Thursday, December 1, 2005

Fish Buying FAQ

Have you ever wondered why some fish markets smell fishy and others don’t? Is prepackaged fish as good as cut to order? And what about farm-raised? Here are the answers to the most frequently asked questions I hear in my fish cooking classes.

The fish market smells fishy. Is that a bad sign?

While the fish should smell like the sea or nothing at all, the fishy smell in the market is not necessarily an indication or spoiled fish. If you are in an ethnic fish market that carries salt cod, you’ll know as soon as you walk in due to strong fishy smell. It is a Mediterranean specialty and very delicious in spite of the smell, so don’t be grossed-out. In spite of modest appearance, the fish markets where the owners are from fish eating countries (Italy, Portugal, Spain, China, Japan, etc) are often the best places to buy fish.

Other reasons you might encounter a fishy smell are the skin and bones left over from filleting fish. Since the fish stays best whole, the markets that fillet their own fish are usually offering you a better product even though the market might smell fishy. Since supermarket chains get their fish already filleted and rarely carry salt cod, you have to be very suspicious if a supermarket fish counter smells.

What about Fresh vs. Frozen fish?

Lately, everyone seems to have an opinion on what kind of fish you shouldn’t buy. Ideally, all fish would be fresh and wild, but we all know that’s not the reality. Here is my opinion on this subject and you should take it as just that – another opinion.

Fatty fin fish (salmon, bluefish, trout, Chilean sea bass) freeze well and lose very little moisture during defrosting. Lean fish (cod, flounder, halibut, red snapper) lose a lot of moisture during defrosting and their texture suffers tremendously. The amount of time fish spends in the freezer makes a huge difference. Most of the fish sold frozen have been in the freezer way too long, so those affordable Trader Joe's fish packages are usually quite awful. Remember that there is no such thing as a free lunch, particularly with fish. I do sometimes freeze fatty fish at home for a couple of weeks to simplify my shopping. But keep in mind that you can't freeze fish twice and you have to defrost it in the fridge for 24 hours (48 hours for fillets thicker than 1 inch).

Here is more info on fresh vs. frozen fish.

What about Farm-Raised vs. Wild fish?

This one is even more touchy than fresh vs. frozen. Due to bad environmental reputation of farm-raised fish, consumers suddenly decided that it tastes bad. That is absolutely not true; Atlantic salmon, Mediterranean bass, arctic char, white trout, and tilapia are all farm-raised and delicious.

The fish market is required to tell you whether the fish was previously frozen or farm-raised, so read the fine print on the labels carefully.

Since information about environmental concerns and endangered species changes faster than I type, consult the following sources for up to date information:

Monterey Bay Aquarium
Blue Ocean Institute

Is prepackaged fish any good?

Prepackaged fish can be perfectly fresh, but there are several drawbacks to buying it already prepackaged.
  • You can’t ask for exact amount of fish that you need.
  • You don’t know how long the fish was sitting in that package and how long you can keep it at home.
  • Some prepackaged fish have been treated with chemicals to slow down decomposition. This does not happen at organic supermarkets, but you never know about regular ones.
  • More often than not, there is no friendly fishmonger to ask questions about fish personalities, substitutions, or appropriate cooking methods. It’s just you and that styrofoam container.

How much fish should I buy?

How much fish to buy depends a lot on your appetite. A standard serving of fish is 6oz of boneless flesh. 8oz usually satisfies even the heartiest eaters. Here is a guideline on getting 6-8oz of flesh from different cuts of fish:
  • For boneless fillets and steaks, buy 6-8 oz of fish per person.
  • For on the bone steaks, buy 8-10 oz of fish per person.
  • For whole fish, buy 12-16 oz of fish per person.


Walter Jeffries said...

Interesting post. I tend to avoid the prepackaged fish but I didn't have a good reason before. On the fresh vs frozen, we end up with frozen most of the time. We only get in town to go shopping once ever couple of months so we have to freeze the fish if we want to eat it more than just right after shopping (which we also do). Odd circumstance. As you say, sauce it.

mzn said...

This is a very helpful FAQ.

I'm not sure about the restaurants' avoidance of frozen fish. There have been articles in the past couple of years about how much of the tuna and salmon served as sushi and sashimi is frozen to a very low temp, in part to kill parasites or bacteria.

Anonymous said...

Very helpful! Thanks!


Anonymous said...

I don't have a comment, but I do have a question. Does anyone know of a company that handles only fish. I am highly allergic to shrimp, lobster or any other shell fish. I know the benefits of eating fish and would love to have some baked fish. It has been years since I have eaten seafood.

Helen said...

Hi Dolly,

I don't believe there are any fishmongers that will not carry shellfish, but if it's a reputable place, you shouldn't get any cross-contamination between them. I would find a fishmonger that you can trust and ask them if they can help. If you are in Boston are, New Deal Fish market is your best bet. He stores most fish whole and if he knows you have an allergy, he'll fillet a piece just for you with clean knife and everything.


Tony said...

I lecturer in cookery at a polytechnic in New Zealand. I set up a blog to provide additional good quality information for my students about various course related food topics. I will add a link to your blog from mine, so that my students can access your information. If that's not ok please say so.

Thanks Tony

Anonymous said...

A kosher fishmonger won't go anywhere near seafood, all of their products must be of the fin and scales variety.

Anonymous said...

Please everyone, if you MUST buy farmed salmon research the country you are buying it from first (as in where the fish farm is). Some countries STILL feed their salmon DDT...DDT(!) a chemical that is KNOWN to cause birth defects. There have been NO studies on what the effect of eating DDT-fed salmon are.

In addition, purchasing farmed salmon directly hinders the ability of local fishermen to earn a living. If you don't want to pay the mark-up and you live near a salmon fishing hot spot, buy direct from the fisherman. There are also several reputable companies in Alaska (THE best salmon every) who will flash freeze fresh, wild salmon (the only kind of Alaska salmon, farming is illegal there) and send it to you at very little cost.

Please folks, research.

Anne Wright said...

Thanks to your inspiration I finally got beyond salmon. I talked to the fishmonger and ended up with some mahi mahi. It was yummy. :)

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I buy fish at Costco and end up with way more fish than I can eat. Is it possible to keep the fish fillets in any kind of marinade that will preserve it? Any other ideas on what I can do with excess fish other than freezing it? (the fish in this case happens to be Rainbow trout)


Helen said...

Trout freezes quite well for a month or so. If you want to prolong its life for just 3-4 days, cook it all and then use in fish cakes, fish burgers, pates, or salads.

HoppedUp said...

My great uncle taught me to freeze Salmon in Tupperware containers by submerging the fish in heavily salted water. This does an excellent job of keeping it frozen and tasting great for long periods, many months.

Alaskan Harvest Seafood said...

Great post! Unfortunately there is not enough information out to the general public about fish and the HUGE differences between quality and taste with things like farmed vs wild and fresh vs. frozen.

One thing that you may have left out (probably because you and your readers are savvy enough to know this already) is that lots of examples of "fresh" fish at markets, ESPECIALLY the larger chains are not actually fresh, and are on the downward cycle of their sales life. What I mean by that is that typically when fish is sold at a market, it's already been at least a week since it was caught and processed, but generally closer to 2 weeks before you actually pick it up. During that time it has been frozen and is thawing/thawed in the cases on the ice you see when you go to purchase it.

Another note is that many people buy farmed fish that has been killed with gas, which actually turns the color to a light gray/white color. Due to this discoloration from the gassing, processing centers will use red food dye, especially for salmon to add the color back into it.

As another poster has mentioned, the best would be to buy flash frozen seafood from Alaska, like we sell, but unfortunately it does come at a considerable price increase over $9.99/lb salmon sales at places like costco, which would also be local.

There are a huge number of factors but even if you can't afford or don't wish to purchase Wild, please consider all of the factors and do your research ahead of time so you get the best bang for your buck and know exactly what you are putting into your bodies.

Helen said...

Dear Alaskan Harvest Seafood,

Thanks for your thought provoking comment. A couple of clarifications:

1) "fish being killed with gas" -- I heard no such thing. Sometimes companies treat filleted fish with CO2 or O2 in order to preserve its color. it's a completely harmless practice mostly done to high end tuna.

2) "color added after the fish is killed" -- I've never heard that either. usually color is added into the feed of farmed salmon. it's not like adding paint. they add beta carotene to turn the fish flesh orange. just like your cheeks will turn orange if you eat a lot of carrots.

3) "even when it's labeled 'fresh', it might be frozen" -- in MA, where I live, there is a law that all previously frozen seafood needs to be labeled as such. not sure about other states.

Nothing against wild seafood, but there is a lot of farm-raised seafood that tastes great, is exceptionally fresh and is not environmentally evil.

I don't want to repeat all the arguments here, since I've written about this issues ad nauseam on my blog. Just search it for "farm-raised."

Unknown said...

Who's buying salt water fishes please tell me sir