The Ultimate Guide to Tuna Varieties

Elevate your culinary game by wisely selecting from the five diverse and luxurious varieties of tuna, a global delicacy that transcends the sushi bar.

The Ultimate Guide to Tuna Varieties
Maguro - Photo by Sean Robertson / Unsplash

While Maguro, or tuna, has long held the title of Japan's most beloved fish, its allure is spreading globally as health consciousness rises.

It's easy to pigeonhole this delicacy as merely a sushi bar staple, but that barely scratches the surface of its culinary richness.

Gourmets and epicureans cherish tuna, particularly in esteemed culinary experiences like Omakase and Kaiseki, not only for its staple role in sushi but also for its luxurious textures, intricate flavors, and unparalleled versatility in the realm of fine dining.

Much like different veggies or cuts of beef, the type of seafood tuna you choose will make or break your dish. Choose wisely to elevate your culinary game.

What is Tuna?

Tuna, a member of the Thunnini tribe within the larger Scombridae family, stands as an apex marine predator designed for swift movement.

The term actually covers five distinct species—Skipjack, Albacore, Bigeye, Bluefin, and Yellowfin—each with its own unique traits and flavors.

Globetrotters of the ocean, these fish can be found in waters worldwide. Whether enjoyed fresh as a delicately seared loin or canned and richly seasoned, the culinary applications of tuna are as diverse as the species themselves.

The Five Main Species of Tuna

While the term "maguro" may seem monolithic, it actually encapsulates a range of species, each offering a unique culinary experience.

Similarly, not every type of tuna is destined for a sushi or sashimi platter. This section aims to demystify the different types of tuna frequently found in Japanese markets, emphasizing the varied gastronomic potential each holds.

Bluefin Tuna: The Crown Jewel

Kuro-maguro, or Bluefin tuna, is truly the titan of the tuna world. Adult Bluefins can stretch up to a staggering 3 meters and tip the scales at anywhere between 300 to 600 kilograms.

Also known as Hon-maguro, this species can be categorized into two major types: Pacific and Atlantic Bluefin. In Japan, the Pacific variety reigns supreme in culinary circles.

It's not just the luxurious toro, or fatty belly, that makes Kuro-maguro a culinary treasure. The rich, dark red akami, or lean meat, is equally prized for its exquisite taste.

Earning the epithet "the black diamond," wild-caught Kuro-maguro holds an unparalleled reputation as a top-tier fish.

To put its value into perspective, a single specimen fetched a record-breaking around US$3 million at a Japanese auction in 2019.

For comparison, the highest bid at the inaugural auction of 2023, the opening bluefin auction in Japan recorded a $273,000 sale.

This unrivaled status and staggering market value underline why Kuro-maguro remains the ultimate catch for both fishermen and gourmets alike.

  • Habitat: Atlantic and Mediterranean
  • Flavor Profile: Intensely rich, fatty and buttery
  • Culinary Uses: Premium sushi, sashimi and dry-aging

Yellowfin Tuna: The Rising Star

Yellowfin tuna, known as Kihada-maguro in Japan, is catching the eye of health-savvy consumers. Named for its distinctive yellow skin and fins, this variety is an economical yet protein-rich alternative to pricier tuna species.

Also referred to as Ahi Tuna in canned form, Yellowfin can weigh anywhere from 30 to 400 pounds, making it the largest of the canned tunas.

It's easily identified by its vibrant yellow fins, and intriguingly, often swims in proximity to dolphin schools for reasons yet unknown.

In the U.S., Yellowfin is increasingly popular in sushi restaurants. It offers a more budget-friendly option without sacrificing quality and is leaner and milder in flavor compared to its richer relatives, Bluefin and Bigeye.

Whether enjoyed fresh or canned, Yellowfin's subtle flavors make it particularly versatile, often shining in steak form. As it gains recognition, Kihada-maguro is firmly establishing itself as a top choice for both affordability and health benefits.

  • Habitat: Tropical and subtropical oceans
  • Flavor Profile: Mild, meaty
  • Culinary Uses: Grilling, searing, poke bowls

Bigeye Tuna: Mild Tuna Star

Mebachi-maguro, or Bigeye tuna, stands out for its large eyes and yellow dorsal fins. A favorite for its mild, lean meat, it's particularly enjoyed by akami aficionados.

Unlike its fatty Bluefin relatives, Bigeye has little toro and a stringier texture, making it more common in processed foods than raw dishes.

Also known as Ahi in Hawaii, this species is generally served in loin cuts for sushi and sashimi or as fresh or frozen steaks. Remarkably, Mebachi-maguro can traverse depths up to 500 meters in a day, thanks to a protective fat layer that keeps its flesh juicy.

Capping at a weight of 210 kg, Bigeye is a versatile choice for milder tuna dishes, often finding its way into sashimi and "white beef" creations.

  • Habitat: Deep offshore waters
  • Flavor Profile: Rich, buttery
  • Culinary Uses: Sushi, sashimi

Albacore Tuna: The Unique "White Meat"

Albacore tuna, or Binnaga-maguro, is unique for its long pectoral fins and pale pink flesh with a sweet, mildly acidic flavor. In the U.S., it's the only tuna labeled as "white meat."

Typically weighing 10-50 pounds, Albacore are solitary swimmers, making them challenging to catch.

Favored for its mild taste and light color, Albacore is often canned under premium labels like "Sea Chicken."

In sushi bars, it's a budget-friendly option due to its lower price. Intriguingly, its diet consists solely of octopus and squid, contributing to its high protein content.

Whether fresh or canned, Albacore's versatile flavor and tender texture make it a culinary standout, especially when preserved in olive oil for salads.

  • Habitat: Open ocean, worldwide
  • Flavor Profile: Light, mild
  • Culinary Uses: Canned, grilled, broiled

Skipjack Tuna: The Global Favorite

Skipjack tuna, officially known as Katsuwonus pelamis, is a smaller cousin to the Yellowfin and the most consumed tuna species worldwide.

It dominates global catches, accounting for a staggering 50-60% of the total.

Typically weighing between 6 and 12 pounds, these agile swimmers seem to "skip" on the water's surface, earning them their name.

Distinct from the Thunnus genus, Skipjack stands alone but remains a related species. One of its most remarkable traits is its rapid reproduction rate, maintaining the largest stocks among all tuna types.

Primarily found in cans, Skipjack's ubiquity and fast replenishing population make it a sustainable choice for tuna lovers.

With a maximum weight of 35 kg, this species' compact size doesn't reflect its big impact on the world of seafood.

  • Habitat: Tropical and warm-temperate waters
  • Flavor Profile: Strong, pronounced
  • Culinary Uses: Canned, curries

Choose the Right Maguro for Your Dish

When it comes to picking the perfect tuna for your culinary masterpiece, it is imperative to consider flavor, texture, and fat content. Here's a quick guide:

  • Yellowfin: Ideal for searing or grilling, its red-to-pink flesh offers a mild, meaty flavor.
  • Bigeye: With a higher fat content than Yellowfin, it is perfect for sushi and sashimi.
  • Bluefin: The crème de la crème of tuna, incredibly high in fat, making it perfect for sushi. It’s the most expensive, often auctioned at exorbitant prices in Tokyo’s fish market.
  • Albacore: Light in color and milder in taste, best suited for canning but can also be grilled or broiled.
  • Skipjack: Commonly canned and labeled as 'chunk light tuna,' it has a stronger flavor compared to Albacore.

Is Tuna Sustainable?

The burning question of sustainability cannot be ignored when discussing a luxury item like tuna.

Overfishing, especially of Bluefin tuna, poses a significant threat to the ecosystem. Various organizations and treaties are working towards sustainable fishing practices.

As a responsible consumer, look for "pole-and-line caught" or "MSC certified" to ensure you're buying sustainably caught fish.

Interesting Facts

  1. Speed Machines: Some tuna species can swim at speeds up to 43 miles per hour.
  2. Warm-Blooded Wonders: Unlike most fish, tunas are warm-blooded, allowing them to regulate their body temperature and roam colder waters.
  3. Global Cuisine: Tuna is a key ingredient in global luxury cuisines, from Japanese sushi to Sicilian pasta dishes.
  4. Age-old Fishing: Records of tuna fishing date back to at least 7000 BCE, with ancient Mediterranean civilizations engaging in tuna fisheries.


For those who savor the finest edible treasures the world has to offer, indulging in luxurious tuna is an experience par excellence.

Whether it's the decadently fatty Bluefin or the subtly elegant Albacore, each bite offers a moment of pure culinary bliss, making it a must-try for any true gourmet.

So the next time you find yourself at a high-end sushi bar or an upscale seafood restaurant, take a moment to appreciate the exquisite tuna on your plate—it’s not just a meal, it’s an event. Cheers to luxurious dining!