Supermarket smoked salmon: the best and worst – taste test

Smoked salmon

If you’re serving salmon this Christmas, should you play it safe with traditional oak-smoked or take a gamble on maple syrup, seaweed or even whisky and ‘gold’ varieties? We put this year’s supermarket offerings to the test

Be it in a roulade, with blinis, partnering scrambled eggs or as a pâté, it is almost guaranteed that at some point this Christmas, you will eat smoked salmon. It is as traditional as turkey. Sadly, given the exorbitant cost of high-quality, traditionally smoked wild salmon (£20-£35 for 200g; enough to feed three or maybe four people as a starter), for the majority of us, that will mean eating farmed and industrially smoked salmon. It is a production process with significant ecological drawbacks that, in pure flavour terms, is prey to damaging shortcuts. But do any supermarket own-brands buck the trend? Which should you treat yourself to this Christmas?

Sainsbury’s, Taste the Difference oak-smoked Scottish salmon, 120g, £3.50

“Previously frozen and defrosted without affecting the quality of the product,” declares the label, a claim hard to square with the cellular damage implicit in all freezing, and this salmon’s slippery and plasticised, jellified texture. The mouthfeel is more Haribo than fish protein. Sourced from “responsible” Scottish farms (whatever that means) and smoked over oak and whisky cask shavings, its flavour is more elegantly restrained than some but, fundamentally, it is all charred embers. The cure’s sweetness, much less the salmon’s flavour, are distant backnotes. A good pâté ingredient. 5/10

M&S, whisky gold smoked Scottish salmon, 200g, £9

It is hard to take this salmon seriously. Not only is the “Lochmuir™” referenced on the label not a place (it is a brand name invented by M&S), but this salmon has been dusted with ludicrously bling “gold lustre” – presumably the E171 and E172 colourings listed in the ingredients, as actual gold is not. That said, these delicate slices have a pleasant briny tang, and marinating the salmon in 12-year-old Old Pulteney single malt gives its otherwise unsophisticated oaky flavour an interesting twist. With brown bread, it would make an effective starter. 6/10

Tesco, Finest Scottish smoked salmon, 100g, £4

Now, we all like a bit of omega-3 in our diets and, for a variety of reasons, most mainstream smoked salmon has a certain sweaty, oily sheen, unlike the drier, meatier artisan salmons. This, however, is ridiculous: there is such a discernible coating of oil on the surface, you can run your finger through it. Further, a grossly OTT smoke makes it taste as though it has been rescued from a house fire rather than treated using “time-honoured methods”. It is thuggishly sweet and boorishly smoky. A Christmas present for the cat? 2/10

Morrison’s, M Signature traditionally smoked black pepper salmon, 120g, £3

Another salmon with a soft, jellyish texture, and another that ‘fesses up to being defrosted at some stage in its production. That may be a coincidence. It may not. Like the Tesco one, it has undergone an unforgiving smoke, its flavour heavily charred and oaky, acrid almost, but here the edges have been dusted with black pepper, too. At first it tastes like wet grit, but as you chew, the pepper’s heat grows and grows. Are you holding a retro, 1980s-themed Christmas this year? Then buy in bulk. 2/10

Ocado, Exclusive Scottish smoked salmon, 300g, £16

Ocado’s website announces: “This Exclusive Smoked Salmon is only ever supplied fresh from the Smokery which gives its exclusivity.” Got that? No, me neither. Yet this initially tastes promising. Good smoked salmon should taste not just of the cure and the smoke, but of the salmon itself, and this does. The problem is that said cure/smoke has given it an overall flavour that is just plain weird. It is full of sourly fruity, astringent, medicinal notes that recall the jangling, spiky flavours of blue cheese. Want to cause an argument this Christmas? Buy this opinion-splitter. 4/10

Lidl, Deluxe oak and applewood Scottish smoked salmon, 100g, £2.29

Like many of these samples, this uses fish from RSPCA Assured farms. Ensuring fish are “healthier and less stressed” should, theoretically, produce a better product, and this salmon has a meatier texture, a certain creamy sweetness and is less oily than some. However, remember that the RSPCA’s remit is animal welfare, not the wider eco concerns about farmed salmon, much less flavour. Ultimately, this tastes like being shoved facedown into a campfire’s ashes. Use it in a Boxing Day fish pie but, on its own, it is too salty, too smoky, too galumphing. 4.5/10

Asda, Extra Special maple-smoked salmon, 120g, £2.80

Christmas is all about family. And, arguably, this smoked salmon will bring the generations together. “Infused” with maple syrup (5% of the total ingredients), kids will love its childish sweetness. Meanwhile, anyone with problematic dentures will appreciate its mushy, toothless consistency. The only issue is everyone else. They may object to the hugely bullying smoke, which, in a similar way to the Ocado salmon, has allied with the cure to create a mixture of fruity and harsh, sharply discordant flavours. This is the culinary equivalent of tinfoil on fillings. 1/10

Aldi, Scottish dry-cured honey and Mara seaweed smoked salmon, 100g, £2.49

This starts badly. Even in this flabby company, the salmon’s texture is gluey and gummy. It then plateaus into bored disappointment. Sprinkling the salmon with seaweed makes some sense (it tastes like a supermarket sushi maki roll), but it is unclear how that is intended to complement another strong smoke with all the finesse of a hobnail boot stamping out a brushfire. The honey, thankfully, is a restrained element, but those three main flavours are not satisfactorily reconciled. Do you like novelty over pleasure? Buy this. 3/10

WINNER: Waitrose, Christmas spice Scottish smoked salmon, 100g, £3.99

Wow. This smells disconcertingly of mince pies and Christmas cake. Which sounds disgusting, right? Yet many of these spices and seasonings (ginger, orange, lemon, cloves etc) are common in global fish cookery, particularly in Asia, and, thanks to its discreet smoke and sweet cure, those interesting flavours pop like camera flashes. The utility of this curveball is moot, despite its seasonal, beetroot-red colouring. You are unlikely to rustle up a zingy east Asian salad on Christmas Day. But the suggested serve with blinis and creme fraiche could work. A wholly unexpected winner. 6.5/10

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Tony Naylor, for The Guardian on Wednesday 16th December 2015 13.35 Europe/London

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