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Selecting Seafood: What You Need to Know

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Fish lovers search for the perfect catch at a seafood market.

Most of us know how to select fresh fruits and vegetables at the supermarket.  Look for bruises or wilting, touch and feel for soft spots, then take a sniff. If it smells foul, move on.  But understanding where to purchase seasonal seafood and how to select the freshest fish can be a daunting effort. Here’s what you need to know.

TEMPERATURE and ICE

Seafood (fish and shellfish) is highly perishable. Unfrozen seafood, caught within 48 hours before delivery and iced properly, has a shelf life of five days.  Sometimes seafood is in transit from sea to shore for ten or more days before it hits the market, and only boats with the best storage practices can manage to deliver within that freshness window.  Frozen fish that is processed aboard the ship can last much longer but needs to maintain a constant temperature below 10 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the entire process.  For these reasons, try to purchase seafood only from reputable fish mongers who source and move fish on a routine basis. General grocery stores are not ideal places to purchase fish. The people behind the fish case seldom know anything about seafood or how to properly keep it fresh.

Steps to Assessing Freshness:

  • Fish filets should not be floating in ice water

  • Fish on ice needs to have proper drainage

  • ICE MUST BE CHANGED ROUTINELY, so ask then when they last changed their ice.

ODOR

Seafood markets should not have an overpowering odor.  A slight “fragrant” smell of fresh sea is OK, but if your eyes water before you hit the door, move on.  Still, even the best seafood markets sometimes hold not-so-fresh fish in the case, particularly on Mondays if fish was delivered the week prior and they are trying to move product.  There is always the element of chance in finding very fresh fish.

So here are a few things to know and do when purchasing filets and whole fish:

Purchasing Filets

  • Look for signs of freshness.  Filets should not be dried out or dull looking.  And they shouldn’t look leathery or have yellowing around the edges.

  • Ask if you can smell the filet – fish filets should have a faint fresh sea smell.  Nothing more.

  • If you touch the filet, it should feel firm and elastic.  Fingers should not leave impressions or dents in the fish.

  • If you are not sure, ask if they will cut a filet from a whole fish.

Purchasing Whole Fish

  • The fish’s eyes should be clear and full, not milky and sunken.Gills should be bright red, not muddy or dark brown/gray

  • Skin should be shiny.  Scales should be intact.

  • The fish should not be stiff like a board. It should be somewhat flexible when handled. Without going into gory details, a fish should be relaxed when it passes, which prevents it from stiffening upon death. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. If a fish fights to flee, and proper procedures aren’t taken to relax the fish prior to its death, the fish may have a tougher texture.

FISH FRAUD

The U.S. Food Drug and Drug Administration, which oversees the safety of our seafood supply, defines fraud as the substitution of a less expensive fish for a more expensive kind; for example, tilapia for red snapper, farmed salmon for wild, or basa or tra (Vietnamese catfish) for grouper. In perhaps the most well-known case of fish mislabeling, The New York Times showed that fish sold as wild salmon by high-end New York City markets was mostly farm-raised, selling for as much as $29 a pound.  There have been numerous reports of fraud occurring in restaurants, supermarkets and with suppliers, both in the U.S. and overseas.  Knowing your seafood is the best way to arm yourself against fraud.

Signs that should raise red flags to fish fraud:

  • A price too good to be true for a highly-desired fish like red snapper or grouper.

  • Out-of-season fish, like wild salmon from Alaska, being sold “fresh” in winter months.

  • Strange labels you know not to be true, such as “farmed Chilean seabass” (only caught in the wild) or “wild Atlantic salmon” (an endangered species and not commercially available).

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for answers now that you know some of the basics.  Dish out your new knowledge of fish facts next time you visit the fish house and you will land a better catch!

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