Trader Joe’s Branzino: a Little Light on the Bass

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I find a great seafood deal every time I visit a Trader Joe's. It's a relatively painless way to experiment with different seafood and get out of your comfort zone. Even when I'm disappointed with the end result, I can be relieved that it didn't cost me much. Those rainbow trout fillets I made only cost me a few bucks last time, so no biggie, no foul. It's never planned when I visit a TJ's, but I was in the area not too long ago, so I picked up a jar of the best Dijon mustard around and a bag of frozen treats. European bass fillets.

What is Branzino?

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Branzino is the common Italian name for the European sea bass (Dicentrarchus labrax). This fish is known by many local and marketing names such as sea dace, white bass or sea perch. UK readers will know this fish simply as sea bass. Branzino is by far the sexiest of the various names for European sea bass, as with all things Italian. American consumers will almost exclusively see it by this name. This is a different type of rebranding to the “marketing” names such as Chilean sea bass (actually a southern fish/icefish) as European bass is an actual common name for this species. The Branzino can be distinguished in the market from the striped bass or the black sea bass by its somewhat exotic-sounding name.

The term “sea bass” or “sea bass” is already an ambiguous term, with several other species being sold under that name. Most sea bass are not closely related species, but they do share some similar characteristics. Many of these fish also share similarities when prepared. Fish sold as sea bass tend to have white or off-white, somewhat flaky flesh with a slightly sweet flavor.

The Sea Bass that most Americans will encounter is farmed in the Mediterranean region. European Sea Bass was one of the first successes in large-scale commercial aquaculture. Today, it is the most important farmed fish for countries such as Turkey and Greece. There is also a smaller wild fishery in the Mediterranean, especially in Egypt and along the Atlantic coast of France.

About Trader Joe's Branzino

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Trader Joe's sources its Branzino from farms in Turkey, but does not list the company or the type of aquaculture method used. Most, if not all, of the Branzino imported into the United States comes from Turkish farms, most of which raise the fish in ocean pens.

I paid $9.99 for my 1 lb. package of frozen skin-on fillets. I was disappointed when I opened the attractive package and found 5 small fillets. I didn't like that I received an odd number of fillets or that it took 2.5 fish to make a pound.

The fish was in good condition after an overnight defrost in the fridge. I just wish those fillets were thicker. It looks like I'll be eating the same amount of skin as real sea bass. I was afraid of overcooking these thin fillets, so I decided to do a quick pan fry. I grabbed some lemons, oranges, and capers to make a variation of the famous Grenobloise sauce, and dinner was ready in no time. It looked great, but what did it taste like?

The verdict

The Branzino was OK, I think, especially for the price, but the fillets were too small and thin. I would have preferred 2-4 larger fillets for a better meat to skin ratio. I expected a similar experience to the black sea bass I have prepared before, but it wasn't quite like that.

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It wasn't all bad, but it could have been better. The flesh of the sea bass is very delicate and slightly flaky, much like other fish sold as sea bass. The flavor was similar, but there really wasn't much meat on these fillets and I could taste more of the skin than the very delicate fish. The skin did crisp up but didn't taste like the black sea bass or striped bass I've eaten. My gut feeling about the bright citrus “Grenobloise” style sauce was correct. This is exactly what a delicate fish like sea bass craves.

I can see why restaurants usually serve whole Branzino. The skin-to-flesh ratio of these smaller fish was not to my liking; I bet a whole fish would have been much better. I wouldn't hesitate to make TJ's Branzino again, but I'll be a little more diligent about checking the packaging first. If you want to try Trader Joe's Branzino, I recommend getting a package with 2-3 larger fillets for the best experience.

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