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Smoked Salmon

Published May 2015

How we tested

We love a good bagel with cream cheese and all the fixings—particularly tender slices of lightly smoked salmon (not to be confused with lox or gravlax, which are cured but not smoked). We gathered up five top-selling, widely available products labeled either smoked salmon or nova lox, both of which these days refer to salmon that has been salt-cured to remove moisture and add flavor and then rinsed and smoked at a low temperature (aka cold-smoked).

Plain and on our New York Bagels, products that struck a balance between smoke and fresh salmon flavor rated highest. Tasters praised smoked salmon that tasted “clean,” with a “pleasant,” “subtle smoke” flavor, while they were less enthusiastic about products that were either bland or came on too strong, with “fishy” or “campfire” flavors. Variety didn’t matter; most of the samples in our lineup were farm-raised Atlantic salmon, and the one wild sockeye salmon landed in the middle of the rankings. The type of wood wasn’t a factor either. Our top product is smoked with oak, but so are products at the middle and bottom of our lineup. And although the sample with the most fat per serving ranked highest, fat content didn’t track with our preferences.

Flavoring, or lack thereof, added during the dry-brining process was more important. When we contacted manufacturers directly, we learned that all the products in our lineup were cured with salt and sometimes a sweetener and additional spices. Only two products—including our winner—used just salt. Thickness and texture also played a larger part. Tasters found thinner slices more tender and easier to bite through than thicker slabs, which was a particularly important trait when biting into a bagel since the salmon can tug off if it’s not tender enough. Our favorite’s thin, buttery slices were 1.60 millimeters thick, the thinnest in the lineup, while the lowest-scoring product was nearly 3 millimeters thick. We also liked firm fish and gave a thumbs-down to products that were “mushy” or “mealy.”

Our opinions didn’t change much when the salmon was cooked. When we pitted our top choice against the bottom-ranked product in asparagus omelets, the low-ranked fish was panned for being rubbery and bland, while our winner remained “firm and flaky” and “salmony but not fishy.”

Our favorite was the only product we tasted that follows the Scottish tradition of trimming off the pellicle, the smokier, drier, browned surface that forms as salmon is cured and smoked. This trimming, while costly for the manufacturer, created a texture that was uniformly “silky” and “buttery” and a flavor with a more subtle smokiness. Each thin slice of our favorite was intact (slices were separated by pieces of plastic), flavorful, and remarkably tender.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*