Fish-buying tips

How to decide between frozen and unfrozen, plus what to look for

By David ZimmerDavid Zimmer

Fish at the market

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Many cookbooks suggest identifying “fresh” fish by bright scales, clear, shiny eyes, and pink or bright-red gills. All fine and good if  you visit a fishmonger in a seaside town, but that’s just not how most of us buy seafood. With fish, “fresh” simply means not frozen. Fresh fish may have spent a week out of  the water. Frozen fish, properly handled, can actually be “fresher.”

  • Fresh fish displayed on ice should have some ice sprinkled on top too. Check freshness with the smell test. If the fish smells strongly “fishy,” it ain’t that fresh.
  • Look for fish frozen at sea (sometimes labelled FAS). Store in the coldest part of your coldest freezer. Thaw slowly in the refrigerator and do not refreeze.
  • Many stores sell fish marked as “previously frozen,” which is fine, depending on how long it has been thawed. Perform the smell test and avoid any fish that appears mushy or mealy. Don’t refreeze.
  • Reject frozen fish packages with ice crystals inside or the white marks of freezer burn (caused by air in the package). Vacuum-packed fish freezes (and thaws) better than products plastic-wrapped on trays.
  • For truly fresh fish, pick up a rod and head to the lake.

Which fish are most sustainable?

The world’s wild fish supply is under constant pressure from harmful fishing practices, unregulated fisheries, species depletion, and poaching. Once thought to be the solution, farmed seafood is, in some instances, harmful to the aquatic environment; in other cases, it’s a perfectly sustainable food source. For the consumer, it’s difficult to know which fish are sustainable—as fishing and farming methods evolve, the status of species can change. One credible and up-to-date list of ocean-friendly seafood is produced by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program.

This article was originally published on June 1, 2011

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David Zimmer