How to Buy Fresh or Frozen Fish

Bag the freshest catch with shopping tips for the fishmonger.

Photo by Levi Brown

Fresh Fish Tips

  • Shop. Ask the fishmonger when the fish came in. Aim for fish delivered that day or the day before at the latest.
  • Smell before buying. Fish and shellfish should hint of the sea, not strongly of fish or, worse, ammonia.
  • Whole fish should have taut, shiny skin; bright, clear eyes; and red or pink gills. Telltale signs of fish past their prime are sunken, cloudy eyes and brown gills.
  • Large pieces and fillets should be shiny and glistening. Avoid those that are pale and dull with gaps between the layers of muscle.
  • The best shellfish will be free of any spots, discoloration, or slime. The shells of lobsters, mussels, and clams should not be dented or cracked.
  • Scallops should be off-white to light pink  or orange. Look for dry-packed, rather than wet-packed, scallops. Ask your fishmonger when buying.


Today’s high-tech commercial fishing vessels can flash-freeze their catch within hours. The result: affordable, readily available, high-quality fish. To thaw, unwrap and arrange the pieces in a single layer in a shallow dish, loosely draped with damp paper towels. Refrigerate until thawed. Small pieces and fillets take 6 to 8 hours, large pieces and whole fish up to overnight.

Eat Seafood (Responsibly)

Fish companies aren’t required to tell you much about how they catch their fish, so to help you steer clear of nonsustainable seafood, ask your fishmonger or supermarket or look for the eco-label from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).