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How to Buy Fish & Shellfish

Everyone knows to avoid buying smelly, gross-looking fish and shellfish. But here’s what you need to know to get the freshest catch.


  • Step 1: Find a fish store Find a specialty fish store with displays of fresh whole fish, mollusks and bivalves, lobsters in tanks, and seaweed decoration all layered on ice. If this is unavailable in your area, go to the fish counter at a high-end food store.
  • Step 2: Survey the fish Survey the offerings, and when it’s your turn to be served, say hello to the fishmonger.
  • Step 3: Ask for advice Tell the fishmonger what you’re interested in making—fish steaks for the grill, whole roasted fish, boiled lobster, sautéed fillets—so he can point out to you what he has available.
  • Step 4: Chat Ask the fishmonger where the fish came from and when it arrived. Chat him up a bit. Ask him what’s good today. Be prepared to change your dinner plans based on his answer.
  • TIP: The fishmonger might offer anecdotes, information, or cooking tips—listen carefully.
  • Step 5: Avoid farmed fish Ask the fishmonger which fish are farmed and which are wild. Generally speaking, farmed fish should be avoided due to the likelihood of taint by PCBs or even antibiotics. Farmed fish species include salmon, trout, and catfish.
  • Step 6: Inspect steaks and fillets If you intend on purchasing fish filets or fish steaks, the surface of the flesh should be bright and shiny. It should appear moist with no spots of brown spoilage or pink bruises.
  • TIP: It’s a great sign when the fishmonger cuts steaks or filets from a whole or larger piece of fish, but this rarely happens. Nowadays, most fish is precut and portioned.
  • Step 7: Inspect a whole fish If you want a whole fish, it should have bright moist skin and clear eyes. The fish should look almost as alive as it did in the water.
  • Step 8: Inspect lobsters If you want lobsters, notice how 'lively' they are when the fishmonger takes them out of the tank. The peskier the lobster, the fresher it is.
  • Step 9: Inspect scallops If you want scallops, they are usually sold already shucked. They should be firm, succulent, and smell sweet—scallops must be sniffed. Good fresh scallops are not bright white, but cream-colored, perhaps with a hint of rosiness.
  • TIP: If the scallops are whiter than an ingénue’s teeth, they most likely have been over-processed (using a food-safe bleach), so it’s probably better to avoid them.
  • Step 10: Inspect shrimp Purchase shrimp raw and in the shells. Remember that the vast majority of shrimp sold have already been frozen. How the shrimp were thawed can affect the flavor. If the shrimp appear waterlogged and soggy, skip them.
  • Step 11: Unwrap your purchase When handed your purchase, unwrap it immediately for a touch and smell taste. The fish should never smell bad, and whole fish and fish filets should feel firm and supple. If acceptable, wrap it back up and thank the fishmonger.
  • Step 12: Return anything unacceptable If the fish is unacceptable, hand it back over the counter and ask the fishmonger, 'Would you eat such a stinky, dull-fleshed fish?' Remind him that you weren’t born yesterday. Ask him where he keeps the frozen fish sticks.
  • FACT: Fish wrapped in plastic should be avoided—odds are it’s been around a lot longer than fish that hasn’t been wrapped.

You Will Need

  • A place to buy fish
  • A discerning eye
  • The gift of gab
  • Some money

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