The Right Way to Buy and Store Fish

New Bedford Working Waterfront

Fresh fish is readily available in New Bedford, Mass., the top producing fishing port in America. (Photo by Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, Flickr)

Having lived on the coast, we are picky when it comes to seafood. In Massachusetts, we got really spoiled because New Bedford is still the top producing port in the U.S. when it comes to commercial fishing revenue, according to NOAA, so there was never a shortage of fresh-off-the-boat scallops, monkfish, lobster, summer flounder, black sea bass, and more. Now that we are back in Texas, finding quality seafood is a chore. However, that doesn’t mean it is impossible! So here’s the 4-1-1 on what you should know no matter where you buy your fish, and a few tricks on how best to store it when you do.


Look for clear eyes and shiny skin when picking fish at the market. (Photo by David Rogers-Worrall, Flickr)

Quality matters. Regardless of where you purchase your fish, know what you’re looking for. First off, give it a sniff. If it smells fishy, skip it. Although saltwater fish will smell salty like the sea, fresh water fish shouldn’t have any smell at all.

If the fish is still whole, make sure that the gills are red or pink and that the eyes are clear and slightly bulbous. The flesh should also be firm rather than soft or squishy. Don’t be afraid to ask your fish monger to let you feel the fish. Not only will doing so allow you to check for quality, but it will let them know they can’t bamboozle you into purchasing old seafood.

When buying fish that is already filleted, make sure that the flesh doesn’t have any gaps or separations in it and that the fillets are shiny and firm. If the fillets still have the skin on them, they should be shiny as well and free from discoloration.

Maine Avenue Fish Market Fish

Be sure to check the quality of “previously frozen” fish. (Photo by Mr.TinDC, Flickr)

Fresh vs. frozen. As mentioned at the onset, it’s easy to find fresh fish in a fishing town. But if you’re landlocked, don’t fret. You’re not constrained to purchasing meat with legs. Most grocers have a freezer department full of seafood, and just because it has been frozen doesn’t mean that it isn’t still a tasty and healthy meal option.

After all, most of the fish you buy frozen is flash-frozen right after it’s caught. Once fishermen in New Bedford hauled the fish into the boat, many immediately froze it right there while others did so as soon as they got to the dock, thereby locking in flavor and preventing deterioration.

Where you have to be most careful is when grocers display fish on ice inside the glass cooler case. Watch for the words “previously frozen.” This doesn’t mean you should automatically pass it by, but it does warrant further inspection, primarily because you don’t know how long the fish has been there. So use the quality check tips above if this is where you buy your seafood. Otherwise, just buy the prepackaged fish straight out of the freezer section because this is likely your safest bet.

Fresh filleted catfish

Whether storing fresh fish or thawing frozen ones, wrap them in plastic before putting them in the refrigerator. (Photo by Jered and Alexis Hofker, Flickr)

Storing fish. If you do buy fresh or “previously frozen” seafood days in advance of preparation, pat it dry and wrap it tightly in plastic wrap, then put it on ice in a colander nestled inside a bowl. Set the bowl in the coldest part of the refrigerator, typically on the very back of the shelf.

If you need to thaw frozen fish, you will also pat it dry and wrap it in plastic wrap. But put it in the colander without the ice, and nestle the collander in a bowl in the back of the fridge until it is ready to cook. Your seafood should be prep ready in just a few hours.

About Jathan Fink
Jathan is a journalist, philanthropist, and entrepreneur. He is also a travel junkie, foodie and jazz aficionado. A California native, he resides in Texas.

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