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5 Ways to Know You’re Buying Fresh Fish

5 Ways to Know You’re Buying Fresh Fish

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Check out this list before your next trip to the fish market.

We’re all aware of the adage that beauty is skin deep. But let’s face it, the first thing we notice when we meet someone is their exterior beauty: their skin, their eyes, their scent, and their overall appearance. In short, we notice the way they present themselves to the outside world. And things are no different at the local fish market. We’ve compiled a list of specific things that you can look for in a fish’s appearance to make sure you are getting the freshest available.

Like with dating, in the fish market, you have to be privy to how the exterior of each fish looks. In particular, make sure you check out the the skin and the eyes. Even the touch of the skin gives you important clues as to whether or not your choice is a worthy investment. So, size up your fish choice like you would a life partner.

Check out this list before your next trip to the fish market. It will help you to learn when a fish is good-to-go or if you need to look for other fish in the sea. Keep these tips in mind and you're sure to get the freshest fish available. Remember, don't be afraid to get up close, poke, and pry at the fish. The fresher the fish, the tastier that it will be.

The Best Way to Cook Fresh Fish

When I was growing up the only fish we ate was tuna noodle casserole (remember that?!), salmon croquettes, and fish sticks. The tuna and salmon came from cans and the fish sticks came out of a box from the freezer.

I do remember once or twice eating fresh fish that my dad caught. He cleaned it and grilled it and mom served it with tartar sauce. And it was always yummy!

His mom's way is delicious, no argument there, but there are OTHER equally as delicious ways to cook fresh fish.

Everything you need to know about buying fresh fish

The fish counter can strike terror in the hearts of otherwise confident food shoppers. Whether it's fear of bones, an aversion to seeing whole animals or confusion about what exactly to buy and how to cook it, even avowed fish lovers often shy away from cooking seafood at home. And so Newsday food reporter Erica Marcus spent the afternoon on Wednesday, May 1, with Frank Palermo, owner of Claws Seafood Markets in West Sayville and a former head fish buyer for Pathmark supermarkets, for a crash course in choosing fish. Credit: Yvonne Albinowski

The fish counter can strike terror in the hearts of otherwise confident food shoppers. Whether it’s fear of bones, an aversion to seeing whole animals or confusion about what exactly to buy and how to cook it, even avowed fish lovers often shy away from cooking seafood at home.

Many of these problems can be solved in one fell swoop by patronizing one of Long Island’s great independent fish markets. Think about it this way: Nobody goes into seafood retailing for glory or riches. Sharing a passion for fish with their clients is the reward most of these folks seek. Make the fishmonger your friend, and you’re most of the way to a successful fish supper.

Nevertheless, as the saying goes, an educated consumer is the best customer. And so we spent an afternoon with Frank Palermo, owner of Claws Seafood Markets in West Sayville and a former head fish buyer for Pathmark supermarkets, for a crash course in buying fish.

Do fish have a season?

“People don’t often think about seasonality with fish,” Palermo said. “But many fish have seasons — in our waters and in other parts of the world.” Spring, he said, is when soft-shell crabs start showing up in the Northeast. This year Claws got its first shipment in early May but, starting later in the month and going through the summer, the supply will increase and the price will come down.

Spring, though, “is not the best time of the year for local fish.” Palermo looks forward to the fall for local “striped bass, tuna, porgy, swordfish, blue, weak, squid, crabs, trigger, the list goes on and on.” The season for Long Island’s most famous catch, the Peconic Bay scallop, starts in November and, though it runs through March, is usually exhausted by December.

How can I tell if the fish is fresh?

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“When you look at a fish,” Palermo said, “the eyes should be clear, the scales should be intact, the gills should be red.” A fresh whole fish will also be covered in shiny, gleaming “slime” and, when you poke it with your finger, the flesh should bounce back. It should have nothing but the faintest ocean scent.

How exactly would a customer assess the resilience or the smell of the fish that’s in a glass case? “I want the customer to smell and touch the fish” he said. “I’ll give her a pair of gloves and let her at it.”

What about assessing fillets and steaks?

“When the fish has been cut into pieces, the flesh should be moist, never dry, no browning or off-coloring around the edges. If the meat is separating from itself, that’s a sign of age,” he said.

What’s the difference between fillets and steaks, anyway?

“The fillet is a long, mostly boneless cut alongside the backbone. For steaks, the fish is crosscut through the backbone.”

Should I avoid farmed fish?

“People don’t insist on wild cows, chickens or pigs,” he said. “Fish is the only protein out there where you even have a choice.”

For most species, he continued, it’s either or: “There is no farmed mackerel, no farmed flounder. And there’s no wild tilapia, very little wild branzino.”

“What I want people to ask me,” he continued, “is ‘tell me about the farm that the fish comes from.’”

What makes one farm better than another?

Palermo looks for farms that raise fish without antibiotics, in large enough pens that they have room to swim about. “It’s the same with chicken,” he said. “You have some chickens raised in tiny, confined areas, and you have chickens raised with room to run around. Same with free-range beef or pastured pork.”

What’s better, farmed or wild salmon?

It’s a complicated issue because there are so many variables involved. Most farmed salmon is from the Atlantic Ocean, from Maine and Canada across to Norway and Scotland. Salmon is also intensively farmed along the Pacific coast of Chile. All belong to the same species and the differences among them are due to farming practices — what they are fed, how much room they have to swim, at what size are they processed.

“When you go to a supermarket and see salmon at $5.99 a pound,” Palermo said, “it’s typically a Chilean salmon, raised in small pens and pulled out while it’s small.” At Claws, the farmed salmon usually comes from Scotland or Norway and sells for between $13 and $18 a pound. While the USDA does not certify any fish as organic, Palermo looks for salmon that has been so designated by the European Union.

Wild salmon species, all from the West Coast, include chinook or king, coho or silver, sockeye or red, and steelhead. They are caught as they return from the sea to rivers on the West Coast, from California all the way north to Alaska, and their seasons are strictly regulated by the federal and state governments to ensure a healthy stock. Typically, the king begins running in April, sockeye (including the famous Copper River sockeye from Alaska) in May and coho in July. Prices per pound can start in the high $20s and go north of $40s. Out of season — from late summer to early spring — any wild salmon in the market is frozen, though not always labeled as such.

Most farmed salmon has a milder flavor but fattier flesh than wild. “It’s a lot easier to overcook a wild sockeye,” he said. “A farmed salmon out of Scotland you can cook until the cows come home, and it won’t dry out.” But the taste of wild salmon is incomparable. “It’s so rich, like a fine wine,” Palermo said.

How do I substitute one fish for another in a recipe?

Palermo groups most fish into two categories. ‘You have your fish with white, flaky meat — cod, flounder, fluke, sea bass, snapper, haddock, hake — all those fish can be substituted for one another in recipes. Then you have your grilling fish, denser, firmer, great on the grill — swordfish, tuna, mahi mahi, shark, marlin, opa,” which can also be used interchangeably. He relegated to a third category those fish whose strong flavor might not work in every recipe: salmon, mackerel, bluefish.

How can I avoid bones?

Palermo sympathizes with fish lovers who nevertheless fear bones as a kid he wound up in the emergency room with a blackfish bone in his throat. “Just because it’s a fillet doesn’t mean it doesn’t have bones,” he cautioned. “Even after you fillet a fish there are still little bones — we call them pin bones. In a small fish, they will cook out but with one of your big, ‘doormat’ flukes, they will still be there.” Pin bones can be removed either with a pliers or by cutting a ‘v’ along the length of the fillet. “Just ask your fishmonger to make sure that your piece of fish is 100 percent boneless,” he advised.

Should I ever buy frozen fish?

You probably already do. Palermo said that almost all Chilean sea bass in the market comes frozen and is defrosted at the fish counter. Ditto orange roughy and, again, any wild salmon sold out of season. “The truth is that a lot of these fatty, meaty fish freeze really well.”

There’s no fish store on Long Island that doesn’t have a variety of thawed, frozen shrimp for sale. Shrimp seasons in the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic waters vary by species and fishery strength but, he said, “when Texas or North Carolina is pulling in shrimp, we will always have them fresh.”

Can I freeze or refreeze fish at home?

Palermo said that the texture and taste might suffer but, from a food-safety standpoint, you can indeed freeze fish. "If you do," he said, "wrap it tightly in plastic wrap, then immerse it in a Tupperware container filled with water. That will keep it airtight."


If you’re looking for selection, quality and counsel, you’re usually better off buying fish at the fish market than at the supermarket. Usually, but not always: John’s Farms in Plainview, the fish counters at the seven Long Island locations of North Shore Farms (operated by John’s Farms) and the Asian supermarkets Hmart, H&Y and V&C are among LI’s very best seafood retailers. Here are some of the best:

Captain Ben’s : 361 Woodcleft Ave., Freeport, 516-378-6575

Hewlett Fish Market: 1332 Broadway, Hewlett, 516-374-2401,

Jewel Of The Sea: 8049 Jericho Tpke., Woodbury, 516-496-2416,

John's Farms: 601 Old Country Rd. Plainview, 516-933-1447,

Marine Fisheries: 521 Middle Neck Rd., Great Neck, 516-487-3145

New Wave Seafood: 1847 Wantagh Ave., Wantagh, 516-783-4900,

North Shore Farms: Great Neck, Port Washington, Glen Cove, Mineola, North Bellmore,

Syosset Seafood: 293 Robbins Lane, Syosset, 516-681-3474,

Two Cousins Fish Market: 255 Woodcleft Ave., Freeport, 516-379-0793,

Alice’s Fish Market: 222 Atlantic Ave., Greenport, 631-477-8485

B & B Fish & Clam: 179 Merrick Rd., Amityville, 631-608-0202,

Braun Seafood: 30840 Main Rd., Cutchogue, 631-734-6700,

Claws Seafood Market: 20 Main St., West Sayville, 631-256-5900,

Cor J Seafood: 36 Lighthouse Rd., Hampton Bays, 631-728-5186,

Dean's Seafood: 19 Degnon Blvd., Bay Shore, 631-969-0587

Jeff's Seafood: 170 New York Ave., Huntington, 631-427-5120

Land & Sea: 524 Route 25A, Mount Sinai, 631-473-0011,

Mastic Seafood: 1051 Mastic Rd., Mastic, 631-281-9608,

North Shore Farms: Commack and Hauppauge,

Northport Fish & Lobster: 827 Fort Salonga Rd., Northport, 631-757-3474

Pine Aire Fish & Deli: 140 Pine Aire Drive, Bay Shore, 631-231-4467,

Setauket Seafood: 230 Main St., East Setauket, 631-751-2809

Southold Fish Market: 64755 Rte. 25, Southold, 631-765-3200

White Cap Fish Market: 120 Main St., Islip, 631-581-0125,

Erica Marcus, a passionate but skeptical omnivore, has been reporting and opining on the Long Island food scene since 1998.

Storing Fish: What You Need to Know

How to wrap, how long to store, and other essential information.

One of the questions I&aposm asked most often at our fish market is "How should I store my fish?" The simplest answer is to keep it in the refrigerator until you&aposre ready to cook it later that day. Most of us though don&apost have the luxury of daily shopping. When you need to shop ahead, here are some tips to keep your seafood in top-notch shape at home.


The first thing you&aposll want to do is remove its packaging. Butcher paper or deli paper can adhere to fish and become tough to remove. I recommend storing filleted fish in a sealable plastic bag. Squeeze as much air as possible from the bag before sealing. Take a large colander and place some ice in the bottom. Flaked ice is ideal here if you have it on hand. Put your fish in the colander and cover with more ice. Nestle the colander in a bowl to catch the ice melt. Store the whole contraption in the fridge, draining and re-icing your fish once a day until you are ready to cook it.

If your freezer doesn&apost have a flaked ice option, you can store your fish in a slurry of ice cubes and water. Immerse the sealed bag of fish in the ice cubes and water and store in the fridge. Drain some of the water and add more ice once a day until you&aposre ready to cook your fish. These two techniques can also be used to store whole fish. I don&apost advise storing fish directly in/on ice or in ice water without the protection of a plastic bag.


Not all fishes are created equal when it comes to how long they will store well. Using the above storage methods and assuming the fish you&aposre buying is very fresh, these are good rules of thumb for different types:

Lean white-fleshed fishes (bass, snapper, hake, pollock, haddock, monkfish, flounder, etc.), pelagic fishes (tuna, swordfish, etc.), and members of the salmonid family (trout, char, and salmon) should keep well for 3 to 5 days. Oily fishes (mackerel, bluefish, sardines, mahi mahi) are best consumed within 3 days of purchase. Skate is the one fish I recommend you cook the day you buy it. Skate, sharks, and rays have high concentrations of urea in their bodies that convert to ammonia over time. Eventually this will cause an unpleasant odor and flavor to develop in these fishes. Better to avoid this possibility altogether.


Generally I try to avoid freezing fish, but it&aposs better to freeze it than have it go to waste. If you need to freeze, there are a few things you can do to optimize the process:

When freezing, your goal is to make sure the freezing process happens as quickly as possible. If you happen to have a blast freezer at home, use it! Given that most of us don&apost, you can speed up the process in a regular home freezer. Line a cookie sheet that will fit in your freezer with plastic wrap. Arrange your individual fish fillets in a single layer on the wrap, making sure they do not touch. Cover the fish on the tray with another piece of plastic wrap and freeze. After about 2 hours, the fish fillets should be frozen enough that they are firm and easy to handle. Once this is done, transfer the fish into a sealable freezer bag (squeezing out as much air as you can before sealing). Shrimp and squid will also freeze well using this technique. You should consume seafood frozen this way within 30 days.

Fish that has been frozen at home will always behave a bit differently than fresh fish. It can become a little stronger in flavor and lose some of its water content. As such, you&aposll have more success with wet cooking methods like braising or poaching than you will with dry methods like roasting or grilling.

Pike Place Fish Market: Fishmonger gives tips for buying fresh fish

Buying fresh fish can be a daunting endeavor. How should it smell? What should it look like? How should you treat it once you get it home?

We spoke with Anders Miller, a fishmonger at the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle, and one of the coauthors of In the Kitchen with the Pike Place Fish Guys: 100 Recipes and Tips From the World-Famous Crew of Pike Place Fish, for advice on how to buy, clean, and cook fresh fish.

The Pike Place Fish Market, which sees more than 10 million visitors a year, is renowned for Northwestern favorites like salmon, Dungeness crab, and Pacific rockfish. Miller, who had no fish experience aside from the fishing hole prior to starting work at the market, says shopping for and cooking fish is a breeze if you know what to look for. Here Miller shares some of his advice for buying, preparing, and cleaning fish.

The most important thing you can do to ensure you're buying quality fish is to make friends with your local fish purveyor, says Miller. "It's important to create a relationship with somebody you trust, whether it be a fishmonger or somebody at the fish counter. They should be able to answer whatever questions you have."

When buying fish, use the tools nature intended: your nose, your eyes, and even your fingers. "If it smells bad it's not good," Miller says bluntly.

Look for shiny fish with healthy-looking scales. "If there's slime on it, it's always good," Miller says. "Slimy means fresh. Scale loss is an indication it's been handled. If you're buying tuna or any whole fish check the blood lines. look at the gills and make sure everything's nice and bright and looks fresh." Blood lines should be red, not brown like old blood, he says.

It's OK to poke around the gills to check the freshness of the fish, just do it gently. "There's nothing that a fishmonger likes less than when you come up and just jam your finger into the fish." Look for flesh that is firm and springs back, Miller says. "It will be shiny and the scales will be on there."

Buy tail pieces for kids

Tail meat is leaner than the rest of the fish. "And it's also completely boneless," Miller says. "So if you're worried about bones with the little kids, if you always buy tail pieces you'll never have to worry about bones."


"You've got generally a couple of hours of transit time where you don't really need to put it on ice, if I wrap up some fish for you in newspaper. Provided it's not 100 degrees out then you've got easily a couple of hours you can go and continue shopping." But once you get home, Miller advises, get that fish chilled ASAP.

Rinse fish when you get home

Fish from the market is often placed in a plastic bag sitting in its own juices, so should be cooked or repackaged once you get home. "Even if I pack something up today and it's super fresh, when I get it home I'll rinse it and dry it with a paper towel before I cook it," Miller says. This is especially important if you plan to sear the fish. "To get a nice sear on it you really want to make sure you start with a dry piece of fish," Miller notes.

If that fresh fish you've just purchased won't be cooked for a few weeks, repackage it for the freezer in increments of what you think you'll thaw and cook at one time. Miller uses freezer bags with some water added to store the fish cut. "You want to keep the air out," he says. "I double-bag it just in case it gets snagged in the freezer."

When it comes to thawing your fish, it's important to have a little foresight, Miller says. Put the frozen fish in the fridge to thaw the day before you want to cook it. Don't thaw it by running it under cold water.


Keep your knife supersharp

If you're working with a whole fish or dividing or boning a large piece, "a sharp knife will make a master out of you, and then just let the knife do the work," Miller says.

You'll know your knife is dull when you feel like you're sawing through the fish flesh, and then, Miller warns, you'll start losing meat.

Keep your other hand out of the way

Your non-knife hand should not be holding the fish anywhere near the blade. A knife can easily slip while you're filleting a slithery fish, so make sure the hand holding the fish is behind the hand doing the cutting.

"You're going to ruin some when you're a rookie--that's just how it is," Miller says. "Everyone hacked up a couple of fish to get to where they can fillet beautifully."

If you're afraid of cooking your fish, you're not alone. "Everyone's worried that they're going to get sick, so they overcook fish," Miller says. "I would say that's the number one problem." A simple solution is not to cook it, and make ceviche instead. In ceviches, raw fish is marinated in citric acid--usually lemon or lime--which changes the appearance and flavor of the fish by coagulating the proteins. Although the fish hasn't been heated, it appears cooked--the flesh turns firm and opaque--thanks to this reaction. And it takes the stress out of cooking fish, as all it requires is chopping the meat and marinating it. "If you have a knife and a cutting board you can do any of the ceviche recipes," Miller says.

A Quick Guide to Conquer Your Fear of Cooking Fish

So, you know that fish is good for you, and you’re ready to eat more of it at home. But, you’re not sure where to start and you’re afraid you’ll mess it up—you hear it can be tricky to cook. Sound familiar? Well, you’re not alone. Which is why we put together a quick guide to help demystify buying, storing and cooking both fresh and frozen fish.

Make the right pick at the store

If you’re buying fresh fish, you’ll know you’re at a good fish counter if the fish are displayed on an abundance of crushed ice. You want the skin to be shiny and the gills to be a cherry red color—not brown or yellow. Keep a look out for is Frozen-at-Sea (FAS) label, which means the fish was flash frozen aboard the ship soon after harvest. (Sea-frozen fish that has been thawed is nearly indistinguishable from fresh-off-the-line fish, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.)

For frozen fish, make sure the packaging is secure and the contents of the bag are rock solid. When removed from the bag the fish should be shiny and free of ice crystals. Every Australis Barramundi fillet is flash frozen and individually vacuum-sealed to ensure that there is never freezer burn.

Now, let’s talk about price. The cost for fresh fish tends to vary depending on geography, time of year and where you’re buying it. (For example, are you buying wild salmon in June, when it’s in season, or in the middle of winter? Are you shopping at Whole Foods or your local fishmonger?) Frozen on the other hand tends to be less expensive and the prices are more consistent.

As for farm-raised versus wild fish—one isn’t necessarily better than the other. There are good and not-so-great options for both. The important thing to look out for, whether farm-raised or fresh, is understanding how the fish was caught or farmed. Check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch® App to get recommendations for responsible choices by species, origin and method.

Store it properly

Frozen fish is perfectly sealed will stay fresh and nutritious in the freezer for a while. (For example, our barramundi frozen fillets are good for up to two years in the freezer.) When it comes to fresh fish, you should eat it within 2-3 days of purchase. If your fish smells unpleasantly fishy—frozen or fresh—don’t eat it. Quality seafood should smell like the ocean, not sour or fishy, according to FishWatch U.S. Seafood Facts.

Cook it (and enjoy)

Contrary to what you might think, fish is actually quite simple to cook. It’s table-ready much faster than other animal proteins like beef or chicken. That said, there are some simple dos and don’ts to remember.

Do keep an eye on it

In general, fish only needs a few minutes of heat on each side to cook. Oil-coated fillets can be pan seared for just 2-3 minutes on each side. When grilling, a moderately thick fillet won’t even need to be flipped. If you’re following a recipe take note of the recommended cook time so that your fish doesn’t turn out too dry (perfectly cooked fish is moist). One of the reasons people, and we, love barramundi is because of its moderate fat content, which makes it very difficult to overcook.

Do know what to look for

Fish is generally done cooking when it starts to flake inside. To check for this, poke a fork into the fillet at an angle, and pull up to peak inside. If the meat is still translucent, it needs to cook longer if it’s flaky and opaque, it’s ready to go.

Don’t stress about prep

Fish is extremely versatile, and the more mild-tasting the fish is (like barramundi) the more flexibility it has in the kitchen. If step-by-step recipes aren’t your thing or seem overwhelming, simply season the fish with the spices and rubs you already have in your cupboard, or just a little oil, salt and pepper go a long way.

Check out our recipes for simple—and delicious—ways to cook Australis Barramundi.

Buying Fresh Fish

Down the Cove

If you get the opportunity to purchase directly from the fisherman then this is by far the best way to buy your fish. You know it will be really fresh and there is a sense of satisfaction in buying direct – like buying produce from farmers markets.

Wherever you buy your fish you should find that the fish has at least been gutted. Don’t be afraid to ask the person serving you to decapitate it or fillet it for you too if you’d rather not do it yourself!


Supermarket fish counters have a good variety like fishmongers shops. Some supermarkets get their stock from central distribution centres so in some cases a fish may have travelled long distances before arriving at your local shop. Depending on the day you may or may not find that the person behind the counter will be able to advise you.
Some supermarkets will also use fish that has previously been frozen so it is important to ask whether this is the case with the fish that you have chosen as you will not be able to refreeze it.

Local Fishmonger

The local fishmonger is a good place to purchase fresh fish. Local fishmongers source the majority of their fish directly from their local markets so the fish is guaranteed to be fresh.

Fishmongers are very knowledgeable about the products they sell and will be able to give recommendations and guidance. They will also be willing to prepare your fish to meet your requirements so we definitely recommend paying your local fishmonger a visit.

Ideally, fresh fish should be cooked the same day you purchase it. If you get home and you decide you aren’t going to cook that piece of fish that day, you should plan to cook it within 48 hours.

Choose seafood that is fished or farmed in ways that have less impact on the environment. is an excellent source for information on wild-caught and farmed seafood. The handy online guide lists fish that are the best choice to buy as well as what to avoid.

Jennifer Chandler is the Food & Dining reporter at The Commercial Appeal. She can be reached at [email protected], and you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @cookwjennifer.

Fishy Tips for Novices

When you're buying fresh fish to cook at home, look for an overall brightness and plumpness. Whole fish should have shiny eyes. Cook fish on the same day that you purchase it. If you intend to freeze fish, make sure it hasn't already been frozen and thawed. If you are unsure about choosing, preparing and cooking fish, talk to the fishmonger or the person working at the fish counter at your local market. This is also the best person to gut, scale and optionally fillet fish, if it hasn't been done already.