How to Buy the Best Fish at the Grocery Store, According to Fishmongers

Learn how to find the best fish for grilling, ceviche, and more.

Whether you're grilling a simple piece of salmon, making a tuna fish sandwich, or cooking up shrimp pad Thai, the first and most important step is to understand where the fish came from and how it was sourced. There's a big difference in taste and texture when you consume fresh, local fish, but more importantly, it's our responsibility to make sure the fish we buy is sourced sustainably and in a way that's not harmful to the environment.

After taking a trip to my local fish market, Harvest Moon Market in Clifton Park, N.Y., I chatted with the head fishmonger, Doug Freeman, to learn more about what goes into buying the best possible fish and seafood. It's imperative to understand where the fish comes from, how it was sourced and packaged, and when it was delivered to the shop. Here are some tips for buying fish at your local fishmonger or grocery store, as well as what to avoid.

Packaged Fresh Fish
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How to Buy the Best Frozen Fish

There are many methods that are used to freeze fish before packaging it for sale. When sifting through frozen fish at the market, Freeman notes it's important to look out for one of two labels: Frozen at Sea (FAS) or Individually Quick-Frozen (IQF).

The freshest technique is FAS because it means the fish is caught, filleted, and frozen on the boat almost immediately. If you see a label that says FAS and "previously frozen", it means the fish are frozen whole on a factory boat to preserve freshness, but then they're thawed and processed once they arrive at a plant. Unfortunately, previously frozen fish defeats many of the benefits of FAS, but it's still an ideal option when shopping for fish at the market. To maintain peak freshness of frozen fish, make sure to defrost it right before you plan to cook it.

Fish and shellfish that go through the IQF process are also good option when shopping for frozen fish. This method fast-freezes single units of seafood within a matter of minutes or hours. Shortly after the fish is caught, it's filleted and then bagged with a thin layer of water to help preserve the freshness. Always be sure to inspect any fish that is labeled IQF because it can often have freezer burn or ice crystals, which will impact the flavor.

If you're thawing a fatty fish like salmon or swordfish, it's a good idea to place it in the refrigerator a few hours before you plan to cook it, as opposed to defrosting it on the counter. Thinner, flakier white fish like cod, haddock, or halibut can be cooked right from the freezer. Just lightly coat the fish in olive oil and sauté it for about four minutes, and then remove it from the stove. Sprinkle the fish with salt and breadcrumbs or your favorite condiment, and place it in the oven for a few more minutes to finish cooking.

Why It's Important to Buy Local and Sustainable Seafood

Buying sustainable fish and seafood is critical for various reasons, but it's not always easily accessible. Fishermen who use responsible practices catch what's local depending on the specific region. Purchasing sustainable fish and seafood means you're supporting smaller suppliers that follow important environmental guidelines. What's the best way to make sure you're buying sustainable fish? Visit your local fishmonger and ask where the fish is sourced from, and the process followed from when it was caught. If you don't have a fishmonger nearby, you can get more information and guidelines from Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Guide.

Additionally, when you are buying your seafood, be sure to asses the display. At a fish counter, some signs of freshness (or lack of freshness) will be immediately apparent. Does the fish look old or dried out? Or does the fish counter look clean, washed, and organized?

Another cue: Is fish neatly stacked in the display? Alisha Lumea of Wulf's Fish, a seafood market and distributor in Boston, says that fish should be stored meat-to-meat, skin-to-skin for minimal contamination. If filets are stacked skin-on-meat, consider another store.

Best and Worst Regions to Source Seafood

If your fish was caught on the other side of the world, chances are it doesn't follow sustainable practices. It's always best to buy locally sourced fish and seafood, but if that's not possible, it's a good rule of thumb to make sure it's from somewhere in America. If you see the fish is from Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico, or the Gulf of Maine, you can rest assured knowing it was caught by American fisherman, and follows U.S. regulations.

Many markets stock frozen fish from Thailand and Vietnam, which are known to use unhealthy, unsustainable fishing practices, as well as unsafe labor practices. It's best avoid fish and seafood from these areas because the regulations are vastly different than what they are in America.

How to Buy the Best Canned Fish

While canned fish and shellfish have been around forever, they're gaining popularity in recent years. Canned fish is great to have on-hand because it's affordable, has a long shelf-life, and can be used for a delicious and delicate snack, appetizer, or meal. When perusing the shelves for canned delicacies, there are three things you want to look out for: how was the fish caught, where was it sourced, and how was it canned?

If you're on the hunt for a sustainably sourced solid white tuna or skipjack, you know it's good quality if it comes from the Pacific Northwest, and Eastern and Central Pacific waters. And as you may already know, tinned fish from Portugal and Spain is some of the best in the world —a true indulgence.

Another thing to look out for when selecting canned fish is to make sure that it wasn't caught by commercial fishermen. If the can says "pole and line caught" or "hook and line caught", you're in the clear.

Lastly, if you're grabbing a can from the shelf, it's always crucial that the cans are free of BPA-lining. These days, it's more common to find preserved and cured fish in glass jars and plastic pouches. They might be packed with water or olive oil and herbs, which is obviously fine.

How to Buy Fresh Shellfish

There's nothing more delicious than fresh shellfish like lobster, clams, crab legs, mussels, shrimp, and oysters. It's crucial that you're sourcing the freshest shellfish possible, especially if you're enjoying it uncooked, such as oysters or clams on the half shell. You should use the same tips for buying shellfish as you would when buying fish. Buy it local and ask where it's from, when it arrived at the market, and if you can smell it. Shellfish should never smell fishy, instead they should smell like fresh, salty ocean water.

"I think it's actually easier to get good quality mollusks, because you're buying them live," Lumea adds. "If you see them open, then don't buy them because they're dead."

Best Fish to Fry

It's hard to pass up a piece of crispy fried fish. In fact, fish and chips with a side of homemade tartar sauce is perhaps one of the best dishes to enjoy any time of year. When selecting fish to deep fry, make sure it's a neutral-tasting fish that isn't too oily. Cod, catfish, shrimp, halibut, and tilapia are some of the most common types of fish that have incredible texture and flavor when fried.

Best Fish for Ceviche

If you've never had ceviche, you're sorely missing out. Ceviche is a Latin American dish where firm and semi-firm fish is cut into cubes and cooked using acid from citrus, like lime. Some of the best types of fish to make ceviche are grouper, bass, rockfish, and sole. Pro tip: You can also make a vegan, fish-free ceviche using hearts of palm.

Best Fish to Grill

Grilled fish is incredibly healthy and flavorful, even when it's simply prepared with just salt and lemon. When choosing what fish to grill, you want to make sure you're selecting something that's thick and hearty like salmon, swordfish, or mahi-mahi. Thinner fish won't be able to withstand the heat of the grill, and chances are it will fall apart before you even pull it off the grates. If you want to add a bit more depth and flavor, cook your fish using cedar planks.

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