Sponsored product notice: The quality farmed salmon sampled and used for the purpose of this post was kindly donated by Vega Salmon. While Vega Salmon have neither paid for nor exercised editorial control over this article and views and opinions are entirely my own, Danish law requires this post be marked as an AD.
Smoked Salmon Pizza? What is this sorcery? Well, looking back, I realized we have very few fish or seafood recipes on the blog. It’s not that I don’t like fish, on the contrary, I’ve grown to love fish and seafood. For whatever reason, though, fish often takes a back seat to so many of my other crazy ideas.
I thought we should amend that in a way that everybody can get behind – by whipping out a rock ‘n’ roll expression of a type of fish that everybody (alright, almost everybody!) can get behind: smoked salmon!
Now that I have your attention at the mention of pizza, though, I wanted to take the opportunity to talk about a few issues of great importance: Salmon is not just salmon, you see, and the captains of industry behind the world’s most popularly consumed fish are not always the grandest of characters.
So, before we get ahead of ourselves, I want to address a few things about conventional salmon production, a few about quality salmon production and – perhaps most importantly – why taking a stance on salmon production matters and how we identify, procure and prepare quality salmon. If you’re not in the mood for a moral lesson, you can skip right ahead to the awesome smoked salmon pizza recipe by clicking right here.
The great controversy: On farmed salmon and ethics
Let me ask you this: Who here loves salmon? I love salmon, you love salmon, most people who usually hate fish love salmon. To put it bluntly: we all LOVE salmon! Global demand for salmon is huge and salmon has become big business. Unfortunately, as far as foodstuffs, big business usually brings noticeable slumps in quality and – in this case – a fair amount of controversy.
At the heart of this controversy, we find the dreaded salmon farms: highly debated in the media and accused – not without reason – of overcrowding salmon pods, hurting the environment and mistreating their salmon. Ruthlessly, these salmon farms pump out salmon full of unnecessary GMOs, antibiotics, fake coloring and things that are worse – saturating the market with an albeit cheaper, but also inferior product with an ever-present aftertaste of animal cruelty.
So, assuming we want no part in this business, how does one procure quality salmon? What are we, the conscious and enlightened consumers, to do? Wild salmon seems the obvious choice! To receive an untampered, natural product, we must buy wild, natural salmon – and I, for one, usually do! But just like that, another question arises: how do we secure consistent, superior taste and quality in an all-natural product? Are there, perhaps, other valid alternatives in terms of quality salmon?
Smoked salmon from Vega Salmon’s Purity Line – Photo credit: Malou Rotvel Pagh, Klidmoster.dk
Well, such was the idea pitched to me by local Kolding-based salmon distributor Vega Salmon. – “We try to do better,” they assured me, “and we would love to meet up, let you have a look at our Purity Line of salmon and show you that there can be an ethical, sustainable side to salmon farming and a huge increase in quality to be reaped from doing things in an ethical and regulated manner.
Needless to say, I was torn. How could I, a proponent of animal welfare, a person trusted for my opinions on quality and natural production processes back a farmed salmon alternative? A concept which by its very name is frowned upon by millions around the world? The exploration of such a scheme, on the grand stage that is the internet, would surely get me stoned?
On the other hand, the meeting was set up by a trust-worthy source, a good friend of strong moral fiber that I saw no reason for mistrusting. Maybe, I thought, the very concept of farmed salmon had been ruined by conscienceless producers and a general tendency towards reaping fast profits. If there are producers out there willing to oppose this trend and in doing so create a better product, should their voices not be heard? In the end, I took the meeting. And you know what? Personal bias aside, I’m glad I did.
Not only was I, during the course of the two hours we spoke, served smoked salmon that, if served blind, I could have easily mistaken for wild salmon: firm, lean, flavorful and perfectly structured. I was also treated to an honest discussion about the problems of the salmon farming business and some of the measures conscious producers are taking to address and minimize these issues.
I write these lines knowing fully well that this is a highly controversial subject. This is neither an attempt to provoke nor to shift opinions. You’ll find no dictated statements, affiliate links or paid endorsements, below, merely an unbiased attempt of answering the question: can salmon be farmed ethically and sustainably? Well, can it? Let’s have a look at some of the obvious problems and challenges of salmon farming and what some producers are doing to address them.
Farmed salmon issues: Space of salmon pods
One major complaint about your typical salmon farming operation is that farmed salmon are forced to live their lives in (relatively) small, confined sea-based enclosures known as pods. Tightly crowded salmon pods lead to a number of problems including but not limited to fattier fish with larger deposits of chemicals and heavy metals, a higher risk of disease amongst the salmon, and possible contamination of the seabed and surrounding ocean from excess feed, chemicals, antibiotics and, well, salmon excrements.
Seeing as salmon have been diagnosed with a general love of moving about, even ethical producers of farmed salmon have not been able to eliminate the need for pods. They have, however, set new standards for confinement, allowing more space for each fish within pods. Self-imposed standards on the Vega Salmon Purity Line Salmon, for example, dictates a density of no more than 20 kilos of salmon per square meter of space as opposed to industry standards of 25 kilos of salmon per square meter.
Salmon can be ethical and some people do care! Here we see an ethical signature salmon roll from Letz Sushi, a major Danish sishi chain specializing in serving sustainable and ethical fish.
Somewhat curiously, this is done not so much for the sake of the salmon as for the sake of the environment. Salmon like other fish and animals suffer from flock mentality and naturally stick closely together in schools. What this means, essentially, is that while the salmon, at any given time, occupy only some 2% of their enclosure on account of actually preferring to stick together, the extra space allows the schools to move around more effortlessly and freely.
It is by no means a perfect alternative to absolute freedom, but it’s a preferable alternative to being deadlocked in an impossibly small space. It makes for leaner, healthier salmon, but, more importantly, it makes for less pollution of the surrounding environment as a larger body of water makes for more circulation and it helps in combatting one other major atrocity of the salmon farming business:
Farmed salmon issues: Ethical combating of disease and pests
One major disadvantage to keeping a large amount of fish confined in close proximity is an increased risk of disease, infections or pests like salmon lice. Sadly, for many conventional salmon farmers, disease and pests are a calculated risk regulated through intense, sometimes preemptive treatments with chemicals, antibiotics or calculated, reckless disposing of diseased salmon. Such careless approaches to production obviously leaves quite the strain on not only the fish, but also on the consumers of said fish and the oceans we share with our fishy friends.
Luckily, rather than treatment, quality-conscious producers focus instead on disease prevention and control through natural means, leading to fewer contaminations and a much smaller environmental impact on our oceans, the marine food chain and, eventually, us humans. As a matter of fact, certified chemical and antibiotic-free production is a key point for many quality-conscious producers. Purity Line salmon, for example, is guaranteed free of not only antibiotics and synthetic chemicals, but, better yet, even completely free of bacteria and pests of any kind:
Vega salmon has a zero-tolerance policy for not only the feared listeria bacteria, that have made many a salmon lover incredibly sick, but also much more common pests like the dreaded salmon louse which is exceptionally prone to attacking larger salmon farming operations. While salmon lice attacks are often effectively cured through chemical or medicinal treatment, lasers or more experimental treatments like cleaner fish and fresh-water flushing, their mere presence and removal still irritate the fish and everything within reason is done to prevent their showing up. Should an outbreak occur, any fish showing sign of infestation are degraded to a lower quality level before being humanely relieved of their burden.
In other words, if you buy a top farmed product from a trustworthy producer, you’re more likely to receive a disease, antibiotics and stress-free product which, in the end, translates to better and healthier eats.
Farmed salmon issues: Traceability and certification
As we’ve touched upon above, space requirements, humane treatment, antibiotics control, non-GMO farming and other buzzwords raise a number of demands for salmon farmers. But how then, you may wonder, can we be sure that such demands are met? Well, quite simply: through high certification standards and frequent audits:
Quality salmon distributors usually employ a small network of selected, trusted hatchers and farmers all of which are subject to a certain moral codex and are under regular scrutiny to ensure that they adhere to both industry standards and any custom subset of standards the producers may have imposed on their product.
Mmmm… Happy salmon!
And that is, by no means, an easy operation. The entire process from hatchling to slaughtered produce may take upwards of two years and involve a number of steps from hatching over fattening, growing and breeding to the inevitable slow and humane slaughter followed by thoughtful and careful processing, packaging and shipping of the product to the end consumer.
All stages of the process are of huge importance to the quality and integrity of the final product and as a result, serious breeders employ strict quality control and traceability throughout every inch of the process from the industry standard MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) and ASC (Aquaculture Stewardship Council) certifications to much stricter proprietary standards such as the Salmon Passport.
Such careful certification effectively allows the tracking of a single fish from hatchling to the end consumer’s table and serves as your guarantee of eating a more environmentally conscious, healthy and sustainable product, so for the sake of yourself and your loved ones, read up on your certification standards and look for them when shopping, they’re usually proudly displayed on the packaging and your guarantee for a superior, healthier product.
What to choose: Wild vs. farmed salmon
As we can tell, certain producers are doing a lot to not only amend for bad practices pioneered by their peers, but also to help clean up the mess of years of irresponsible behavior. Am I suggesting we should look to farmed salmon as an alternative to wild salmon? Dare I suggest it? No! How could I tell *you* what to do under such circumstances? I mean, let’s not kid ourselves here: there is strong and undeniable evidence suggesting that large scale salmon farming operations have negative impact on the environment and the salmon population. Research also suggests that farmed salmon has a higher fat content and a different nutritional content than farmed salmon. That being said, though, there are companies out there working sustainably to improve the lives and quality of farmed salmon all while reducing the environmental impact of salmon farming. And these companies, by no means, deserve comparison to conventional salmon farmers.
Farmed salmon usually looks great, but does it taste great and feel great, too? That is the question!
The choice to ingest farmed salmon becomes a personal and highly controversial one, but I remain under the assumption that if you are going to consume farmed salmon, you should stay as far away as possible from conventional, farmed salmon and consume instead a certified ethical, sustainable and organic alternative produced with respect for the salmon and of the seas that gave them to us. In that aspect, brands like Purity Lline salmon from Vega Salmon is, quite honestly, one of the best alternatives I’ve come across and I applaud them for their work to change the face and the ethics of the salmon industry.
Conditions are not yet perfect but they’re a far cry from where they have been and with a company motto of “We try to do better”, there is hope for a brighter future. A future where quality, healthiness and ethics speak louder than price and we, the consumers, start formulating our demands around these issues rather than simply the issue of price!
What to look for when shopping quality salmon?
Are you ready to make some demands? Good! Here are a few things to look for when shopping quality salmon, be it wild salmon or farmed salmon.
Color isn’t everything – Say no to dye-fed salmon
We all know that the perfect salmon sports an attractive, deep, red color, right? Well, no! Or well, not necessarily, I should say. Consumers have come to expect salmon having a deep reddish hue and while that may be a sign of quality, it may just as well be a sign of a breeder who read the book on consumer behavior and gave his fish a feed laced with more or less natural coloring agents.
See the difference in color here? The top layer is from smoke, the color below is the natural color of a happy salmon!
For this very reason, you will often see wild salmon clock in at a paler pinkish hue than their farmed counterparts, for the simple reason that they have not had access to a staple diet of synthesized feeds. The paler color does not necessarily equal inferior quality or flavor, it’s simply the sign of a more natural product!
That’s not to say that you can’t breed or catch naturally red salmon, it just means that in their case the color comes from swimming around and doing the merry little things that salmon do, not from human intervention. So, do yourself a favor when shopping salmon, instead of looking for bright red salmon, look first and foremost for uniformly colored salmon without brownish spots or blemishes. And while you’re at it, ask your fish monger or carefully examine the packaging when purchasing salmon at a supermarket – an all-natural product will usually proudly be labeled as such and a natural/ product beats an artificially tampered product in terms of taste and quality any day. Period.
Fat Content: Superior salmon has a lower fat content
Here’s a slightly surprising albeit strangely obvious fact that I picked up talking to my new friends at Vega Salmon: Did you know that the fat content of salmon changes throughout the season? In an odd sort of way, it all makes sense. As temperatures drops through winter, salmon become more active – they basically swim around to keep warm, burning off more of their feed. As the warmer weather of spring and summer rolls around, less exercise is needed and our friend Mr. Salmon starts building fat deposits from excess feed. Now, here’s the kicker in all of this: a large percentage of fat is not necessarily desirable when it comes to salmon: In fact, a leaner piece of salmon offers superior taste, structure and better mouthfeel for the simple reason that the muscles have been doing more work and as with most other animals, the more exercised the muscles, the better their flavor.
Now, what this essentially means is that salmon, simplified speaking, often tastes noticeably superior in winter months when oceans are colder. Unfortunately, that also means that quality-conscious suppliers have quite a hard time sourcing consistent quality throughout the year and may have to adjust their methods accordingly lest they risk a considerable seasonal plunge in quality.
How do we consumers avoid falling subject to such a plunge? Well, quite obviously, we could stick to eating salmon only in winter months, but is summer life without salmon worth living? Is it, I beg of you? Ahem, a less self-torturous approach would probably be to choose a quality supplier who knows a thing or two about sourcing and processing of salmon.
The best thing about salmon that’s not too fatty? You get to drench it in plenty of fatty sauces – like this beauty from one of my favorite haunts, Den Blå Café in Kolding.
The keyword is traceability here: You’ll want a producer here who tracks their product and isn’t afraid to divulge this information to you, the customer. Why? Because it gives us a competitive advantage! Traceable salmon, whether farmed or caught wild proudly states its place of origin. Now, all we need to do is simply cross reference this information with a map and pick something caught as far north as possible. The further north, the colder the waters. The colder the waters, the leaner and better the salmon.
Firmness: a happy salmon is a firm salmon
Have you ever poked a salmon? No, I’m not trying to be weird or creepy here. Really, have you ever poked a salmon filet? If so, you may have noticed quite a difference in texture between salmon. While some salmon filets feel soft and mushy to the touch, much like the consistency of brined chicken breast, others feel *much* firmer.
Quality salmon should be firm and dry to the touch –rather than mushy and wet. A firm salmon is a happy salmon that was treated with respect. Firmness of the flesh indicates a salmon that has spent its life swimming around, growing strong, muscular and happy only to face it’s end in a non-stressful manner. It is also a strong indicator that the salmon has been carefully and expertly processed, matured and handled with respect, even post mortem.
Yes, smoked salmon, unlike many other fish, need to be matured as part of its processing. This ensures superior texture and flavor as well as better smoke adhesion. And we want that extra smoke adhesion because smoke flavor good!
Smoke: Smoking Salmon is an artform
Smoked salmon is a wonderful thing and while smoke may first have been introduced as a simple preservation technique, it now serves as so much more: a wonderful and desirable flavor component.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from years of playing around with the BBQ tradition of the South and from befriending people in the bacon and salmon businesses, it is that smoke is not just smoke. Smoking is a complicated process in which both time, temperature and precision matters. Done properly, the process will impart subtle nuances, a distinct sweetness and a clean, crisp smokiness. If done improperly, harsh, bold and end even bitter flavor notes might ensue.
Question: What’s the likeliness between this slab of great bacon and great salmon? A great smoke profile!
Smoking these days is more than a preservation technique, it’s a subtle culinary art to which some devote more time and attention than others. Consequently, top producers will usually have a better and individually unique smoke profile in their products – at a slightly higher price as time and attention in the production process come at a certain cost. And herein lies the beauty of paying a little extra for your smoked salmon – it pays off. You can have the best salmon but if you don’t treat it well during processing, what’s the use of a perfect starting point?
And yes, the difference is well worth the extra dough. For me, my first taste of quality smoked salmon products from reputed Danish producers Vega Salmon and Fanø Salmon were absolute eye-openers and examples of two producers who clearly know what they’re doing when it comes to processing and imparting a unique, signature smoke profile. If you haven’t yet, try quality salmon yourself and taste the difference, I’m sure you’ll be pleasantly surprised!
Cooking with quality salmon
So, you’ve gone and listened to your buddy Johan. You’ve done the research, you’ve forked out a considerable portion of your hard-earned money for a piece of quality salmon, be it wild or farmed. Now what? What do we do with it? How do we cook with it? And how do we serve it? Your questions are many and justified, so here are my two best pieces of advice on cooking with quality smoked salmon, a few suggestions for dishes and an entirely new recipe: smoked salmon pizza!
Salmon cooking tip: Let the natural flavors shine!
Now, here’s something you won’t hear me say very often, but when dealing with high quality salmon, I suggest you go easy on spices and complimentary flavors. What? Oh, I know, I’m usually a bang for the buck sort of guy and Lord knows, I love spices, heat and pungent flavors. Hand me some garlic, a serious sprinkle of chili and a dash of vinegar and I’m usually a pretty happy camper but when it comes to quality smoked salmon, I would, for once, go pretty easy on the pungent flavors.
How to serve smoked salmon? How about smoked salmon and poached eggs: A timeless classic!
Hold the garlic, chili and ginger. Even soy sauce and citrus juice, I’d go easy on! Salmon, in its natural form, is an intense, fresh flavor that deserves a fair bit of respect. So, when dealing with top quality salmon, please let her shine and enjoy the fresher, subtler and more natural flavors, aromas and mouthfeel without too much adulteration.
Quite simply put, if you’re going to pay top bucks for top salmon, let the salmon be the star!
Salmon cooking tips: Smoked salmon recipe ideas
So what *do* we do with quality smoked salmon?
Well, a personal favorite application of mine includes smoked salmon “tartare” – roughly chopped smoked salmon seasoned simply with either lime zest, soy sauce or maybe a bit of salmon roe. Other great ideas include one of my absolute favorite New York staples: a smoked salmon bagel or a simple salmon sandwich like this beauty from my culinary partner in crime Malou featuring a brioche bun and Purity salmon from Vega Salmon.
Smoked salmon and brioche bun perfection. Photo credit: Malou, Klidmoster.dk
Want to splurge? How about smoked salmon Eggs Benedict (aka Eggs Royale) – or maybe something entirely different? How about the perfect marriage between two of my favorite things: smoked salmon and pizza? That’s right, kids, we’re doing smoked salmon pizza tonight!
Smoked Salmon pizza recipe
I’ve had a long-standing love affair with pizza. In fact, some three years ago, slow-risen pizza dough was one of my very first recipes on this blog and this proved the perfect occasion to revisit and re-vamp the original recipe with a few new pictures and tips.
My recipe today is based on my original pizza dough recipe and, fair bit of warning here, as with most things I do, it’s not the quickest recipe in the world: You will need to work the dough for about 20 minutes and then let it rest for a day or so. That being said, I do hold it to be one of the better and tastier recipes out there. You can find my go-to recipe here or use your personal favorite recipe.
Pizza dough. It’s the only sort of baking you’ll see me do and, quite honestly, the only sort of baking I’m any good at!
Now, with that out of the way, our recipe of the day differs from other pizza recipes as it is, obviously, a so-called white pizza, i.e. a tomato-less pizza. Granted, I’ve eaten a lot of different combinations in my life, but I’m not about to let smoked salmon and tomato sauce be one of them! No, we’ll stick with a cheese-base for this one, thank you very much. To add a bit of flavor and character, however, we’ll use a combination of fresh, buffalo mozzarella and creamy ricotta with a bit of crème fraiche (or sour cream) thrown in for flavor and twang. On top of that, we’ll add the best possible smoked salmon we can get our hands on, and a few things that are known to go really well with salmon: red onion, capers and the Scandinavia favorite: dill!
Granted, I know this all sounds a bit trippy. I mean, how does one think to combine pizza and smoked salmon? Honestly, I’m not sure about that. You’ll have to ask celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck who I first saw credited with creating this recipe for Spago, his famous Beverly Hills eatery. My personal best and entirely non-scientific or historically grounded theory is that maybe a Sicilian chef and a fair, blonde maiden from the fjords of Norway met up and had a gorgeous albeit slightly weird food baby? All I know is that, weird as it sounds, smoked salmon pizza is one of those perfect dishes in which everything just comes together in perfect contrasting harmony: the silkiness of the salmon is offset by the crunch of the crust, the fattiness of the cheese is perfectly cut by the bite of the onion and the briny flavors of the capers while a sprinkle of dill offers a welcoming and fragrant herbal aroma.
Smoked salmon pizza is at one time strange and welcoming, it’s comforting. It’s everything you never knew you needed and it’s absolutely delicious! I hope you’ll give it a whirl using my perfect pizza dough!
Smoked Salmon Pizza
A perfectly unique smoked salmon pizza featuring ricotta and mozzarella cheese, capers, red onions and dill.
- 1 portion pizza dough see link above or use your personal favorite recipe
- 200 grams of quality smoked salmon sliced
- 2 balls fresh mozzarella cheese preferably Buffalo mozzarella
- 150 grams full-fat ricotta cheese
- 100 ml crème fraiche
- Half a red onion sliced into slivers
- 2 tablespoons capers
- A few sprigs of dill roughly chopped
- Black pepper to taste
Divide pizza dough into two equal portions and form each into a ball.
Making one pizza at a time, flatten the dough ball and stretch or roll out pizza dough to pizza base around 5 mm thick.
Distribute half of the ricotta and half of the mozzarella cheese evenly over each pizza base and sprinkle generously with olive oil.
Transfer pizza base to oven and cook until base is cooked through and cheese beautifully melted, about 5-10 minutes depending on the heat of your oven. Keep an eye on things and remove pizza from oven once done.
Sprinkle cooked pizza generously with black pepper and top evenly with slices of smoked salmon.
Top with red onion slivers, capers and a few generous dollops of crème fraiche.
Sprinkle strategically with a few sprigs of dill, slice and serve immediately.
If you own a large home oven, you may be able to cook one large pizza from the recipe above. Otherwise, I suggest splitting the dough into two and making one pizza per diner.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can bake one pizza, then switch and bake the other while topping the first. Otherwise, you can simply cook and share one while waiting for the other to finish. Pizza is not a rushed ordeal after all, pizza deserves time and attention. Throwing a pizza party? You can double, triple and quadruple the recipe as you see fit!
So, what have we learned to day – aside from the fact that German chefs working out of LA conjure up pretty next level takes on Scandinavian-inspired Italian classics? Well, we’ve hopefully learned that salmon is not just salmon and that farmed salmon is not necessarily a crime. Whether buying organic, conventional, farmed or wild salmon, attention to such factors as quality, attention to detail in processing, traceability and certifications make a world of difference. You get what you pay for, and if you’re willing pay for animal welfare and ethical production or processing methods, you get great salmon! Simple as that!