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How to Buy Fresh Fish & Seafood

Fresh Fish Market
Fresh Fish Market

Make sure your Fish Market is clean and doesn’t smell like ammonia or old fish, Fresh fish should smell more like seawater.

…While I was strolling through the supermarket the other day trying to decide what I was going to buy to throw on the grill when I overheard a conversation that kind of annoyed me. A woman was talking to the guy behind the seafood counter and she asked him if the fish was fresh, he replied “ it just came in yesterday.” For those of you who buy your fish from a Supermarket let me just say this, “it just came in yesterday” does not in actual fact mean that the seafood is fresh! I’m writing this article in the summer and of course it’s a bit more difficult for reputable fish mongers (I just love the term Fish Mongers for some reason) to keep fish caught fish fresh for any length of time. This also doe not mean many markets won’t try to sell you their seafood that is on its last legs. So, just like the guy who sold suits on television stating, “ An educated buyer is our best customer” so it also should be with buying fish. Here are some important things you should know when buying seafood.


I try to very rarely if ever buy my seafood at the supermarket. Look at the labels over the fish, usually stuck in a bed of ice chips. You almost always see the sign stating something like “a product of” and then the name of some country half way around the world. Just by seeing that sign you can be fairly certain that this seafood was at some point frozen and you really don’t have any idea when that fish was actually caught. There have been many times when the just the smell of that area of the market made me want to go vegetarian.


The thing about really fresh fish is that it actually doesn’t smell all that fishy. Fishy in the sense of make you cringe your nosed and begin to gag. If you live near a body of water that has an active fishing industry, chance are good you will have a local…wait for it…Fish Monger! A good and reputable merchant will not only let you inspect the fish you are going buy but may also offer you a few pointers in how to determine the freshness of the catch. When I was a boy in Sheepshead Bay, NY I used to watch the fishing charter boats selling their days catch along the sea wall. Some boats had people waiting for them before they even arrived at the dock while others had relatively few customers. The same may be true for the seafood markets, if you are looking at fish that seem to have an abnormally high number of flies circling and the bed of ice that the fish are on seems a bit inadequate and dirty, well, you do the math; who are you more likely to buy from?

Farm Vs Wild Salmon

Notice the streaks of fat are wider on the fish on the right along with the color, that is the Farm Raided Salmon, Wild caught on the left

When buying fish read the labels carefully to determine not only where the fish was caught but how it was taken as well. When you purchase directly from the boats when they come in you can be fairly certain the fish were caught using traditional methods such as actually fishing for them. You are also certain that these fish were wild and swimming free before they ran into a lucky angler, but these wild fish are not the only ones being sold as more and more farm raised fish are hitting the markets.

There is a nutritional difference between farm raised and wild caught fish. Farm raised fish are fed those ingredients in their feed that will get them bigger and fatter, quicker. Although they may be fattier, these farmed raised fish possess less useful omega 3 fats than their wild counterparts. To get them to market faster they also may have been treated or exposed to more chemicals. Because of what they have been fed, many fish are given dyes to color their flesh to make them more appetizing and appear like the wild version. Farm raised Salmon are given dyes with their feed as without it their flesh would appear dull gray, yummy.

So, we have all realized that we want to get the freshest fish possible and to do that we need to know where the fish comes from. Chances are the closer the fish is caught to your location the fresher it may be but this is not always true. Most fish that are caught in the United States get to market very quickly and with the enhanced methods of shipping even fish caught in Alaska can get to markets in Miami in very fresh condition. But you still need to know how to determine whether the fish is fresh by physically inspecting it. Knowing the reputation of your fish market will give you something to go on, but here are some things you can do for yourself.

The first thing people usually notice about fish is the smell, or lack of smell if it is fresh. A fresh fish doesn’t really smell fishy but more of an ocean type aroma. If you are smelling anything more than a slight seawater sort or smell or if you pick up an ammonia type odor, put the fish back, it is not fresh.

The gills of fresh fish

We found this on, notice the bright red gills of the fresh fish compared with the older gills

Next check the gills. These are the filaments found right behind the head in the flap of skin and cartilage that lifts up from the fish. The gills are what sea creatures use to breathe and fresh fish should have bright red gills. The older the fish the more dull, gray or brown the gills will be. If your fish doesn’t have reasonably red gills, let it be!

The eyes of a fresh fish should be display a pretty clear pupil and if its cloudy and the eyes are starting to sink into the head you may want to reconsider this purchase. The skin of the fish should be firm and springy to the touch, that is when you push on the skin with your finger it should spring back quickly and be relatively firm to the touch. If it feels a bit mushy and perhaps even slimy it could indicate that the fish has been sitting on its bed of ice for quite some time.

A quick note about shellfish, such as mussels, clams and my favorite, oysters, these are a bit more difficult to determine but a good rule of thumb in addition to the smell test is to tap on the shell and look for some type of movement along where the two halves of the shell meet. Shellfish that are alive will display some type of minor movement at least.

Look, your best way of buying fresh fish and seafood is to develop a good relationship with the fish market you shop at. This also means you must first make certain your fish market is a reputable one, one which practices not only displays good food keeping skills, but also sells only those fish that are caught properly, ethically and from a renewable resource. If you are unsure about the fish you see but have a desire to eat seafood, you might consider buying frozen fish. Sometimes fish that are currently being caught an ocean away are quickly frozen on the fishing boats shortly after they are caught and can be fresher than some of the fish you buy at the store. Whichever way you decide to go, the key is that buying fresh fish should be easy if you know what to look for.

Bon Appetite!

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