This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
Smoked salmon comes in all shapes and sizes. You’ve got your Basics range odds and ends, your standard mid-range fare, the more expensive stuff that’s disturbingly orange for a product that, famously, is usually very pink.
What I’m trying to say is that there are plenty of options, all at relatively affordable prices. Seems like a no-brainer. But Italian salmon expert Claudio Cerati of Upstream Salmons says there are a few key things to look out for while picking your fish.
Cerati knows what he’s talking about. For 12 years, he refined a smoked salmon recipe that he would give to friends as a Christmas present. “Then they convinced me that I should start producing it commercially,” he says.
To make quality smoked salmon like Cerati, there are three main stages. First, the fish is divided into fillet, side, belly, rump and escalope – and the heart of the fillet is the most valuable part. A dry rub of salt and then sugar is applied, then rinsed off. The rub is a key part of the recipe, and you can add different spices to the salt if you wish.
After the salmon is rinsed, it’s time for the all-important smoking. “We stretch the fish out and smoke it for two hours with small bursts of smoke, using beech wood from the Parma Apennines,” says Cerati.
Most supermarket salmon isn’t made like this. The mid-range supermarket salmon might be a decent fillet that’s had a salt rub and been smoked over lesser-quality wood for a few hours. But the cheaper supermarket salmon is often smoked more aggressively in high temperature ovens (to smoke more fish in shorter time periods), or even has the smoky flavour added chemically before packaging.
Decades of changes to fishing and production processes have meant smoked salmon is longer quite as much of a luxury product as it once was.
In the 1970s, “aquaculture” took hold in Norway and spread around the world, marking a shift from salmon being caught in the wild to the fish being farmed en masse in seawater cages. Today, according to a report by the world’s leading salmon farmers, Mowi, 72 percent of the world’s salmon harvest is farmed. In most cases, chemical agents and antibiotics are used to rear them, with disastrous consequences for marine pollution levels. There are also sustainable salmon farms, but they’re few and far between.
So, Cerati’s key piece of advice is to look at where your salmon has come from. “Good salmon comes from two places – either it is caught wild using sustainable fishing practices, or it is reared by a breeder who really knows fish,” says Cerati. “There’s a lot of criticism of breeders, but there are intensive forms of rearing and less intensive forms of rearing. The best places are Denmark, Norway, Scotland and Ireland. If the salmon packaging says it comes from Eastern Europe (such as Lithuania) or from the Pacific, you should know that most of the breeding there is quite intense.”
The next thing to do is read the ingredients. “It’s easy to know whether it’s a good salmon from the ingredients. It has to be salmon, salt and sugar, and nothing else,” he says. “You can also be misled if you read smoke, natural smoke or wood smoke in the ingredients. Smoking is part of the preparation process, it’s not an ingredient.”
If smoke is written in the ingredients, it usually means chemical substances have been added afterwards to imitate a smoked flavour. Last year, the New York Times reported that cheap smoking techniques could be linked to cancer, so it’s best to avoid.
But maybe you can’t be bothered to check the origin of your fish, read the ingredients or go online and source it from a great supplier. Maybe you just want some super quick foolproof advice to help you on your next dash to the shops. Here it is: good salmon usually costs a lot and comes in nice packaging. It’s just that simple.