How to Buy Fish

By TBSP Angela
Created March 8, 2017
Try these fish-buying tips to help you distinguish a good catch from one thats just plain fishy. MORE+ LESS-

If you’ve never shopped for fish before, how are you supposed to know what’s good? Is that tilapia fresh? Is farmed fish okay to eat? What does sustainability have to do with it? Here's how to buy fish that’s fresh, tasty and good for the environment.

What to Look For

Whether your tastes run to salmon (awesome on the grill) or catfish (Cajun cooking, anyone?), the fish should never smell fishy. That means Nemo has been hanging around a little too long. In general, whole fish or fresh filets should be displayed on a bed of clean, crushed ice. Saltwater fish, like sea bass, should smell lightly of ocean breezes, not low tide. Freshwater fish, like lake trout, should smell clean and not mucky.

If you’re buying a whole fish, check the eyes. Are they glassy or clouded over? Take a pass. Eyes should be clear, gills red, scales shiny. Checking out filets or steaks? A white-fleshed fish should be translucent and faintly pinkish. Colored fish should be evenly colored. Buying packaged fish? Double check the “sell by” date and make sure there’s little or no liquid at the bottom.

What to Ask

One of the best sources of information is the guy behind the counter at your local fish store. Getting to know him will help you snag tips on picking the best fish, what’s in season, and the source of the fish. Sometimes I’ve been steered away from a not-so-great choice and told when to come back for a better deal. You can also score some great recipes. If your fishmonger doesn’t have a clue, it’s time to find a new fish market.

Why Do You Need to Know the Source of the Fish?

Some fish are considered more sustainable than others, meaning that we’re not taking them out faster than they can reproduce. Certain species, like Atlantic cod and red snapper, have been overfished and their numbers are dwindling. This is why aquaculture, otherwise known as fish farming, is becoming so popular. In fact, nearly half the fish we eat are farmed.

Should You Buy Farmed Fish?

That depends. Not all fish farms are the same. Some fish farms crowd fish too closely together, making it easier for diseases to develop and spread to native species. Therefore, these fish are fed antibiotics, something you might not want on your dinner plate. By law, your supplier has to tell you the country of origin. The US regulates aquaculture pretty tightly, which makes these fish more expensive. If you’re looking at inexpensive farmed fish in your market’s display case, odds are good that they were not raised using sustainable practices.

Are Some Fish Safer to Eat Than Others?

Fish higher on the food chain, like tuna and swordfish, have a higher concentration of heavy metals like mercury in their bodies. You may want to limit how frequently you eat these fish, especially if you are pregnant or are serving them to children. If you are determined to have fresh tuna, know that it’s often gassed with carbon monoxide to preserve it and keep that appealing watermelon-like color. The USDA allows this, but many countries have banned the practice. A good fish supplier will tell you if your tuna has been tampered with.

Should You Buy Previously-Frozen Fish?

Whole, fresh-caught fish are often frozen, sometimes within seconds, to keep them fresher until they arrive home, days or even weeks later. This method, labeled as “Frozen at Sea,” makes them virtually indistinguishable, when thawed, from fresh fish. A fish frozen later may compromise a bit on texture and taste.

If you know how to buy fish, navigating the fish market is a snap. What happens when you bring your fabulous filets home is up to you, and your creativity.

Fish Food

Looking for ideas on what to do with your catch o’ the day? Tbspsusan has two great posts on “how to” fish cooking techniques. Check out How to Poach Fish and How to Fry Fish.

Gabi M. from brokeassgourmet offers up a budget-friendly approach to feeding your friends with a Fish Taco Dinner Party.

But if you’re looking for dinner ideas, you'll find some great fish recipes on Tablespoon:

Got a good recipe? Need one? Let’s talk!