With all of the variety and with freshness being so critical, purchasing your seafood can be an intimidating task at first. Do you want a white shrimp or a brown shrimp or a tiger prawn? Should you buy 40 count or 16 count shrimp? Do you want them with shells or no shells? Do you want them with heads on or off? Frozen or fresh? Should you buy the farm raised shrimp from India or the wild caught shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico? The answer of course depends on what is available and what you plan to do with it. So, how do you know which choice is best?
Let’s start with the all-important freshness factor. If you are adventurous like me and you have a great fish market nearby, your best bet is to go in with a totally blank slate and pick the animal in the store that looks the most like it did when it was alive. If you start with a fish that looks like it just came out of the water, or even better, you find a seafood market that carries their fish alive in tanks, you have a great chance of producing an outstanding dish. If you already have a meal planned and you need a specific fish, you will be at the mercy of what your market has to offer. That is OK, but don’t be afraid to walk away from a fish that is of questionable freshness. There are usually other markets that you can look in. I often change my dinner menu to avoid buying a fish that doesn’t look appetizing.
HOW DO YOU KNOW IF A FISH IS FRESH ENOUGH?
Fillets – I prefer to buy my fish whole whenever possible, because you have a lot more indicators of freshness, but if you are buying fillets there are still some ways to tell. If the fish is packaged, always look for any milky residue on the surface of the wrapping or the fish. If I see any, I usually pass. If there is any liquid, it should be either clear or light pink and the consistency should be thin. If it is grey, brown, or cloudy, I would skip it. You can also smell the package. If you can smell it through plastic wrap, it is probably nearing its sell-by date. Speaking of sell-by dates, for fish those dates should be strictly observed.
The color of the meat can vary by species and freshness. It is helpful to have an idea of what color you are expecting for the type of fish you want. If it varies from your expectation, it may be starting to deteriorate. Some types of fish get darker and some get lighter as they age. Some get more pale and some start to redden. When in doubt, google it. Another factor that I look for is slumping. Choose a different item if the fish looks like it losing its firmness or deflating. You can ask the person behind the counter to advise you on freshness, but always trust what you can see, at least until you have built a relationship with that person. For fish with a bloodline, it should be red, not black or brown. Avoid fish with discoloration around the edges.
Whole fish – With whole fish you have many obvious indicators to point you to the freshest fish. The first thing I look at is the eyes. If they look like the fish could still see out of them, that is a good sign. They should be moist, glossy, and clear. They should not be sunken in or deflated. Cloudy eyes are a sign of deterioration. The exception will be when looking at deep sea fish. Their eyes will bug out when they are hauled up from the depths and then they will look bad in the seafood case, but that is OK. The gills are another good indicator. The gills should be a deep red for most types of fish. The gills on aging fish will start to turn brown or pale. If you are uncomfortable opening the gills on a whole fish, the fishmonger will usually be happy to do it for you.
The overall appearance of the body is also a good indicator. It should be glossy and intact. The scales should be flat and not many should be missing. Smell the fish. It will have a stronger smell than a fillet, but you are still looking for fish to smell as little as possible. You can become an expert on these indicators over time, but in general, just remember that you want the fish that looks the most like it did when it was alive.
Frozen fish – I always prefer to buy fresh over frozen, but some fish are just fine frozen. It depends on the species and method they used to freeze it. Unfortunately, when you buy a frozen fish, you have no way of knowing if it will be good until you eat it. Generally, frozen fish are branded, so if you get one that you like, chances are, it will be good the next time you buy it. The advantage of frozen fish is that you can keep it for much longer and you may be able to get types of fish that are not readily available fresh. Some seafood markets sell “refreshed” fish. This is frozen fish that has been thawed out. I would rather buy frozen than refreshed, so I avoid this option where possible.
Crabs – In my opinion, the only way to get a crab that is guaranteed to be fresh enough is to buy a live one. A frozen king crab leg is probably a pretty safe bet, but a Dungeness crab or a blue crab that is already boiled in the case has about a 50/50 chance of being fresh enough to please everyone. They don’t show any signs of deterioration that you can see and they will taste bad before they start to smell bad. Don’t be afraid to buy live crabs. Most areas have a market somewhere that will sell them live. Depending on how far you live from the ocean, the price may be high, but it is worth it. Lobsters and crawfish are the same.
Shrimp – Shrimp usually freeze pretty well. When given the choice, fresh is usually better, but they deteriorate quickly if they are not frozen, so sometimes frozen is your best option. Shrimp are often refreshed, and that is OK. I always recommend that you buy your shrimp in the shells. It is easier to determine the freshness that way. If the shrimp have heads, look at the color. The heads should be somewhat translucent. You should see a tangerine colored spot where you would imagine their cheeks to be. Shrimp that is starting to deteriorate will have black heads or black fluid in the heads and under the shells. If you see this accumulating in the case, they are past their prime. If they have long antennae intact, then you have discovered some extremely fresh shrimp and you are in for a treat. The shells should look glossy like they have been dipped in vegetable oil. Shrimp may smell a little bit, but they will usually be OK once you shell them and wash them. There are many kinds of shrimp and prawns and generally they have the same indicators of freshness. For the deeper colored shrimp, like a camelback shrimp or a spot prawn you may have a harder time seeing the indicators, but they are generally still there.
Clams, Mussells, Oysters – These all need to be purchased live to ensure freshness. Most markets will remove them from the display if they die, but not all. It is important to know how to tell the difference. The shells should be tightly closed when you buy them and any that open before you cook them should be tossed. Some varieties will rest with the shells slightly open. If you close them, they should stay closed. These deteriorate quickly if they die and the smell is the first indicator, so if they don’t smell like an ocean breeze, don’t buy them.
Octopus – I usually buy these frozen and they always seem to be OK. If you buy a fresh one, it should look like it just came out of the water. Frozen, it will look about like a big softball.
Squid – I don’t like to buy these frozen. Generally, if you can find fresh squid and it looks slightly translucent, you should be safe. It should not smell like anything at all and the eyes should be bright and clear.
WHERE TO PURCHASE SEAFOOD
Now that you have an idea how to judge the freshness of your seafood, you can start shopping for a seafood market and you will have some tools to evaluate it. Freshness is the first thing I look for when I walk into a new market. Once I confirm that they have a good display case with several fresh offerings, I consider their variety. There are several different places that you can go to get seafood.
Regular grocery chains – Lately, it seems like your average supermarket is working hard to gain your seafood business with a much more diverse offering than they used to carry. In many markets you can get salmon, Tilapia, swordfish, and Tuna and occasionally some more exotic fare. They usually have another dozen frozen options and a token offering of shellfish. They may not turn their seafood as fast as a well-known seafood store, so use caution when purchasing. They usually only offer fillets or steaks.
Higher end grocery chains – These generally have a more full-service seafood section. If you don’t have a great seafood dealer in your city, this is probably your best bet. You will probably pay more, but they tend to have a much wider variety of species. They will usually process your fish any way you like and may even give you a ready-to-cook options complete with spice rubs or marinades. They usually have a few exotic types of fish, but their offerings seldom change. They may be able to special order other types. They tend to be more knowledgeable and can often recommend how to prepare your fish.
Seafood specialty retailers – If you are lucky enough to have one of these nearby, this is definitely your best bet. Since they are known for seafood, they usually turn over their inventory quickly and so you can usually get the freshest fish. They have to be trusted by their customers, so most have high standards for freshness and they usually won’t leave questionable product in the case. They tend to have a lot of different types and will usually process them any way you like. They can usually order a wide variety of other fish, but sometimes they require you to buy a large portion for a special order. You may pay more here, but it is usually worth it.
Asian grocery stores – In some markets you can find Asian grocers that look unassuming from the outside, but often have incredible seafood sections. These generally are not afraid to keep live seafood in stock and you can often find crabs, lobsters, shrimp, and even some fish live in tanks. They can be a little intimidating, but they usually have a wide variety of species and some real oddball offerings. If you are looking for a fish you’ve never heard of, this is a great place to try. They sell more whole fish because these are more accepted by Asian consumers.
Ports, Marinas, Seafood wholesalers – These are tougher to find, but often the best place to go for freshly caught fish and crabs is wherever you find the boats. Many seaside communities have great seafood markets right at the marina and some artisan fisherman are selling their catches right off the boats. If you can buy a fish that was caught today from the person who caught it, chances are you’ll get the best quality product. Explore these areas for hidden gems. Selection may be limited and unreliable, but you may get lucky and find unexpected tasty treasures.