Illustration of Ortiz tuna fishing boats, anchored in Getaria, Spain

Issue No. 123: Why does that tin of tuna cost so much?

Take two tins of tuna: one from Ortiz, one typical of the supermarket. They came from the same animal living in the same ocean. One costs twice as much as the other. Why?

Open both tins. One smells like the sweet sea, peels off in thick blond chunks and tastes like a fancy dinner out. The other smells like harbor at low tide, spoons out in pulpy shreds and tastes like saltwater. What happened? Here’s the abbreviated tale in five acts.

1. How are the tuna fished?

Bonito tuna, a common species for tinning, are not big fish. Most are two feet long and weigh about ten pounds. They’re warm-blooded. Taken together that means any bruising or bleeding affects a large portion of each fish and muddies its flavor. That’s rare with Ortiz’s tuna since they are entirely line caught, classic fisherman style, one at a time on a rod. Bruising is much more common with netted fish—the most common way to catch tuna, where hundred-foot-long nets drag the tuna in a thrashing bundle up from the sea.

2. How are they stored at sea?

Tuna are stored in a boat’s hold on ice. A more conscientious captain will freight a lot of ice, enough to surround each fish so they don’t touch one another and cool down quickly. After all, no one knows how long they’ll be at sea or how much they’ll catch and the fish starts to deteriorate the moment it’s caught.

3. What happens after they’re cooked?

Cooking canned tuna is more or less standardized: the fish is boiled in salted water for a couple hours. But what happens next is not at all the same from factory to factory. At Ortiz the just-cooked fish sits out to cool in the kitchen, then gets time to chill in cold storage. The two steps take hours and hog up space on the floor and in the refrigerators. Not all tuna makers choose to take them. Like most food makers who worry about price more than flavor, they cut time out of the equation. What the extra time and care does, though, is critical. It stops the fish from fermenting. Fermenting can be ruinous—a carbonation that makes the tins unsalable—or it can be mild. Even mild fermentation has a flavor that, to my taste, is a sour tang that runs throughout most tins of cheap tuna and mars its sea-sweet origins.

4. How are they cleaned?

Another act of grace Ortiz commits after cooking is to clean its tuna by hand. This is as labor-intensive as it sounds (if you’ve ever deboned and skinned cooked fish you know what I mean). It’s not at all standard practice in the tuna world. The women—and I can say from my experience visiting that 100% of the cleaners are women—work meticulously with paring knives, scraping and cleaning every bruise, every discoloration, every chance for the flavor to head south, leaving only pristine fish to find their way into the tin.

5. What goes into the tin?

At Ortiz, it’s whole chunks of fish and olive oil. That’s it. No flakes, no water. That’s the way you get great tinned tuna. Shredded smaller pieces deteriorate faster and that will show in the flavor. As for olive oil, well, the American tuna industry has pawned off water-packed tuna as healthier but what they failed to mention was that in losing 20% of the calories we lost 98% of the taste. Water leaches flavor from the fish. Ortiz only packs in olive oil, which amplifies the tuna’s flavor and gives it a silky, rich mouthfeel.

All these steps represent an added expense, in better ingredients, extra time, or additional effort. But the impact they make in the tuna’s appearance, aroma, flavor, and texture is unmissable. You really can taste the difference.