Because of more sophisticated fishing methods and improved refrigeration and shipping, fishermen are able to bring fish to market that were previously either uncatchable or too perishable. We also rely increasingly on farm-raised fish as well as imports from Canada, Latin America, and even New Zealand.
Most fish markets, therefore, now offer many kinds of fresh fish. It’s true that a handful of species—including tuna, pollock, cod, salmon, and flounder—account for at least three-quarters of all the fish we eat. But other varieties are growing in popularity, and many are available nationwide or over a fairly large area of the country.
Since government inspection is not mandated for seafood, it is up to you to find a reliable source for fresh, wholesome fish. You have to trust your senses when shopping for fish. Overall quality can be judged by sight, smell, and touch.
Getting high-quality fish starts with locating a good fish dealer—either a fish market or a supermarket fish department with a good reputation, a clean appearance, and a knowledgeable staff. Ask questions about unfamiliar fish, expect informed answers, and let the dealer know if seafood you’ve bought is ever unsatisfactory. You are entitled to return it if it is less than perfectly fresh. Even if you’re normally a bargain hunter when shopping for food, keep in mind when you’re buying fish that a reduced price may reflect the dealer’s attempt to sell older fish before it spoils and becomes unsalable. Examine any sale-priced seafood with particular care.
Schedule your shopping so you can get seafood home and into the refrigerator as quickly as possible. Make the fish store or fish counter the last stop of your shopping trip. In warm weather, or when you may be delayed on the trip home, have the fish packed in ice.
What fresh fish should smell like
Your nose will tell you instantly whether the fish in the shop are fresh. On walking in the door, you should smell only a saltwater scent, not a “fishy,” sour, or ammonia-like odor. When buying prepackaged fish, take a closer sniff. Off-odors will penetrate the plastic. The date on the label will help you choose the freshest fish in the display, but don’t place total faith in it: Ask the fish dealer when it was packaged.
Fish decays much faster than beef or chicken, so it must be kept very cold to forestall bacterial growth. It should be displayed on top of clean ice, with metal trays or sheets of paper or plastic to shield the delicate flesh of fish steaks or fillets from direct contact with the ice. Whole or dressed fish, protected by their scales, can safely be placed directly on ice, and should be covered with some ice as well. Fish should not be stacked too deeply or displayed under hot lights.
How to spot the freshest fish
Whole fresh fish should have tight, shiny scales, and should not feel slippery or slimy. The eyes should be bright and clear, not clouded or sunken in their sockets. Gills should be clean and tinged with pink or red, never brownish or sticky.
The surface of a steak or fillet should look freshly cut, and the fish should not be sitting in a pool of liquid. Prepackaged fish should not contain excess liquid, either. The flesh should look moist, slightly translucent, and dense, not flaky. Pass up steaks or fillets that are dried out at the edges.
Whether whole or cut, fresh fish is firm and resilient. If you poke it with your finger, the flesh should spring back, not remain indented.
What to look for in frozen fish
Frozen fish can be of very high quality, but only if it has been handled properly. Sometimes fish are flash-frozen on the boat just after they are caught. Later the fish are thawed and sold as fresh. The quality may be comparable or even superior to fresh fish, and such fish needs no special treatment, except that it should not be refrozen when you get it home. When buying prepackaged frozen fish, be sure that the fish is still solidly frozen when you buy it. Watch out for excessive quantities of ice crystals or water stains on the package, or for cloudy liquid in the package if the wrapping is clear. Avoid fish with freezer burn, which will appear as whitened, cottony-looking patches.
Cuts of fish you'll find in the market
Unlike beef, with its myriad cuts and grades and elaborate nomenclature, the forms in which you’ll find fish in the market are simple and few.
- Whole fish comes to you just as it was caught. You’ll likely have the fish seller prepare it for you, drawing or dressing it or cutting it into steaks or fillets. If the fish is filleted, about half the total weight of a whole fish will be discarded as fins, scales, skin, head, and bones. A whole drawn fish has been eviscerated through a small opening so that it is not split. The gills and usually the scales are removed, but the head and tail are left intact. A whole dressed fish has been split and then eviscerated; it is also scaled, and the fins, head, and tail are cut off. The backbone, which runs through the center of the fish, can be removed if you want to stuff the fish.
- Fillets are the meaty sides of the fish, cut away from the backbone. Most of the other bones are also taken out when the fish is filleted, but fine bones called “pins” may remain; these can be removed before or after you cook the fish. Lean fish fillets are usually sold without their skin. If both sides of the fillet are left connected at the top, it is called a butterfly fillet. If joined at the bottom, it’s a kited fillet. Fillets are the most popular form of fish in the United States. They can be cooked in many different ways—sautéed, steamed, broiled, poached—and are easy to eat because they are basically boneless.
- Steaks are thick, cross-cut slices from dressed large round fish such as salmon, or from large, thick flatfish like halibut. Steaks are usually surrounded by a band of skin and have a section of the backbone in the center. The exception to this is steaks from very large fish, such as tuna or halibut, where the steak is actually a fraction of the full cross-cut. Dense fish steaks can be grilled or broiled, braised, or cut up for use in chowder. Steaks of fish with more delicate flesh are good for poaching and baking.
- Fish fingers are strips of fillets or steaks that are ideal for a quick sauté.