Eight tips for buying whole fish
Shopping for fish can intimidate even experienced home cooks. Sure, plenty of supermarkets just sell anonymous fillets wrapped in plastic. But many markets offer at least a few fresh whole fish, making the seafood counter the only grocery department where your potential dinner stares uncomfortably back at you.
On top of the unfamiliarity factor, mindful shoppers must consider sustainability, environmental contaminants, freshness, and cost. Many shoppers are so overwhelmed that they refuse to deal with whole fish, indulging only on special nights out, when restaurant professionals are in charge. This is a shame, because a baked or grilled whole fish is one of the quickest and healthiest dinners to make.
Compared to fillets, whole fish are much cheaper by the pound. They’re generally fresher, too, because less of the flesh’s surface area has been exposed to decay-inducing air. (Be sure to bring reusable freezer packs with you to the store, to keep the fish cold while you lug it home.) And overcooking a whole fish is more difficult than with fillets, because the skin and bones seal the flavorful juices into the meat.
After much trial and error, here are my top tips for purchasing whole fish.
- Stick to locally caught fish if possible. Fresh fish deteriorates rapidly, especially when transported long distances. You are more likely to find high-quality fish when you stick to varieties caught as locally as possible. They also tend to be less expensive.
Think small, but don’t be afraid of your knives. Small whole fish are easiest to prepare, since they’re typically sold ready to be cooked whole. But if you take the time to learn how to fillet larger whole fish, you’ll save money by buying an entire fish, breaking it down at home, and freezing the fillets for future use.
A whole fish is cheaper, by the pound, than a fillet.
- Try a new type of fish. Overfishing, or catching fish faster than populations can replenish, is a pressing environmental issue as seafood demand increases. Some of the most popular species, such as flounder, cod, and red snapper, are severely overfished. Don’t be afraid to experiment with unfamiliar varieties, such as croaker, perch, porgy, or yellowtail snapper, which are delicious and can often be prepared using the same methods as your old favorites. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program has several resources for making environmentally sound seafood choices, and its Culinary Chart of Alternatives is a helpful tool for finding sustainable substitutes for overfished species.
- Don’t overlook farmed fish. Fish farms, especially salmon farms, have developed bad reputations for producing contaminants, pollution, and (when the farmed fish escape) breeding with wild fish populations. But some fish farms can be responsible alternatives to overfishing. Many rainbow trout and tilapia farms successfully manage escape and environmental issues. Do your research before dismissing farmed fish, because aquaculture methods vary widely by species. Continue avoiding fish farmed abroad, especially in China, Thailand, and India, where problems are not as well controlled as in the United States.
- Seek out seafood markets, farmers’ markets, or ethnic markets. If you live close to the ocean, seek out seafood markets where the fishermen sell their catch directly to eaters. If that isn’t an option, farmers’ markets sometimes showcase one or two local fishermen. Ethnic markets, especially Asian markets, are also worthwhile places to shop. Seafood plays such a significant role in many Asian cuisines that these stores usually cater to customers with high standards for quality. A good Asian market, too, will have live fish in tanks, and let you pick out the exact swimming specimen you want.
- Use your eyes, fingers, and nose. A fish’s eyes should be clear, not cloudy. The fishmonger should also let you peel back the gills and examine them. Freshly caught fish will have deep red, almost purple gills. They should smell sweet, evocative of melon. Some fishmongers will let you poke the fish to check if the flesh bounces back. An indentation left on the flesh is a sign of decay. Also, the skin of a fresh fish should be shiny, not dull.
- Don’t rely on your nose alone. Fresh fish doesn’t smell “fishy” at all; it smells of the sea. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to accurately smell your fish, even in the cleanest store. Sometimes you can’t get a sense of how it really smells until you get home from the store.
- If you’re still confused, use apps and tools while shopping. The Blue Ocean Institute offers a free and convenient text-message service to help shoppers select responsible seafood options. Just text 30644 with the message FISH and the name of the species of choice while shopping, and you’ll get an immediate reply from FishPhone with sustainability, environmental, and contaminant-level information. Last year the Blue Ocean Institute also unveiled a FishPhone iPhone application. Meanwhile, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has a mobile guide for smart phones, a downloadable pocket guide you can print out and carry in your wallet, and a new app, Project FishMap, that lets consumers post sources for sustainable seafood.
Meredith Bethune is based in Austin, Texas and blogs about cooking at Biscuits of Today.