Published July 1, 2011. From Cook's Illustrated.
Canned tuna has never been high-class fare, but nowadays some manufacturers are promising top-quality fish and processing methods that preserve fresh flavor. Have the tides turned?
Canned tuna tastes nothing like fresh fish, but according to American sales figures that’s just fine. Reeling in $1.1 billion a year in industry sales, it’s the country’s most popular seafood after shrimp and has been since the early 20th century, when it gained recognition as a low-cost, pantry-ready source of protein. Apparently, nobody minds that it doesn’t taste like fresh tuna. In fact, the appeal of the canned stuff is that, as one well-known brand proclaims on its label, its flavor is as mild as chicken.
With such high demand for inexpensive tuna, the well-known “big three”canned tuna companies have tweaked their methods to get the highest rate of “recovery”—the yield of flesh from the fish—at the lowest cost. In some cases, the results bear a smaller resemblance to fish than ever before. At the same time, tuna has gone upscale. In addition to chunk light and solid white, oil- and water-packed, pouch and can, and regular and low-sodium, some brands now offer premium versions with gourmet-sounding names like “select” grade and “prime fillet.” A few new companies have even entered the game, claiming to bring not only higher-quality fish but also the advantages of better processing methods (including environmentally friendly fishing practices) to the game.
Wondering if these new products were really any better, we trawled the tuna aisle and returned with eight cans of solid white albacore tuna, most packed in water—our preferred style from a 2006 tasting. These included two new brands, two “gourmet” lines from the “big three,” and four regular samples that we grew up eating. (Just to see if it was worth its staggering price tag and the inconvenience of mail-ordering, we also sampled the crème de la crème of tinned fish—ventresca tuna packed in oil—in a separate tasting.) Our questions: Would any of the new versions really taste more like fresh tuna? And given that the most common preparation is to mix it with mayonnaise and pickles for tuna salad, would we even care?
A Double-Edged Sword
As it turned out, the answer was “yes” in both cases. The tuna salad test proved that even after the fish was loaded up with condiments, differences among the samples were still plenty clear—and that what we look for in a can of tuna has come a long way. While several of the lower-ranking sandwich fillings were so wet and spongy that they elicited comparisons to cat food, the two salads we liked best boasted not only heartier, more substantial chunks of fish, but richer, more flavorful meat that—as one taster noted in astonishment—“actually tastes like tuna.” But what exactly accounted for the differences? For starters, those alternative processing methods touted by the new-school tuna companies.
First, a little information about how most tuna gets from the ocean into a can. The majority of large-scale manufacturers haul in flash-frozen fish from the boats, thaw it, inspect it, and then cook it twice—once before canning it and again after sealing it. The first heating maximizes the amount of meat that can be pulled off the fish. Raw fish clings tightly to the skin and bones and must be hand-packed because it clogs machinery. Cooked fish separates more easily from the carcass, allowing manufacturers to not only recover every scrap of meat, but also to machine-pack it quickly and cheaply. The second heating takes place after canning, as a precaution against harmful bacteria. The upshot: a faster process with a higher yield and, in turn, lower prices for the consumer.
The problem is that while the double-cook method cuts down on the cost of the product, it also cheapens the quality. Though all of the samples made acceptable tuna salad, our least favorites (which included the conventional samples from all three of the major brands) had lost so much of their natural flavor, moisture, and meaty bite that some tasters couldn’t even tell they were eating fish. Mayonnaise turned the “teeny shreds” in one can to a “wet paste.” One taster likened another “squishy,” “loose” tuna salad to fishy “dip.”
The effects of double-cooking became even more apparent when we compared the big-brand tunas to samples from two industry newcomers. Both of these smaller companies pack raw fish into the cans by hand and cook the meat only once, and the results had the fresher flavor and firmer, heartier texture to prove it.
Swimming in Liquid
The way the fish was processed accounted for some of the difference between these two brands and the rest of the lineup, but we discovered another likely factor. When we pulled back the lids, we noticed that most cans contained a fair bit of liquid that had to be drained off, while the industry newcomers’ cans contained almost no liquid. The ingredient labels confirmed our observation: Every manufacturer except those two packed their fish in either water or a combination of water and vegetable broth. Why? Three reasons.
First, producers use the double-cook method to add moisture back to the precooked (and drier) fish. Second, supplementing the water with vegetable broth is a trick used by all three of the bottom-ranking big-brand tuna companies to enhance their products’ woefully bland flavor—although in most cases we found that it only made the tuna taste salty. The premium versions of two brands, packed in just water, fared slightly better with tasters, but we found that no matter what kind of liquid was in the can, the results weren’t as flavorful as those preparations that start with raw tuna and let it cook in its own juices. The third reason is obvious: It’s a cost-cutting measure. The more liquid that’s in the can, the less room there is for the fish.
That last point prompted us to do one more test: We drained each can and weighed both the fish and the liquid, to see what your money buys. While our top-rated tunas cost more for the same size can than the rest of the lineup, you get more meat per can—up to an additional half-ounce more. But above all, we think the fresher flavor and heartier texture make these brands worth a few extra pennies for our next tuna sandwich.