We gathered up five top-selling, widely available products to find the best choice both plain, and on our Cook's Illustrated New York Bagels.
How We Tested
We love a good bagel with cream cheese and all the fixings—particularly tender slices of lightly smoked salmon (not to be confused with lox or gravlax, which are cured but not smoked). We gathered up five top-selling, widely available products labeled either smoked salmon or nova lox, both of which these days refer to salmon that has been salt-cured to remove moisture and add flavor and then rinsed and smoked at a low temperature (aka cold-smoked).
Plain and on our New York Bagels, products that struck a balance between smoke and fresh salmon flavor rated highest. Tasters praised smoked salmon that tasted “clean,” with a “pleasant,” “subtle smoke” flavor, while they were less enthusiastic about products that were either bland or came on too strong, with “fishy” or “campfire” flavors. Variety didn’t matter; most of the samples in our lineup were farm-raised Atlantic salmon, and the one wild sockeye salmon landed in the middle of the rankings. The type of wood wasn’t a factor either. Our top product is smoked with oak, but so are products at the middle and bottom of our lineup. And although the sample with the most fat per serving ranked highest, fat content didn’t track with our preferences.
Flavoring, or lack thereof, added during the dry-brining process was more important. When we contacted manufacturers directly, we learned that all the products in our lineup were cured with salt and sometimes a sweetener and additional spices. Only two products—including our winner—used just salt. Thickness and texture also played a larger part. Tasters found thinner slices more tender and easier to bite through than thicker slabs, which was a particularly important trait when biting into a bagel since the salmon can tug off if it’s not tender enough. Our favorite’s thin, buttery slices were 1.60 millimeters thick, the thinnest in the lineup, while the lowest-scoring product was nearly 3 millimeters thick. We also liked firm fish and gave a thumbs-down to products that were “mushy” or “mealy.”
Our opinions didn’t change much when the salmon was cooked. When we pitted our top choice against the bottom-ranked product in asparagus omelets, the low-ranked fish was panned for being rubbery and bland, while our winner remained “firm and flaky” and “salmony but not fishy.”
Our favorite was the only product we tasted that follows the Scottish tradition of trimming off the pellicle, the smokier, drier, browned surface that forms as salmon is cured and smoked. This trimming, while costly for the manufacturer, created a texture that was uniformly “silky” and “buttery” and a flavor with a more subtle smokiness. Each thin slice of our favorite was intact (slices were separated by pieces of plastic), flavorful, and remarkably tender.