Buying fresh fish, or how to avoid unpleasant smells

The Fresh Catch

By Bob Brantly
Bob Brantly is an American Culinary Federation Certified Executive Chef who resides with his family less than one mile from the bountiful South Carolina coast. In his heart-warming columns he shows readers how to simplify and make sense of the myriad of fresh seafood available in our modern times. Contact him at

Seafood sounds great for dinner tonight. Time to go shopping for some fresh fish. Sounds easy, or is it? Where do you purchase seafood? How do you know if it is fresh and tasty? What kind do you buy?

There are two main places to buy fresh seafood: A local fish market or the seafood section in your supermarket.

Your local fish market is the best bet. The finest quality fish will usually be found here, since this is their specialty. Establishing a relationship with a purveyor that you can trust, and who has a good reputation is paramount. You are looking for a dealer who does a brisk business (high turnover of product), so fresh seafood is always available.

Quality seafood sections in markets have come a long way in the last five to 10 years. Some have their own chefs there to keep an interesting array of fresh fish at your fingertips. They are all there to help increase your knowledge about different species, tastes and cooking styles. Find out where local chefs buy their fish. You should buy there too.

How do you know if the fish is fresh? A fresh, clean aroma of the sea should greet you as you enter any fine fish market. There should be a sweet smell, not at all fishy. Fortunately fish, unlike humans, can’t camouflage their age with cosmetics. If you’ve ever smelled nasty, rotten, or just old fish you know what I mean.

I was visiting a fellow chef in Florida when he decided to play a practical joke (probably well deserved) on me. While I was packing to leave, he tied a whole flounder to the muffler of my car. It took two days before the robust aroma of baked fish engulfed my car.
I did return the favor though. It’s really hard to get 1,000 crickets out of your car. But I digress.

Most people buy fish filets, or already cleaned fish with the bones out, skinned and portioned. Filets should have fresh, clean appearances. Browning or curling around the edges indicates age. Ask to look and even touch the fish. The filet should be elastic but firm. When you press your finger into the flesh, it should spring back and retain its shape.

In a market fresh fish should be displayed uncovered lying on shaved ice, or on a drainable tray embedded in ice. If the fish has the skin still on, the skin should be smooth and slick. Dry or slimy skin also indicates old fish.

What kind do you buy? I like to purchase fish in accordance with the seasons. Makes sense doesn’t it? Usually the prices will be lower if you buy what is in season, because the amount and availability is greatest.

Do you like rich, fattier fish, or light flaky fish? The darker the flesh of the fish, usually the richer and fattier tasting the fish will be.

You purchase oranges and grapefruits in the winter. Vine ripe tomatoes in the summer. Why? Because that is when those products are in season. Fish should be bought the same way. Of course, it depends where you live and how good your purveyors are.

Got fish? Remember fish is brain food. Treat your body to fresh seafood three to four times a week.

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