Eat North Pacific albacore tuna

Plentiful and delicious

August 12, 2010

The first time I snatched a bit of albacore off the grill, its crispy edges melted in my mouth. This is good stuff, I thought with surprise.

I grew up on canned tuna. Eating albacore fresh — a mainstay, albeit more spendy, of the canned market — was inconceivable.

Every summer, juvenile albacore aged three to five years old migrate from the waters off Japan to the North Pacific, following a warm current to an area off the continental shelf that is a dense feeding ground filled with baby fish and squid. The albacore come here to eat and put on weight.

When caught, the young tuna are fattier than their mature counterparts, and higher in omega-3 fatty acids than any other tuna. This makes them quite delectable, with a flavor milder than that of sockeye salmon, another fish high in omega-3s from the North Pacific with good summertime availability.

albacore tuna on the grill
Albacore on the grill.

Yet not many people know about albacore season, which runs from about July to October off the coasts of Oregon, Washington, California, and British Columbia. This fishery now boasts certification from the Marine Stewardship Council as sustainable and well-managed. The West Coast albacore fishery uses a hook-and-line method called trolling that results in very little bycatch. The relatively short, unweighted lines stay close to the surface of the water, targeting just albacore.

The fish are hauled in and iced as soon as they are caught, unlike the albacore caught with longlines by fishing boats in the central Pacific. It’s this latter fishery that bears some responsibility for albacore’s reputation for having a dull, fishy taste. Longline-caught albacore are leaner, older fish with a lower fat content.

Seafood stocks in major grocery chains reflect troll-caught albacore’s strange wallflower status. Calls to more than a dozen stores in Portland, Oregon, in the middle of albacore season revealed that only two — New Seasons and Whole Foods — had fresh albacore for sale. Two others said they carried albacore occasionally.

With qualities to win over the health-conscious, the food-loving gourmet types, and the environmentalists, albacore should be more widely eaten. Here’s my list of reasons to put albacore on the menu.

1. Troll-caught albacore are good for your conscience. The Monterey Bay Aquarium rates troll-caught albacore from the U.S. and Canada as a “best choice” for consumers. (Incidentally, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch pocket guide for consumers is now available for iPhones and other smart phones.)

2. Troll-caught albacore are good for your health. In May of this year, the Monterey Bay Aquarium ranked troll-caught albacore from the U.S. and British Columbia as among “the best of the best” on its Super Green List, which evaluates seafood choices according to their omega-3 content and lack of environmental contaminants, including mercury and PCBs. With mercury, the size of the fish matters. Troll-caught albacore is younger and therefore smaller — less than 30 pounds per fish — with resulting lower concentrations of mercury.

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3. Troll-caught albacore are a good buy. Compared to other wild-caught North Pacific fish on the market, albacore is relatively affordable. Expect to pay up to $9 a pound for fresh, and $2 to $3 more for frozen. This is still less than black cod, halibut, and most wild salmon.

4. Troll-caught albacore is good year-round, either custom canned or frozen at sea. Both are high-quality choices. Because albacore boats can stay at sea for weeks at a time, some boats blast-freeze to preserve quality, taking the fish down to minus-20 degrees. This extra-low temperature is necessary to prevent the tuna’s oil from turning rancid.

I was resistant to frozen albacore, but then I grilled some and found it nearly as good as fresh. Fresh tuna spends time on the boat before coming to port and then to market, but with the frozen albacore, I could tell by the color and neutral smell that the fish had not been out of the water long before going into the deep freeze. If frozen is your option, buy it still frozen and thaw it yourself in the refrigerator.

5. Custom-canned albacore is packed in its own juices without water or oil, and cooked only once in the canning process. It costs more — more than a dollar per ounce — but once you try custom-canned albacore, it’s hard to go back to longline albacore or skipjack.

Beige-pink in color, the canned fish tastes light and clean, not smelly or fishy, and it holds together in chunks. It comes with a small amount of naturally occurring juices, which you may wish to set aside and add to a pasta sauce. Custom-canned albacore is available online and in some grocery stores.

6. Albacore is a versatile blank slate for cooks. Just don’t overcook it. Albacore is mild, but it does well with strong partners like cherry tomatoes, black olives, capers, and lemon. I hate to say it, but those ad men nailed it when they called tuna the chicken of the sea. You can season it just about any way you want.

Serve albacore with plenty of salmoriglio, a Sicilian sauce made of lemon juice, olive oil, and fresh thyme.

Fresh albacore is sold in loins or steaks. The loins are a little bigger around than pork tenderloins and, conveniently, can be seared whole before slicing.

You can also cut the loins into two-inch chunks and thread them on skewers with thin lemon slices and bay leaves that have been soaked in water. Cubing the fish exposes more surface area to the seasoning and to the smoke of the grill. Grill the skewers until medium-rare, then serve them with salmoriglio, a Sicilian sauce for fresh fish made of lemon juice, olive oil, and fresh thyme or oregano.

The worst thing you can do to albacore is to overcook it. You are going for rare to medium-rare, like you would for any other tuna. Take the fish off the heat as soon as it’s cooked on the outside and pink in the middle, and remember that carryover heat will make the tuna cook a bit more.

Finally, don’t be alarmed by uncooked albacore’s soft flesh. It’s natural, not an indication of mishandling or poor quality. Just handle the fish with care. If necessary, you can use toothpicks to hold steaks intact while they cook.

I’m heading to the store for some fresh albacore, which I plan on grilling for a special summer salade Niçoise with cherry tomatoes, new potatoes, and green beans.

Kelly Myers is a chef and writer in Portland, Oregon. She is also the co-director of Market Chefs, an organization dedicated to inspiring and teaching consumers to cook local foods.

There are 9 comments on this item
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1. by Stephanie Hopkinson on Aug 12, 2010 at 9:48 AM PDT

Thanks Chef for a great article on troll-caught albacore. My parents are 150 miles off the coast of Oregon right now, catching albacore one-at-a-time by hook-and-line. We work hard to catch and can this healthy sustainable fish and it’s nice to see writers distinguishing between long-lined and troll-caught fish so that readers and eaters can make an informed choice.

One thing to add about canned albacore: when you open a can, don’t drain those natural fish oils you find. Those oils contain the Omega-3s and other nutritional goodies you want. Just stir it back into the fish and enjoy - you’ll find you need less mayo or other moisteners later on.

Thanks again,
Stephanie Hopkinson
Wild Pacific Seafood

2. by allegro on Aug 13, 2010 at 9:01 AM PDT

Thanks. This is so helpful and packed with good info. I love seafood and it’s gotten to where I barely buy it because I’m always forgetting what’s okay and not okay to eat.

3. by anonymous on Aug 13, 2010 at 12:44 PM PDT

Wild Planet’s Albacore Tuna has all the aspects you mentioned in your article. They are sustainably fished, low in mercury high in Omega 3s and are packed in their own natural juices! The taste is noticeably better. Thanks for all the information!

4. by Brooke on Aug 14, 2010 at 5:02 PM PDT

Thanks for an excellent, well researched article on U.S.-caught albacore. If readers are interested in more recipes using this great tuna they can visit

5. by jdixon on Aug 16, 2010 at 7:00 AM PDT

Local albacore is perfect for olive oil poaching. I slice the filets crosswise into sections about an inch and half thick, then arrange the pieces cut side down in a small sauce pan with enough extra virgin olive oil to come about halfway up the fish. You want to use a pan that just holds the tuna so you don’t use more oil than necessary.

Heat on low just until the oil begins to bubble a little, then turn the fish pieces over so the other ends are in the oil. Cover the pan and turn off the heat. Let sit, covered, for at least 30 minutes. Serve the tuna warm with the poaching oil or store, with the oil, in the refrigerator, and use for salads.

6. by anonymous on Sep 3, 2010 at 5:56 PM PDT

If the albacore is juvenile, as the article states; does that mean it isn’t old enough to breed? If that is true, then it not possible that this fishery is sustainable.

7. by anonymous on Sep 29, 2010 at 4:03 PM PDT

I buy whole line caught albacore and can it myself. An afternoon of work yields a years supply of tuna.
It is not really difficult, and is MUCH less costly than what you state in your article (If you depreciate the initial cost of the equipment which is around $100, but is useful for many years and for other things) The quality, of course, is the best!

8. by Kelly Myers on Oct 1, 2010 at 3:21 PM PDT

If anyone is looking for good, solid information about canning tuna, try Eugenia Bone’s book, Well Preserved: recipes and techniqes for putting up small batches of seasonal foods. This book is full of information, and it’s warm and personal. Bone includes recipes using canned and otherwise preserved foods.

Regarding the sustainability of the Northern Pacific fishery, many organizations have rated the fishery as robust. These include the Marine Stewardship Council, Oregon’s Dept of Fish and Wildlife, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. However, I have looked at the scientific report that Monterey Bay used as part of its evaluation. What’s important is that the albacore stock is again being evaluated in 2010 regarding whether it is being fished at levels that are sustainable. We should all stay tuned. We want the fishery to remain popular and healthy, but not overfished!

9. by Mark Schneider on Nov 4, 2010 at 8:57 AM PDT

I would like to address the comment about catching juvenile fish. I am a commercial fisher of albacore tuna so you may discount what I have to say here because you may think I have a vested interest but please understand I have been doing this for over 20 years. I love to catch fish as it is a big challenge. Bad weather and fish that do not bite keep my life interesting. West Coast Albacore are caught on a hook, one at a time, whether that hook is attacted to the boat as in trolling or to a pole, NO nets are used in the catch of this great fish. This is to say, we as fishers have to figure out how to get that fish to bite our hooks. Not all tuna in a school will bite. I have seen many a day where we see the tuna surface feeding and jumping out of the water and not biting our hooks.
As stated in the artical the Marine Stewardship Council has cerified this fishery as sustainable. That is because we do not fish with nets and do not catch all the fish that swim under our boats. Most will make it to breeding age.

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