Seafood is healthy to eat because it is a lean protein filled with vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. It is the only natural source of omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. These healthy foods provide heart-protective properties and have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease. The National Institute of Health recommends we eat at least one to two servings per week of seafood for optimal health.

Of course you can visit us at the Black Marlin Bayside Grill and indulge in the tastiest and best seafood on Hilton Head, but occasionally you just might want to have it at home. Do you find that seafood counters can be overwhelming? While most fish markets will differentiate between farm-raised or wild-caught, it can be difficult to know what the best, freshest, and most sustainable option is.

That’s why we put together a guide for you to reference the next time you go shopping. With these tips in mind, you can rest assured you’re getting a healthy, tasty seafood product that you can feel good about buying.

Choosing Fresh Fish – What to Look For (the basics)

In the fish display of your market, whole fish are typically stored directly on ice. Look for clean, well-drained ice; there should be no staining or graying areas on the ice, which might imply that it’s not replaced regularly.

If the fish is packaged, look for clean, dry packaging materials.

Sniff test: There should not be a powerful, fishy, or ammonia-type smell suggesting that the fish is declining.

Ask if the fish has been previously frozen. Flash-freezing techniques have improved to such an extent that texture is hardly affected by freezing, however, a fish that was previously frozen and thawed should not be refrozen. Ideally, you should eat this fish on the day of purchase.

Ask for recommendations on choosing a fish and how it is best prepared. A reputable and experienced fishmonger will know these things and more.

How to Choose Whole Fresh Fish

Fish should look as if they might jump up and swim away. The skin should be glowing and shiny with close-fitting scales. Dry, drab flesh and loose scales are indicators of age.

The eyes should be bright, clear, and plump as if the pupils are full of life. If the eyes look sunken and hazy, then it‘s a sign that the fish has seen better days and you should look for a fresher one.

A fresh fish has clean and bright red gills. If the gills are slimy and have turned to a dark brown or black, it’s a clear indicator that the fish is no longer new.

It may not be possible to dig and poke the fish prior to purchase, but the feel of the flesh is also a critical sign of freshness. Your fish must spring back to its original shape after it’s gently pressed. If the flesh is too soft, and slightly sinks with your finger, the fish is turning bad.

Smell, as previously noted, is one of the important signs of freshness. Fish should have a pleasant smell. If you detect any unusual scent, the fish is deteriorating.

How to Choose Fresh Fish Steaks and Filets

There are many reasons to choose steaks and filets. The cleaning is done for you, it’s possible to buy just the amount you need, and mealtime preparation is reduced.

The fish should be firm. It should appear juicy; a whitish film on the surface signifies dehydration.

The coloring should be the same throughout. White-fleshed fish (such as cod or bass) should be white, with no darkened areas.

Make Sure Your Crustaceans Are Alive

If you’re buying lobster and crab, make sure they’re making it into your basket alive. Once a lobster dies, the body starts to break down and it will become mushy.

And Your Mollusks Are Closed

Mussels and clams should always have closed shells. That means they’re still alive. Some might be cracked open the tiniest bit, but if you squeeze them, they’ll close back up. If they stubbornly stay open they’re not fresh, toss them.

The Fish Delivery Date Isn’t as Important as You Think

Fish, like any animal, need a little time to firm up after being caught. If you were to pull a salmon out of the water and immediately try to filet it, it would be too soft. So a little time is not a bad thing. In terms of freshness, more important than when the fish was delivered, is the time of the knife.

The less time the flesh has exposure to oxygen the fresher it will be. So instead of asking when it arrived, consider asking, “When was this fileted?”

Shop on the Busiest Day if You Want the Most Variety

Most seafood markets’ busiest days are Thursday through Sunday, so that’s when customers can expect to find the greatest variety. Staple items (like salmon, cod, shrimp, tuna, etc.) are likely to be available seven days per week at most markets. However, if you want something very specific (like Opad or Mahi) or the widest selection of fresh, whole fish, then your best bet is usually Thursday through Sunday.

Just Write “Fish” on Your List

Don’t lock yourself into just one species, as it might not be stock or it might not have the required freshness. Be open to trying something different, and shop with your eyes to purchase the freshest fish. Many species can be easily substituted in recipes; if you’re not sure, just ask your fishmonger.

Sustainability Has Several Meanings

Sustainability in seafood can mean any of the following: the health of the fishery, whether or not the commercial fishery is acting as a good steward, human rights and soil responsibility, neutral/carbon footprint, the fish in/fish out (for farmed seafood), or the environmental impact within a particular fishery. So having a one-size-fits-all approach to “sustainability” is just no longer feasible or productive. Think through what’s most important to you and go from there.

Farm-Raised Isn’t “Worse” than Wild-Caught

Many people have the impression that farm-raised is inferior to wild-caught. There are some bad characters in the farmed seafood industry, but not all seafood farmers are bad. In fact, the vast majority of them are good protectors of the environment. There are also bad players in the wild-caught industry.

Wild stocks are at their limit, and it’s crucial that we have a good balance between wild-caught and farm-raised. It’s simply a misconception that all farmed seafood is bad

Frozen Fish Can Be (almost) as Good as Fresh

Back in the late 1990s, much of the frozen seafood on the market was not very high quality, and the prevailing technology led to freezer-burned filets and bad customer experiences. Today, however, frozen seafood has greatly improved in both quality and freezing technology. Most frozen seafood is packed during the height of the season when the fish are most plentiful, meaning the price tends to be much more affordable.

Look for fillets that are individually vacuumed sealed, as these tend to be the highest quality. Avoid packages with any of these things listed: sodium tripolyphosphates, bisulfates, or carbon monoxide.

Finally, Store Your Fresh Fish Properly

A fillet of fresh fish isn’t like a slab of dry-aged steak. It doesn’t taste better with time. A fresh fish is like a new car. As soon as you leave the parking lot, it’s not getting any better. That means: put it in the fridge (not the freezer) and ideally cook it before 48 hours have passed.

Frozen fish can be stored in the freezer for up to 8 months before the quality starts to fall off.

Pro tip: When purchasing a whole fresh fish, it is a good idea to have the fishmonger clean the fish for you. This is a standard service and, when your fish is cleaned by an experienced fishmonger, will save some waste.

We hope you learned a thing or two about purchasing seafood that you can use for a delicious meal.

Still confused on how to pick the best fish in the market? Not sure how to prepare it to perfection? Or simply don’t have time to drop by the seafood aisle?

Then leave it to us! At Black Marlin Bayside Grill, we vow to serve you the freshest, tastiest seafood on Hilton Head. Superlative service, a welcoming atmosphere, and quality food all make for a memorable dining experience.
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