There’s nothing to be intimidated about—so long as you follow these simple steps.

By Betty Gold
Updated: June 24, 2019
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Seafood—which includes both fish and shellfish—offers an array of promising health benefits, like protein, omega 3 fatty acids, plus the ability to boost your heart health and keep your brain sharp. Salmon, cod, shrimp, oysters, and the like are delicious and super simple to prepare, too.

It’s an unfortunate reality, however, that many people are intimidated by the idea of buying, prepping, and cooking seafood at home. Whether it’s the raw fish factor, the muddling mix of health-related concerns (like mercury or food poisoning), questions of sustainability or just uncertainty about how to cook it, it’s not uncommon for seafood lovers to solely be willing to curb their calamari or clam cravings in restaurants.

No longer. We teamed up with Andrew Gruel, the chef behind the high quality-seafood restaurant group Slapfish, to bring you an easy-to-follow checklist to make sure you’re shopping for seafood safely.

Buying Tips

  • Make sure there is an origin label before buying seafood at a seafood counter. The more information posted, the more trustworthy the fish monger. Gruel recommends looking for a BAP (Best Aquaculture Practices) logo when purchasing fish, too. The blue logo ensures the fish farm has been assessed on varying levels from feeding to processing to harvesting.
  • Some refrigerated seafood may have time-temperature indicators on their packaging, which show if the product has been stored at the proper temperature. Check these (when they’re present) and only buy the seafood if the indicator shows that the product is safe to eat.
  • Fish should smell fresh and mild. It shouldn’t have any overly fishy, sour, or ammonia-like odors. The fish’s eyes should look shiny and clear.
  • The flesh of a whole fish should be firm with red gills and no odor. Fresh fillets should have firm flesh and red blood lines and be free from discoloration, darkening, or drying around the edges. When pressed, the flesh should spring back.
  • If you’re fearful of mercury, remember this easy rule of thumb: don’t eat any varieties of fish that require a steak-knife. Firmer cuts like swordfish, bluefin tuna, marlin, shark, and more tend to contain higher amounts of mercury.
  • Fresh fish and fish fillets sold as “Previously Frozen” may not have all the characteristics of fresh fish (e.g., bright eyes, firm flesh, red gills, flesh, or bloodlines), however, they should still smell fresh and mild, not fishy, sour, or rancid.
  • Buying farm fished is safe because it is a controlled environment. “I’m a huge fan of fish farming when it’s done right because it is incredibly efficient and removed pressure from wild stock species,” says Gruel.
  • When shopping for shellfish, throw away any clams, oysters, and mussels if their shells are cracked or broken. You can also do a “tap test.” Live clams, oysters, and mussels will close when the shell is tapped— it they don’t close when tapped, do not select them.
  • Shrimp, scallop, and lobster flesh should be clear with a pearl-like color and little or no odor.
  • If you want to have a fail-safe approach to safe seafood shopping, simply buy frozen seafood. Seafood beings to develop the bacteria and histamines as it thaws—if bought frozen, you don't risk that process. Just make sure to avoid packages with signs of frost or ice crystals, which may mean the fish has been stored a long time or thawed and refrozen. In addition, frozen fish should not be bendable

Storing Tips

  • Put seafood on ice or in the refrigerator or freezer as soon as possible after buying it.
  • If seafood will be used within 2 days after purchase, store it in a clean refrigerator at a temperature of 40°F or below. Use a refrigerator thermometer to check! Otherwise, wrap it tightly in plastic, foil, or moisture-proof paper and store it in the freezer.
  • Always wash your hands and any utensils (cutting boards, knives, dishes) with soap and hot water after handling raw seafood. This is especially important if you’ll be bouncing between prepping raw foods and those that are ready-to-eat to avoid cross-contamination.

Cooking and Serving Tips

Most seafood should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145°F. If you don’t have a food thermometer, there are other ways to determine whether seafood is done:

  • Fish: The flesh is clear and separates easily with a fork
  • Shrimp, Scallops, Crab, and Lobster: The flesh becomes firm and clear
  • Clams, Mussels, and Oysters: The shells open during cooking — throw out ones that don’t open

Uncooked spoiled seafood can have sour, rancid, fishy, or ammonia odors that may become more evident after cooking. If you smell anything off in your raw or cooked seafood, do not eat it. If you smell either a fleeting or persistent ammonia odor in cooked seafood, do not eat it.

“Cooking seafood ‘low and slow-style’ is always better for safety, because you can ensure it is cooked all the way through without worrying about it being overcooked,” says Gruel. “People have a fear of overcooking, so if you do low and slow then it won't dry out.” Also, use fresh herbs, olive oils and citrus to spruce it up!

For the full guide to seafood safety, check out this list from the FDA.

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