How to Buy and Prepare Fresh Fish

For many people there may be nothing more intimidating at the supermarket than the fresh fish counter. All those whole fish on ice lying alongside all those fillets and steaks — who knows where to start? How can you even tell if it's fresh? (See also: Sustainable Seafood Choices)

This is very unfortunate, because fish is a great source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids, and fresh fish, if done well, is so delicious. But the truth is, identifying fresh, good quality fish is actually pretty easy, once you know what to look for. And proper storage and preparation is easy, too.

So, first things first. How do you tell if your fish is really fresh?

Visit a Real Fish Market

I am a fan of fish markets. At a fish market, this is what they do. I like to talk to someone who knows the about the fish, how to prepare it, and whether I am really getting a good deal. I think if you build a rapport with a good fishmonger, they will steer you in the right direction in order to get your repeat business. (See also: Produce Worker's Guide to Choosing Fruits and Veggies)

Shop Carefully at Your Supermarket

This is not to say that if you do not have a separate fish market in your town, you are out of luck. Many grocery stores now have specialized fish counters, and the employees there are trained in how to handle fish.

Take the Sniff Test

I would never try to buy fish while I had a cold! You need to be able to smell it — or, rather, NOT smell it. Just pick that package up, and give it a sniff. Do you smell the fish? If it is an ocean fish, it should smell like the ocean. Freshwater fish shouldn't really smell like much of anything. If it smells really "fishy," odds are, it's not very fresh.

Poke It

Boing! Through the plastic, or using a food handler's glove, see if that flesh springs back if you push on it. It should.

Look for Clear Eyes

If you are buying a whole fish, check the eyes. They should be clear. Cloudy eyes mean old fish.

Inspect Gills and Scales

Two more places to check, if you are buying a whole fish: The gills and the scales. Scales should not be loose, and the gills should be clear red.

Where's That Fish From?

Where did the fish come from? If it isn't on the package, I'd ask. You want to be certain your fish was caught, or farmed, using safe practices. Seafood Watch provides handy recommendations about safe and sustainable seafood, and even has an "app" so you can check while shopping.

Keeping It Fresh at Home

How do you store fresh fish? Hopefully, you won't have to store it for more than two days. If you must store it, make sure you keep it in the coldest part of your refrigerator.

Save by Buying Whole

Wise Bread readers, I know, look for the most economical ways to obtain the best product. Sometimes, whole fish are much less expensive per pound (and you may be able, in some locations, to obtain them right off the dock for even less). Are you intimidated by the thought of cutting up a whole fish? Don't be; it's easy. (See also: One Chicken, One Week of Dinners)

Now, Cooking With It

Now that you have your fish, what do you do with it? Here are some of my favorites. (See also: How to Prepare Affordable White Fish)

"Camping" Trout

This is my husband's method. Clean fish, rinse, and drain slightly on paper towels. Beat one egg in a bowl. Put about a cup of cornmeal on a plate and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Dip trout in beaten egg and then in cornmeal. Flip fish so that both sides are coated in cornmeal. Heat skillet and add oil. When oil is hot, but not smoking, place the trout in pan. When golden brown, turn and fry other side. Serve with bacon, hash browns, and coffee.

Grilled Salmon

Fresh salmon, on the grill, is fantastic.

Simple Sole

When I was growing up, my mother did the fish-on-Fridays thing. She favored fresh sole, very simply prepared.

Salted and Baked Sole

Sole baked in a salt crust is not as simple as my mother's, but the results are wonderful, and the presentation is dramatic. You can try this with other kinds of fish, too.

Fish en Pappilote

That just means fish steamed in paper, with just a few herbs and some kind of acid like wine or lemon juice to make the steam and add flavor. Simple, and so pretty on the plate.

Steamed Whole

This is another dramatic and delicious presentation — a whole fish on the plate! Celebrity chef Anita Lo's recipe is based on the classic from Chinese cuisine, but with just a few ingredients, all of which you'll find at your supermarket.

Ahi Poke

Ahi Poke is my favorite food, and this recipe couldn't be easier. Needless to say, your tuna had better be fresh for this preparation!

I know it can be a little intimidating. If you have any questions, I'll do my best to answer them in the comments, below. Happy fishing!

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Guest's picture

Many thanks for the tips on buying fresh fish. It really is difficult these days to find good fish. Off the the market for me...

Guest's picture

I just go to Chinatown and have it gutted and cleaned right there. Fish/shellfish is always fresh and cheaper than places like Whole(paycheck) Foods.

Guest's picture

My husband is a chef his tips are:
NEVER order fish out in a restaurant on a Monday! (And we live in California and he still keeps me to that rule (unless you see it coming out of the ocean) :)
Know your fishmonger!
Use your nose. Fish should have NO smell.

Guest's picture

This is some particularly good advice, especially if you shop for "fresh" fresh fish. Like, the stuff not at your big box retailers.

You can save tons on fish bought from framer's markets, but you need to know what you're looking for

Guest's picture

I've stopped buying fresh fish for a while now! Thanks for this post, hopefully I'll stop by my local farmer's market and pick up something fresh (And get out of the canned tuna trap!) :)