Everyone has a preferred flavor enhancer for a "mean" tuna salad—celery, apples, relish, olives...the list goes on. But the key ingredient has got to be the tuna itself: Not even a whole jar of mayonnaise can salvage a smelly, soggy can of fish.
Canned tuna meat should be firm and flaky, but never mushy. It should be moist but not watery (and certainly not dry). And it has to look appetizing before it's dressed up with seductive ingredients.
It was not easy deciding which tunas to feature in our taste test. They come in cans, glass jars, and even pouches, and can be packed in water, vegetable oil, or olive oil. Even more confusing: Tuna varieties sold in cans include albacore, yellowfin, skipjack, and tongol. After much research, we chose to focus our test on canned chunk light skipjack and tongol in both water and oil. Why? Light meat, ie: chunk light tuna (in oil and water) accounts for 75 to 80 percent of annual domestic canned tuna consumption in the U.S., according to The Tuna Council.
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There is a health issue too: Chunk light skipjack and tongol generally have lower levels of mercury than albacore and yellowfin (for more information, read Mercury in Canned Tuna and the Seafood Selector entry on canned tuna from the Environmental Defense Fund).
To "catch" the best chunk light canned tuna, we tasted 12 varieties available nationwide, including the following, listed from highest to lowest score in our tests: 365 Everyday Value Chunk Light Tongol Tuna Packed in Spring Water, Bumble Bee Chunk Light Tuna in Oil, Trader Joe's Tongol Chunk Light in Water, Starkist Gourmet Choice Solid Light Tuna Fillet in Olive Oil*, Wild Planet Wild Skip Jack Light Tuna (no water)*, Miramonte Tongol Tuna in Spring Water**, Chicken of the Sea Chunk Light Tuna in Water**, Bumble Bee Chunk Light Tuna in Water, Cento Solid Pack Light Tuna, Starkist Chunk Light Tuna in Vegetable Oil, Chicken of the Sea Chunk Light Tuna in Oil, and Progresso Solid Light Tuna in Olive Oil.
(The brands marked with * received the same score. The same is true for those marked with **.)
Methodology: In a blind taste test, judges compared the flavor, consistency, and appearance of chunk light canned tuna. All were drained and served as is (without any mayonnaise or other condiments or garnishes). We ranked them according to the Epicurious four-fork rating system (four being the best). One tuna was a real catch, while two others got good marks from the judges.
Epi Top Pick: Whole Foods 365 Everyday Value Chunk Light Tongol Tuna Packed in Spring Water ($1.39 for 6 oz. can)Pros: Aside from being the least expensive of all the winners, this firm yet chunky (not mushy) light-colored tuna impressed tasters.
"It has a subtle, clean ocean flavor; it tastes natural," said one editor. "I love how it's firm yet chewy, and perfectly salted," observed another.
Cons: Appeared dry at first glance.
First Runner-Up: Bumble Bee Chunk Light Tuna in Oil ($1.89 for 5 oz. can)
Pros: Editors appreciated the firm white fish meat, which had a slight smoky accent to it. One taster noted: "This is the first canned tuna I've enjoyed without tons of added mayo."
Cons: Salty and slightly oily.
Second Runner-Up: Trader Joe's Tongol Chunk Light in Water ($1.89 for 6.5 oz. can)
Pros: Editors appreciated this tuna's moist appearance and chewy texture. "It tastes like fish but it's not too pungent and has no aftertaste," said one judge. Environmentally minded shoppers may also appreciate that this tuna is marketed as wild-caught.
Cons: The meat's two-toned coloring (with reddish and yellow patches) might be unappetizing to some.
The Other Contenders
Progresso brand may have won our taste buds over in the Chicken Noodle Taste Test , but their tuna product was judged the least desirable among the 12 competitors in this taste test. Editors were turned off by the "pungent" fishy smell and its lingering aftertaste.
Two other well known name brands did not fare well: Starkist Chunk Light Tuna in Vegetable Oil was described as bland and chalky, while Chicken of the Sea Chunk Light Tuna in Oil appeared soft, mushy, and overly moist. But judges did commend Starkist for not being overly salty, and the Chicken of the Sea tuna's "smokiness" convinced judges that it would be more appealing once drained and mixed with a dollop of mayo.
Prices and availability subject to change.
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