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How To Buy Fresh Fish and Seafood

posted in Meat, Poultry and Seafood by Lisa Freeman

When it comes to buying fish and seafood, freshness should never be in doubt. While it’s nearly impossible to gauge freshness when you order seafood in a restaurant, you do have control when you’re shopping for yourself. Here’s what to look for:


Look at the fish carefully:

  • It should not look dry or have scales coming away
  • Everything should have a wet look to it
  • The eyes should be clear and the gills should be a vivid red
  • The flesh should spring back when touched
  • Filets should have an even tone in color and not have any dark or dry spots.

If you’ve got a local fish market, tap into the knowledge of the fish monger. They can usually give you details about when the fish was caught and when it should be eaten. Though I live near a large city, I have to rely on my supermarket for fish. You want to shop in a place where there is a high turnover of products and lots of activity.

Next, make sure your fish is nestled in crushed ice. Take a peek around and check whether the surrounding area is clean. You shouldn’t see any bits of fish parts, liquids or blood pooling lying about.

Note the smell. A fishy smell indicates that you need to walk away. A faint salty or seaweed aroma is perfectly acceptable. And don’t be afraid to ask the monger for a sniff of the fish if you are unsure about its quality.


It’s pretty easy to tell if lobsters, crab and other living seafood are fresh. Usually if they’re alive, thrashing about actively, and their tank water is clean, they’re fresh. Don’t buy anything that’s listless or dead. Clams, mussels and shellfish can be a bit trickier, however. If the shells aren’t tightly shut, or are slightly open (no more than a 1/8th of an inch) and don’t quickly close when you touch them, they are dead and should be avoided.

Shrimp should have a shiny, wet appearance with tight scales and, as with all other fish, no odor. You’ll need to decide if you want to buy your shrimp that have been previously de-veined (sometimes referred to as EZ peel). I recommend this for the beginner cook. Buying the shrimp whole and cleaning them yourself is more economical, but it’s a huge time-saver to buy pre-cleaned shrimp.

Fresh or Frozen?

Don’t be afraid to ask your monger lots of questions about the fish. He or she should be able to tell you if it’s fresh or frozen and when it came into the shop. They can confirm whether it’s local or has been shipped. All these factors help gauge the freshness of the fish.

Frozen is not always bad. If you want to eat Chilean Sea Bass, you will almost certainly have to buy it frozen. In some parts of the world, the market must divulge whether a fish you are buying has been previously frozen, is wild-caught or farmed, etc.

If possible, try to eat your fish or seafood the day you bring it home. If you have to put off cooking it for a day, wrap well with plastic wrap and put it in an airtight bag. Make a “bed of ice” for the fish by placing a bag of ice on the bottom of a plastic container and put the fish on top of it. Fish can be frozen for several months in an air-tight container.

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Andy said:

Great advice! I don’t actually like fish much, but it is something I still want to learn to buy and cook, and until now it was a complete mystery to me.

Kathy Maister said:

A really quick dinner is to cook Salmon in the Microwave. The high fat content in salmon makes it a perfect match for microwave cooking.

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