By Ric Burnley
As soon as tuna reports leak onto the Internet, people go crazy. The day after a hot bite, every charter boat is booked and the launch ramp is backed up a mile. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in California, Florida, the Outer Banks, Costa Rica or Panama, as the madness has many causes. Tuna live in beautiful places. They promise an explosive strike followed by a bull-dog fight. But most of all, tuna are delicious. From the hook to the dinner table, tuna are one of the most valuable fish in the ocean. The following is a best practice for making the most of your next tuna.
From Hookup to Fish Box
The big draw is the tuna’s thick, red meat. On the plate, it looks like a dark, red ruby. On the tongue, it feels like cool butter and tastes like sweet sea water. Tuna is one of the highest priced meat on the market. Connoisseurs will fight for it. To protect the quality of this delicacy, experts start caring for their catch as soon as the tuna takes the bait. Captain Greg Mayer chases tuna year-round off North Carolina’s Outer Banks. As captain of the Fishing Frenzy, he splits his time between commercial and charter fishing.
“As soon as the fish starts to fight, lactic acid builds up in the meat,” he says. Mayer keeps the fight as short as possible without overpowering the fish. When it gets close to the boat, he’s careful where he places the gaff or harpoon. “Hit it in the head,” he recommends, “If you don’t you could ruin 10 to 20 pounds of meat.” For yellowfin tuna, he stacks them in his fishbox like cord wood. “Wait until they die before adding ice,” he says, “the fish will often kick off the ice.” He carries 400-pounds of ice every day. “Even when we’re fishing for dolphin, we carry a full load of ice in case we catch a bigeye.”
When he catches a bluefin, he brings it alongside the boat and places a large hook in the fish’s jaw. “I swim the fish beside the boat to lower the lactic acid,” he says. Mayer cuts the gill latch and lets the fish bleed out. “By watching the blood pump out, I can tell when the heart stops pumping.” Once the fish is on the deck, he secures the tail and head to cleats so the tuna doesn’t bang around and bruise the meat. “Whatever side is down will stay down until the fish sells at auction,” he adds.
With the fish stationary, the crew goes to work with a six-inch Dexter boning knife and a slime knife removing one gill plate to access the fish’s gills and innards. “A lot of guys use a serrated edge,” Mayer admits. “But I don’t like the damage the serrated edge could do to the meat or my hand.” With the innards carved out, he packs the cavity with ice.
Mayer covers the fish’s skin with rice paper to protect the color and texture. Then the fish is placed in a large fish bag and surrounded more ice. Bluefin tuna have the unique ability to warm their blood. Expect the fish to burn through a lot of ice. Continually refresh the ice on the ride back to the dock.
Middle Man: The Seafood Professional’s Perspective
When a commercial crew returns to port with a bluefin, Lucas Pina, general manager at North Atlantic Traders is waiting to meet them. Pina’s job is to get the best quality tuna to market. For Pina, the most important factor is ice.
Pina credits captains like Mayer who take care of the fish before bringing it to the dock. Cooling the fish starts with swimming it beside the boat, cleaning the fish and packing it with ice. “Keep adding ice and draining water,” he suggests. It can take hours to bring a tuna’s temperature under 40 degrees. The process continues when the fish hits the dock. Pina measures quality of all tuna by looking at the meat. “It should be bright pink and translucent,” he says. Grading bluefin tuna requires years of experience and fine-tuned senses. “You have to see a lot to grade tuna,” he says, “like evaluating a fine wine.”
“A lot of factors can affect how much fat is in the meat,” he says, pointing to where the fish was caught and what it was eating. The process starts with the whole fish. A round, fat tuna with shiny, silver skin will have the best meat. Pina considers how the meat looks, smells and feels. To sample the meat, he takes a slice out of the base of the tuna’s tail and a plug from behind the pectoral fin. The key to quality is fat content. “Thick lines of fat will indicate fat content in the belly,” he explains. He looks for swirls of white fat at the edges of the sample, like marbling in beef.
Then, he pinches the meat between his fingers to test its greasiness. While he’s evaluating the meat, the fish is back on ice and prepared to truck to the processing plant. “Don’t leave the fish on the dock or hold it up in the sunshine to take photos,” he says. The cooling process continues at the processor where the fish is packed in ice or even soaked in a cold brine to further bring the temperature down. Pina recommends completely cooling the fish before cleaning it. “I would leave it on ice for 24 hours or more before cleaning it,” he says. “Some chefs will wait two days before cutting a tuna.” Not only does this improve the quality of the meat, but it firms the flesh making it easier to clean and handle without damaging it.
From the second the fish hits the dock, it’s a race against time to get it to market while it’s fresh. Pina says freezing the tuna dramatically changes the texture, appearance and taste of the meat. If the whole fish can’t be consumed fresh the best practice is to vacuum seal the meat before freezing it to remove excess moisture and air. Next a bluefin tuna heads to the processing plant for further cooling and grading. “We pull fish that will be sent overseas, separate out fish that will go to high-end local customers and red meat for other buyers,” he explains. Fish heading to Japan are packed in boxes on ice and sent via Federal Express. A bluefin can go from the dock to the auction block in Japan in 48-hours.
Intense competition in the wholesale fish market and FDA regulations keep his tuna at top quality. For recreational anglers, respect for the fish and the time and energy required to harvest a tuna should encourage him to maintain the highest possible quality.
On the Plate: The Chef’s Take
All the excitement and energy comes down to one thing, a slice of tuna on the plate. As chef at Waterman’s in Virginia Beach, Carey McPhee puts hundreds of tuna slices on plates every night. “We buy 200 to 300 pounds of tuna each week,” he says, “I ask a lot of questions.”
His first questions is about the origin of the fish. McPhee says some tuna are imported from South America and other times tuna may be in a hold for weeks. “By the time it hits the dock it’s practically frozen.” Fresh tuna, McPhee says, is firm and dry, not slimy. “Just because tuna isn’t bright red doesn’t mean it’s fresh,” he says. The origin of the fish and what it eats can affect how it looks.
McPhee buys tuna loins and removes the off-color line of dark meat. He then slices the loin into steaks. “At least an inch thick,” he says, “thicker is better for cooking tuna.” He uses a seven-inch fillet knife to cut the loin across the grain. He doesn’t rinse off the meat and avoids all contact with water. He pats each steak dry with a towel and wraps it with cellophane before putting it on a perforated metal tray filled with ice. That tray is placed in another tray that catches the meltwater. “Ice keeps the steaks cold and moist,”
McPhee says, but he stresses that the meat must stay out of any water. The key to cooking tuna is using high heat to sear the outside while leaving the inside raw. “Ideally, a tuna steak should be cold in the middle,” he adds. For blackened tuna, he only seasons one side of the steak. “Cook it a minute on the non-seasoned side then a little longer on the seasoned side,” he instructs.
High temperature and short cook time crust the seasoning and transfer more flavor to the meat. Fresh fish can last a couple days on ice, but McPhee doesn’t keep them around long. “We go through them fast,” he says. He buys hundreds of pounds of tuna each week, it’s one of the most popular dishes on the menu. “People are crazy about tuna,” he says.