Samantha Rea

How to spot good quality smoked salmon

How to spot good quality smoked salmon
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“Try smoked salmon without the lemon – you might just like it!” says Lance Forman, the fourth generation owner of family salmon smoking business H. Forman & Son. Overlooking the Olympic Stadium, Forman’s smokehouse (cum-deli-cum-restaurant-cum-shiny-disco-palace) is the fishtastic Trump Tower of the East End.

“In a restaurant,” continues Forman, “the plate arrives, and people often add salt to their food before they’ve tasted it. It’s the same with smoked salmon – people automatically squeeze lemon over it. But actually, that’s a habit that has sprung from eating poor quality smoked salmon which can be quite slimy. The acid in the lemon helps to cut through the sliminess – but good quality smoked salmon doesn’t need it.”

Dispelling the lemon myth once and for all, Forman says: “It’s personal preference, so if you like lemon, that’s fine – but never squeeze lemon anywhere near wild smoked salmon because it’s so lean, it would literally burn the flesh.”

Stridently shattering my misconceptions, Forman declares that smoked salmon shouldn’t even taste smoky. “Salmon is smoked to preserve it – not to flavour it,” says Forman, explaining that the subtle flavour of the salmon shouldn’t be overpowered, and warning that an overly smoky flavour could be a sign that the salmon has been flavoured artificially.

Just as I’m starting to fear that Forman’s next revelation will involve putting back the bubbly, he assures me that smoked salmon and Champagne go together like strawberries and cream. “The oily texture and flavour of smoked salmon needs a dry, crisp white wine to cut through it, and Champagne works beautifully!” he declares, adding that English sparkling wine such as Balfour Brut is also: “Spectacular!”

So how can we make sure we’re buying the good stuff? Forman gives me his fail-safe guide:

Do be afraid of the dark

If there’s a dark brown edge on every slice, that’s not a great sign. It means it’s a cheaper smoked salmon because they haven’t properly trimmed it. There shouldn’t be any dark brown meat either – that’s the muscle and it should never be in a packet of smoked salmon because it goes off quickly, and it pulls the rest of the salmon off with it.

Stick to Scottish

Make sure it’s Scottish salmon. If it says it’s “Scottish smoked salmon” it could be Norwegian salmon, that’s been smoked in Scotland. Norwegian salmon is often used because it’s cheaper than Scottish salmon, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with it – but Scottish salmon will be three or four days fresher, so look out for “Smoked Scottish salmon” on the label.

Shine like a… salmon

Salmon is an oily fish, but it shouldn’t be dripping in moisture. The oil should be retained within the texture of the flesh, not sitting on the outside of the fish. Often that liquid is there because the fish hasn’t been properly cured (ie dried out) and this can be a sign that the producer is trying to save money by selling water for the price of salmon. The result? Slimy salmon.

Don’t be dense

The salmon should look quite translucent. If it’s very dense in colour, it probably means it’s been frozen, and also that it hasn’t been cured properly, so the water that turned into ice when it was frozen, breaks down the flesh of the salmon when it’s defrosted, and you end up with an unpleasant, mushy texture.

On the shelf

If a product has a three or four week shelf life, it means they’ve put far too much salt and sugar in it to preserve it. There should never be any sugar in smoked salmon because it doesn’t need it, so if you look at the ingredients, and you see sugar, that’s a bad sign.

Cost cutting

If it’s too cheap, it can only mean they’re using poor quality ingredients, or it’s not being cured and smoked in the traditional way. If it’s expensive, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good – but if it’s cheap, it can’t be. In a competitive world, it’s unlikely that you’re being ripped off, so price is often a good guide for quality.

Between the lines

If you see white lines on the smoked salmon, this is nothing to do with the quality – it just means it’s been sliced from the fattier part of the fish. Some people prefer the lean, dry slices from the top of the salmon, and other people prefer the fattier bits near the skin – it’s just personal preference, like choosing breast or thigh when you’re carving chicken. These long slices are the traditional way of slicing salmon, but you can also get a “D cut” which gives you the different flavours going through each slice, from lean to fatty.

Samantha Rea can be found tweeting here