How do you buy fish in the age of fillets?

From   |  September 23, 2009
In Kitchen Basics

I can’t even remember the last time I looked a fresh fish in the eye. But practically every bit of advice about buying fish says to go by the eyes. That’s practically impossible when most markets sell fish fileted and sometimes even already skinned. And frequently “fresh” fish in the supermarket seafood case came to that store previously frozen.

What’s a conscientious shopper to do? Here is a bit of new-fangled advice:

  • Go to a store you trust and strike up a conversation with the person behind the counter. If you’re pleasant and polite, the clerk will probably steer you in the direction of the freshest fish. Ask whether it was previously frozen, and if so, when it was thawed.
  • Buy what’s on special. Contrary to what you might think, the “on-sale” fish is not usually being offloaded because it’s about to expire. Most stores special order seafood that’s offered at a discount, and in our experience, it’s usually fresh.
  • Look for moist flesh that’s not discolored and skin that’s shiny. If the flesh looks like the flakes are separating (what I call “mealy”) don’t buy it. Eyeball the red "blood line" running through the center of the fillet. The color should be bright red, not brown. (The longer blood is exposed to air, the browner it becomes, indicating the fish isn't fresh.
  • You can still trust your nose. If you’re really not sure about a fillet, ask to smell it. The fish shouldn’t smell strong or too “fishy.”

I feel sure I’m forgetting something! If you have other tips and tricks for buying fish, please post  your ideas in the comments box following this blog post.


From Richard Pachter - September 23, 2009

And... Buy local when possible. Stay away from mutant farm-raised crap.

From Debbie Moose - September 23, 2009

Stores in N.C. are supposed to note country of origin and whether it was previously frozen. If it was frozen, ask the salesperson whether you can purchase a piece still frozen, and thaw it yourself. Tuna fillets that are old will have a sort of rainbow oil-slick look to the surface. Let me also echo: Buy Local! It tastes better and you're supporting fishermen here at home.

From Maria M. - September 23, 2009

I live in a landlocked state --- Arizona, so locally caught and harvested fish isn't readily available. Despite that, there is a local wholesale seafood store as he supplies most of the fish he gets to the local high-end restaurants. And, while he may have rolled his eyes at my buying a single fish before, now he nods and asks me what I'm making with it. While we don't buy fish regularly, it can be pricey when it includes air-fare, we buy our seafood at his store. I love ceviche and wouldn't think twice about making it with the fish that our guy sells.

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