The Skinny on... Fish

Know how to buy the best fish at the market — and get it on your table tonight!
FishThe Skinny On

While there are two types of fish in the wild — that is, saltwater fish (from the ocean) and freshwater fish (from lakes, ponds, rivers and streams) — there are four types in the kitchen:

  • Small fish you eat whole. Most of these are fried, broiled or grilled.
  • Thin-fleshed fish. These cook fast, best in a skillet for a quick sauté, on baking sheets for oven-frying or in packets in the oven.
  • Thick-fleshed fish. These are great for broiling, grilling, braising and stewing.
  • Fish steaks. These are cut from large fish. They’re best on the grill or under the broiler, with an aromatic or spicy rub.

Of course, not all is as simple as we make it. For example, salmon ruins our neat categories. It can be sautéed like thin-fleshed fish, broiled like thicker-fleshed fish or even cut into steaks for the grill.

How to make a good selection at the store

  1. Smell it. Fish should smell like the beach at high tide on a spring morning, never like the tidal flats in August.
  2. Don’t buy fish in pre-wrapped packages. How will you know its smell? If packages are all you can find, ask that one be opened.
  3. Check for mushy spots. They can indicate that the fish has been on the shelf too long or wasn’t thawed properly.
  4. Forget the backwash! Fish should never be sitting in a milky liquid.
  5. Look for shiny, sharp scales — and vibrant eyes, never milky. A little blood in the eye is fine.
  6. Ask questions like, "Where’s this fish from? Was it previously frozen?"

That said, fresh isn’t necessarily best
Most fish caught in the ocean is flash-frozen on the trawler — actually, a good move to ensure its continued freshness at our supermarkets.

Unless you’re specifically buying fish labeled “never frozen” or are buying thawed fillets for a dinner in minutes when you get home, consider buying the fish fillets in the freezer case. The quality is quite high and they’re usually cheaper. Fillets displayed on ice are more expensive only because the store has done the thawing for you.

Whole Fish Versus Fillets
Why buy whole fish?
  • The meat tastes better on the bone.
  • You may pay as much for a whole fish as for two smaller fillets — and with the whole thing, you get those two fillets plus a whole lot more.
  • You can discern its freshness (from the scales and eyes).
Why buy fillets?
  • Most recipes call for them.
  • They’re convenient.
  • You can tell the portion size instantly.
  • Most cook in minutes.

Once you get fish home
Consider having a cooler in your car’s trunk. Fill it with ice to keep frozen or cold fish pristine for a couple of hours.

If the fish is frozen, keep it so until the day you’re ready to use it.

Fresh or thawed fish should be stored a little colder than the ambient temperature in your fridge. Fill a colander with ice and set it over a bowl to catch the drips. Then set the fish in its paper wrapper on top of the ice. Or wrap thawed fillets in wax paper and set these bundles on top of the ice.

A parting but important issue
Ocean fish are the last creatures on earth we hunt on a mass scale. Talk to the fishmonger at your market to discover which of the offerings have been sustainably caught so future generations can enjoy this same abundance. You can also go to Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch for up-to-date information to help you make the best choices.

Free Newsletter Get it now