recently pitted the two varieties against each other. The salmon, frozen, were both Kirkland products from Costco: Wild Alaska Sockeye Salmon ($26.99) and Farmed Atlantic Salmon ($19.79). The latter was actually from Chile, which, last we looked, was on the Pacific Ocean, but its DNA is of the Atlantic variety. Both bags held three pounds of individually wrapped filets.

Samples of roughly equivalent size were put in Ziploc bags marked with the names of Alaska towns like Newtok and Kobuk. An associate who did not otherwise participate in the exercise did this in a closed room and noted which bags held which kind of salmon. That information was put into an envelope and sealed. Then the bags were returned to me in three paired sets. Each set included one bag with Atlantic/Chilean fish, one with Alaska product.

I had my suspicions about which was which; some of the bagged salmon had skin and some didn't, for instance, and the color was notably different. But I could not say with absolute journalistic certainty that the Tununak bag, for instance, contained one or the other.

The skin from all samples was removed as the fish thawed, then fillets of each kind were prepared in three different ways:

1. Soaked overnight in a fairly mild salt and brown sugar brine, then hot-smoked on a Weber grill.

2. Baked plain, with no seasoning whatsoever, in a Pyrex dish sprayed with Pam (original) and covered with aluminum foil.

3. Dredged through a concoction of cayenne, garlic, black pepper, smoked paprika and seasoning salt and blackened in a fiery skillet greased with a combination of genetically modified vegetable oil, bacon fat and some kind of unlabeled solution of olive oil and Asian peppers.

In all cases the samples were prepared simultaneously using the same cooking gear at the same temperature and for the same amount of cooking time.

Plates were set up in pairs for the prepared fish, one Alaska smoked salmon next to one Chilean smoked salmon and so forth. Everyone in the Daily News was invited to try a bite of each and write down their preference. The question was not "Which of these do you think is Alaska salmon?" but "Which do you like better?" Ritz crackers and Pilot Bread were available to cleanse palates between bites.

When the envelope was opened, it was revealed that Alaska salmon was widely preferred by Alaskans -- though the preference was not unanimous. Here are the results:

• Baked: Alaska 12, Atlantic 5

• Smoked: Alaska 10, Atlantic 7, no preference 1

• Blackened: Alaska 14, Atlantic 5, no preference 1

In the case of the blackened fish, the fact that the Atlantic fillets were bigger than the Alaska ones, 6-8 oz. (seven servings in the bag) compared to 5-7 oz. (eight servings in the bag; these were the ones with the skin) may have made a difference. The extra thickness may have left them too raw for some tastes; even the Alaska blackened salmon was somewhat underdone, an error on the part of the chef who personally prefers meats scorched on the outside and raw in the middle.

The closer margin for the smoked samples further raises the question of how preparation may equalize the taste. The Atlantic salmon is treated with a 4 percent salt and water solution plus food coloring. The Alaska fish is just fish. That gives the Atlantic salmon an elevated level of sodium, 320 mg., compared to 80 mg. for the Alaska salmon. (For other nutritional information, see "By the numbers.") Nonetheless, saturated in a syrupy brine and cooked in a cloud of boiling birch smoke, they both began to taste and feel a lot alike.

It was easier to tell the difference with the plain baked salmon, my least favorite way to treat a fish -- maybe no one's favorite way since a couple of people passed it over altogether. At this station I heard tasters comment on texture as something guiding their choice.

I wonder if the texture is a regional preference, sort of like the watery coffee that East Coast people love. If the same test were tried at a newspaper in Boston or Santiago, would they have gone for the Atlantic fish?

There's no way to tell without a much bigger budget. But the take-home discovery for Alaskans should be that whatever the perceived benefits of our fish, there's not enough of a difference to think that people will choose it over a cheaper alternative 100 percent of the time.

At the end of the day, I had myself blindfolded and a colleague spoon-fed me the fish. I could taste a difference, but selecting which I preferred was no slam-dunk. The "no preference" vote on the smoked salmon came from me.

From the leftovers, I made a salmon salad spread, one dip of Alaskan, one dip of Atlantic. I've been serving them to folks for the past several days, not saying which is which.

They like both.

•••

Calories per gram were identical on the labels, 9 from fat, 4 from protein and 4 from carbohydrates. That confused me since the same labels indicated that both salmon contained 0 grams of carbs. So where did the carb calories come from?

Another anomaly worth noting: Both packages were clearly labeled on the front as "boneless," but on the back of each package I found "Warning: May contain bones."

They did.

• Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.


By Mike Dunham
mdunham@adn.com