Everything You Need to Consider When Buying Fresh, High-Quality Seafood

When it comes to seafood, you can’t be too careful with your selection. The more you know about how to tell if the item is fresh or not, the better. It’s usually pretty simple to tell when seafood is bad – your nose will sound the alarm before anything else does. But how do you know if it’s fresh enough?

There are some easy rules that you can remember and other basic rules of thumb that the professionals use to decide when to buy and sell seafood. Here is everything you need to consider when you are thinking about buying seafood and you want to be sure you purchase high-quality products.

The Different Types of Fish

You may notice that people who like fish commonly have favorites. When they like one type, they often like others that fall into the same category. Of course, some people love fish no matter what kind it is.

Those who prefer milder fish generally like those that are considered “lean” fish. These include white or lighter-colored fish like cod, haddock, halibut, flounder, and sole.

Those who enjoy a stronger flavor tend to prefer fish that fall in the “oily” category. These types of fish have more omega fatty acids in them to account for the more intense taste. They are usually a darker color and include fish like salmon, tuna, and swordfish.

Using Your Senses to Judge Your Seafood Options

Fish and shellfish have a few common traits that let you know whether the person trying to sell them to you is being honest about the freshness of the catch. When you know these giveaways, you will quickly be able to decide whether to walk away or take the deal.

Your sense of smell is almost always triggered when you are around fish. Fresh ocean fish smells like the ocean. It doesn’t have a strong scent, but it’s an unmistakable one. If it smells off, like it’s sour, smells like ammonia, or is extra fishy smelling, follow your nose’s hint and turn it down.

When you look at seafood, especially fish, it only takes a few seconds to judge if it is fresh or not. Look at the eyes if the fish is whole. They should look alive still, bright, clear, and not milky. The scales of a fresh fish are also still bright and smooth, not slimy. In an older fish, the gills turn a brown color, but in fresher fish, they are still red.

Check the fins, too. If they are torn or ragged, the fish was likely mishandled or netted for too long. If you can, press lightly down on the scales of the fish. It should feel cold and slippery, but when you let go, it should bounce back into place. If not, it’s not fresh.

Filleted fish have special signs that let you know if they are fresh or not. If there are cracks in the filet between the white lines that run through it, it was likely mishandled or, if they appeared naturally, they came about because of age. Either way, you don’t want a filet that has cracks or breaks along the muscle and collagen sheaths (the white lines).

Water that is pooling around the fish is also a bad sign. Fish need moisture and absorb it naturally while they are alive. The longer they are dead, the less ability they have to hold that natural moisture.

With shrimp, the easiest way to check for signs of freshness is to look at the coloring. A fresh shrimp has shells that are colorless and see-through, and the meat is white and peach-colored. Bad shrimp will have black spots around the tail or on the shell, telltale signs of age, or white patches on the meat that signify freezer burn. When you can see the shrimp’s eyes, you can apply the same visual exam as with fish. A shrimp’s eyes should be moist and shiny, not dry or shrunken in.

The most important sense to use, though, is your common sense. Shop at vendors that you can trust to provide fresh seafood or order directly from www.Citarella.com or other reputable seafood distributors. If your purchases are coming from a grocery store far away from an ocean, chances are you are not getting a fresh catch.

When you must buy from the grocery store, though, never buy seafood that has already been frozen unless you know it was frozen quickly and never thawed out. Even items marked “fresh” may have the fine print stating that it was previously frozen. When fish is frozen, thawed, and refrozen, it loses flavor and texture.

Consider the Season

There’s a season for all things, and this rule applies with seafood, too. When you purchase fish “in season,” there is a less likely chance of it having been frozen. If it is in season, it is usually cheaper, as well. Farm-raised fish is less expensive than wild fish, but there is nothing quite like that flavor you get from a fish straight out of the ocean.

As you are heading out to buy your meal, consider the season and what fish to expect, such as:

Spring – The best fish to buy in the early to middle spring months are Atlantic cod, snow crabs, king crabs, and Pollock.
Summer – In the summer, the options are much more varied. The late spring and summer season lets you enjoy fish like wild salmon, halibut, scallops, razor crabs, Dungeness crabs, rockfish, sablefish, scallops, shrimp and soft shelled crabs.
Fall – The autumn months bring seafood that is only available for short periods but in demand, like Nantucket Bay scallops, abalone, and cod.
Winter – It just makes sense that fresh seafood is scarce in the winter when most of the water is frozen. But you can get the best oysters during that time since the colder climates keep them from spawning. Flounder is best during the cooler fall through spring months, as well.

What Kind of Parts Should You Buy?

Once you decide on the fish itself, next, you need to choose whether to buy the whole fish or specific parts. It’s an easy breakdown but a significant decision. If you are doing more than just cooking your meat, you’ll want to think about the best parts to purchase.

Some parts of a fish are best for raw servings, some are better than others for boiling, and some are excellent when filleted and cooked.

The different parts of a fish include:

The belly, or the meaty, expensive part. This is considered the fattiest part of the fish, but it also has most of the nutrients. Oily fish are often used for raw meals or served braised since they have a lot of flavor without any additions.
The tail, or the toughest part of the fish. This toughness makes it cheaper than filets and perfect for tartare, which is already tenderized and then dressed.
The filet, or the lean meat. This part of the fish is tasty and aesthetically pleasing, so it is used for just about anything. It’s easy to overcook, though, since it is so lean.
The collar, or the shoulder of the fish (for lack of a better example). There is not a lot of meat in the collar areas, and they are not sold often at your average grocer’s. However, these are commonly used for slow-roasting or braising fish.

With those tips in mind, you can more easily choose your fresh, high-quality fish based on the intended use for your meal.

Tips When Frozen is a Must

Not all frozen fish is a wrong choice. Tuna, for example, is usually frozen almost immediately after it is caught, but because it is frozen so quickly and stays frozen until purchased, it stays fresh. When your fish is frozen that quickly, it keeps the flavor and nutrients.

But if you must buy frozen, you also need to know how to choose the freshest options available. Before you make your purchase, try to find out how it was frozen. If it was caught and frozen quickly after the catch, you should still have a flavorful fish, as long as you thaw it right.

Fish should never thaw quickly. The best and safest way to get the most flavor is to let it thaw naturally in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours. Thawing it on the counter or applying the “defrost” microwave method keeps your fish safe from harmful bacteria or flavor-killing heat.

The Best Seafood is Money Well Spent

When it comes to purchasing high-quality seafood, you know your money is an investment well spent. The cheaper, frozen grocery store fish may give you the ability to say you cooked fish for your meal, but the flavor will never be anywhere close to that fresh-from-the-sea taste of an excellent catch.

Now that you know what to look for the next time you want to buy fresh, high-quality seafood, you will never want to go back to the average, almost out-of-date fish again.


  1. Carole D says

    I wish we had more variety of fresh sea food. I don’t care so much about the frozen one.

  2. Thanks for the information – will be useful buying seafood.

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