Does your tuna stack up?

First canned in 1903, tuna quickly became the best-selling seafood in the country. Above, a tuna boat docks.

Swimming through the deep waters of canned tuna can be an Olympic challenge. Oil or water? Light or white? And lately, it is packed not only in the traditional can, but also in a pouch or jar.

Add to that prices that range from 25 cents to almost $3 per ounce, and you can feel like a fish out of water at the market.

So what is the best tuna to buy? Of course it depends on what you are making, and if you are eating it unadorned, or mixing it with mayo for a salad. To determine the best-tasting, we held a blind test of all kinds of tuna.

For starters, there are two types of canned tuna: light, which usually contains skipjack or bluefin tuna; and white, also known as albacore tuna. Light tuna is generally darker in color with a slightly stronger flavor than white albacore tuna.

First canned in 1903, tuna quickly became the best-selling seafood in the country and established itself as a favorite ingredient for sandwiches, casseroles and salads.

But in recent years, tuna fish has made news, first in the 1990s with concerns about dolphin safety. Earlier methods of catching tuna unfortunately also resulted in the capture and/or death of many dolphins, which often swim with tuna. Today, almost all tuna sold in the supermarket is labeled "Dolphin-Safe," a federally regulated notation that certifies that no dolphins were "chased, encircled, or killed" in the catching of the tuna.

More recently, tuna has again been in the news over concerns of mercury levels found in the fish. The FDA, however, has determined that the trace amounts of mercury found in canned tuna pose no real health risks when consumed in limited amounts. Even pregnant women can safely eat canned tuna in moderation.

So, once you swim through the moral and health issues, how do you know which tuna to buy?

To find out which tuna tastes best, we gathered eight brands of tuna in an array of preparations. Six of the tunas were purchased at local supermarkets. Two of the tunas came from specialty market Di Bruno Bros., and the prices reflected that: at $2.99 per ounce, the Serrats White Tuna in Olive Oil cost more than ten times the generic Acme store brand. But does price equal quality?

In a word, yes. The top three tunas in the rankings were all specialty brands, though Cento, an Italian supermarket brand, was more reasonably priced at 43 cents per ounce. The first and third place finishers, however, were the specialty brands from Di Bruno Bros. Both brands came in jars or cans packed in oil.

Overall, tasters preferred tunas packed in oil, which generally have been cooked and processed in the oil. Many tuna experts and manufacturers believe that water leaches out flavor. Tasters agreed, noting much more flavor in the tunas packed in oil over those packed in water.

Despite albacore's growing popularity, tasters largely preferred the light tuna, noting a stronger flavor and more moist texture. Not all light tunas are created equal, however: Progresso Light Tuna came in last in the tasting, the flavor unfortunately overwhelmed by a decidedly mushy texture.

But take heart, you don't necessarily need to run out and spend $11.99 on a can of tuna. We also held a blind tasting of the supermarket brands of tuna mixed with mayonnaise to find out if flavor and texture differences would be as noticeable. They weren't. Cento topped that tasting, but all of the other brands were close behind.

So what tuna should you buy? Cento is the best choice for all your tuna needs, coming in at the top of both our plain and mixed-with-mayo tastings, a good all-around tuna to keep on hand. But if you only eat tuna with mayonnaise, I would buy whatever is on sale.

However, if you plan to eat the tuna unadorned, splurge on the good stuff once in a while. It's worth it.

The Taste Test

These notes are from the tasting of unadorned tuna. The tasters found not much difference among the tunas after they were mixed with mayonnaise.

The Top Tunas

Flott Solid Tuna in Pure Olive Oil. This specialty brand, available at Di Bruno Bros., was praised as "delicious," with "good texture" and "vibrant flavor." Italian import, 81 cents per ounce.

Cento Solid Pack Light Tuna in Pure Olive Oil. Available at most supermarkets, this Italian brand impressed tasters with its "rich taste." Though tasters agreed it was "very flavorful," some complained of a "slightly mushy texture." Forty-three cents per ounce.

Serrats White Tuna in Olive Oil. This second specialty brand in the tasting, also available at Di Bruno Bros., won fans with its "nice pink color" and "balanced" flavor. Some tasters, however, complained that it was "bland." Spanish import, $2.99 per ounce.

Bottom Feeders

Acme Solid White Albacore Tuna in Water. The generic store brand of tuna was panned as "super dry" and "bland." Twenty-five cents per ounce.

StarKist Albacore White Tuna in Water in Pouch. The most expensive supermarket tuna was deemed "bland and dry," with one taster noting a "metallic" flavor. Sixty-six cents per ounce.

StarKist Solid White Albacore Tuna in Water. Though some tasters noted a "firm texture," they also found this tuna exceedingly dry. Thirty cents per ounce.

Bumble Bee Solid White Albacore in Oil. Tasters found this tuna "mealy" with a "bland" flavor; one taster complained of an "odd aftertaste." Thirty cents per ounce.

Progresso Solid Light Tuna in Olive Oil. Tasters across the board noted the "fishy" flavor of this upscale supermarket brand. Though some tasters liked the strong flavor, most found it "very dry" and "mushy." Forty-seven cents per ounce.

- Keri Fisher

Tuna Nicoise Sandwich

Makes 4 servings

For the Olive Spread:

1 cup pitted kalamata olives (about 6 ounces drained)

3 cloves garlic, chopped

2 tablespoons capers

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 anchovy filets

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

For the Nicoise Sandwich:

1 ciabatta bread, about 6-by-

10 inches, sliced open

2 6-ounce cans tuna, drained

1 bunch scallions, sliced thin

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 clove garlic, minced

4 hard-cooked eggs, thinly sliced

2 medium tomatoes, thinly sliced

1 medium red onion, thinly sliced

4 leaves Bibb lettuce

1. For the Olive Spread: In a processor (with steel blade)or blender, combine the olives, garlic, capers, lemon juice, anchovies and oil for the spread; process until smooth.

2. For the Sandwich: Cover the bottom half of bread with a thick even layer of olive spread. (Some may be left over.) In a bowl, mix the tuna, scallions, oil, vinegar, and garlic. Spread tuna mixture in an even layer over olive spread. Top with slices of egg, tomato, onion and lettuce. Top with the remaining bread half; cut into 4 pieces. Serve at once.

Per serving: 563 calories, 36 grams protein, 31 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 34 grams fat, 270 milligrams cholesterol, 1,200 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.

Tuna and Artichoke Crostini

Makes 4 to 6 servings

2 6-ounce cans tuna, drained

1 cup marinated artichokes

1/4 cup artichoke oil (drained from       the jar)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon capers

2 tablespoons fresh basil

4 cloves garlic, chopped

1 small baguette, diagonally sliced 1/2-inch thick and toasted

1. In a processor with a steel blade, blend the tuna, artichokes, oils, capers, basil and garlic until smooth.

2. Spread the mixture on the toasts and serve at once.

Per serving (based on 6): 327 calories, 18 grams protein, 27 grams carbohydrates, trace sugar, 17 grams fat, 30 milligrams cholesterol, 605 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

Tuna, White Bean and Pasta Salad

Makes 6 servings

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 anchovy filet

1/2 cup fresh parsley

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

4 cups cooked pasta (penne, ziti or    such, your choice)

2 6-ounce cans tuna, drained

1 12-ounce can white beans, rinsed and drained

2 cups cherry tomatoes (about 12 ounces), halved

2 ribs celery, sliced thin on the          bias (about 1 cup)

Salt and pepper

1. In a food processor fitted with a steel blade, blend the garlic, anchovy, parsley, lemon juice and oil until smooth.

2. In a large bowl, mix the pasta, tuna, beans, cherry tomatoes and celery, tossing lightly to combine.

3. Add the vinaigrette (step 1) to taste, tossing lightly. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Per serving: 561 calories, 33 grams protein, 64 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 21 grams fat, 34 milligrams cholesterol, 284 milligrams sodium, 11 grams dietary fiber.