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Alaska Copper River kings: If salmon fat equals taste, why aren't flabby farmed salmon tops?

Craig Medred
Chef Patrick Hoogerhyde receives the first Copper River salmon of the season at the Bridge restaurant in Anchorage on May 18, 2012. The restaurant opens for the season tonight and Salmon will be on the menu.
Loren Holmes photo
Chef Patrick Hoogerhyde discusses his plans for the first Copper River salmon of the season at the Bridge restaurant in Anchorage on May 18, 2012. The restaurant opens for the season tonight and Salmon will be on the menu.
Loren Holmes photo
Chef Patrick Hoogerhyde discusses his plans for the first Copper River salmon of the season at the Bridge restaurant in Anchorage on May 18, 2012. The restaurant opens for the season tonight and Salmon will be on the menu.
Loren Holmes photo
Chef Al Levinsohn smells the first Copper River salmon of the season at the Bridge restaurant in Anchorage on May 18, 2012. The restaurant opens for the season tonight and Salmon will be on the menu.
Loren Holmes photo
The first Copper River salmon lands in Seattle on May 18, 2012.
Courtesy Alaska Airlines
Chef Patrick Hoogerhyde receives the first Copper River salmon of the season at the Bridge restaurant in Anchorage on May 18, 2012. The restaurant opens for the season tonight and Salmon will be on the menu.
Loren Holmes photo

Alaska's most over-hyped salmon hit the market this week. Seattle television stations played it up as if the royals had a baby.

"First Alaska Copper River salmon arrive in Seattle"!

Never mind that these fish come in second to farmed salmon in some blind taste tests, scary though that thought is to some of the foodies involved. Here is how someone at DallasFood.org reacted:

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

Oh well, even one of those who helped start the Copper River salmon craze now consider the fish second rate.

"Jon Rowley, the mastermind behind the Alaskan Copper River King Salmon boom, has discovered a new source for fantastically delicious Alaskan king salmon, the Yukon River,'' a Seattle Weekly writer wrote five years ago. "In a side-by-side taste test, both fish were amazingly good, but the Yukon salmon (provided by Kwik'Pak Fisheries) was marbled like a rich steak, with the delicate tenderness of sushi, and possessed a meltingly great mouth feel. These fish enter the Yukon from the icy waters of the Bering Sea, with 2,000 miles to go before they reach their spawning grounds. With such a long trip ahead of them, these are the oiliest (read: tastiest) type of salmon.''

Oil or salmon hardbodies?

Ah yes, it's all about that oil. The oil makes the flavor is the claim often made, although some fishmonger from Cordova was on TV -- on the news, no less -- in Anchorage the other day proclaiming that it was the hard bodies of the Copper River fish that made them so flavorful. These fish have to, you know, to fight their way a couple hundred miles upstream against a strong current, he said, and to get ready for that they had to bulk up like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Well, hang onto your anabolic steroids. If the red salmon of the Copper are the Schwarzeneggers of the salmon world, what the hell are the Yukon kings that go to Canada, a distance two or three times as far as any Copper River fish travels, all the while fighting a current that can approached 10 mph. These fish must duck into a phone booth on the Yukon Delta and reemerge as Super Salmon before starting their run upstream.

But this idea that taste is related to toughness is something new, because in the past taste has always been tied to fat content. That’s why it is said, or why some believe, that king salmon taste better than red salmon, and red salmon taste better than silver salmon, and silver salmon taste better than chum salmon, and they all taste better than pink salmon. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has the numbers. They measured them in "lipids,'' ie. fat:

• King salmon, 11.7 grams per 100 grams;

• Red salmon, 8.6;

• Silver salmon, 5.6;

• Chum salmon, 3.7;

• Lowly pink salmon at 3.5.

The red salmon look pretty good by that measure until, of course, you put them up against a damn farmed salmon, which comes in with a lipid score of 10.8. That’s led to some trying to flip the whole fat thing on its head.

"Now some fat is a good thing; just as in beef, fat means flavor in salmon,'' writes California cook book author Jay Harlow, "and a lot of the most prized wild salmon, like Alaska's Copper River and Yukon River kings, are favored precisely because they are fatter than others in preparation for a longer upstream migration. In the case of farmed salmon, however, one can have too much of a good thing. While I generally like the flavor, for my money these fish taste and feel too fatty."

Hmmmm. How does that work?

A king salmon at 11.7 grams of fat and a red salmon at 8.6 grams of fat taste just great, but a farmed salmon at 10.8 grams of fat is too fatty?

All righty then.

Taste or marketing

What we've got here is not a taste game. What we've got here is a marketing game. Fishermen in Cordova have played it masterfully. They are to be praised. It is only a shame other Alaska fishermen aren’t as adept and haven’t gotten together collectively to try to find a way to make something special of their catch, though a few are making small inroads. Alaska salmon are a purer product. The concentrations of potential carcinogens are generally lower in all wild fish than in farmed fish.

And yes, Copper River red salmon taste good, as do most salmon. I like Copper River salmon. I have friends who like them even more. Some say they're way better than, say, Kenai River reds.

But there's a problem there.

In blind-tasting at our house, even people who profess their love for the Copper River fish have regularly picked the Kenai River fish as tastier. Now granted, it might just be a strange coincidence based on the quality of the tasters. We have some friends who can't tell a nouveau Beaujolais from a really good Oregon pinot noir. Wine's wine, you know.

Well, not quite. But salmon really is salmon.  How it is handled after it’s caught and how it is prepared are both more important to its taste than where it came from. But if the myth of Copper River salmon adds to someone's dining experience, and if they can afford the over-inflated prices, what harm is done by a little hype?

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com