From the sea to your kitchen, here's how to shop for the freshest catch in town.
salmon filet on a gradient
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Fish can be, well, fishy. From sustainability concerns to the potential for mercury, it can sometimes be scary to shop from the sea, especially if you're not feeling entirely confident. Luckily, there are ways to ensure you're getting the freshest and most sustainable fish around, even if you're in a landlocked location. Keep this guide handy for everything to know about how to pick the freshest fish.

Where to Shop for Fresh Fish

You can have a great experience shopping at the fish counter at your usual supermarket. Or, if you want to support a small business and have an even more personal shopping experience, head directly to a fishmonger at a dedicated fish shop.

Depending on where you live, direct-dock sales may also be an option. If you find yourself in South Florida, Top Chef alum and fish-focused chef Jeff McInnis has some pointers.

"For a real South Florida experience and if you have time and can be patient, you can always pull up to the fishing docks in Haulover in North Miami." he says. "The Kelley Fleet fisherman guys are super nice and usually sell on the docks, cash in hand. It's always fun to take the kids and buy a couple snappers or something big from them."

And eating more fish doesn't have to break the bank! Check out our budget-friendly tips to add more seafood into your diet.

Is Fish Seasonal?

Just like apples are best in the fall and strawberries peak in the spring and summer, fish species are also seasonal. Some fish stay in up in New England or along the Florida coast all year long, while others move around before changing their location. But it's not just about the location or climate, weather conditions can also play a factor in what's seasonal.

Start with asking your fishmonger what's in season or what their current favorite is. "Seasonality is one of the most important pillars of sustainability in the seafood world. If you're looking for a specific fish and it's not in season, ask your fishmonger for a suitable substitute," suggests Vinny Milburn, fish buyer for Brooklyn's Greenpoint Fish & Lobster Co.

When all else fails, try to keep an open mind, Milburn adds: "Be willing to bend your choices of fish toward what's in season."

How to Pick the Freshest Whole Fish

The eyes are the first thing you should take a look at when purchasing a whole fish, advises McInnis.

"Picking a fresh fish is simple. Look at the eyes: if they are clear and not too foggy, it's very fresh. Even if a fish's eyes are a little bit foggy, it doesn't mean it's not good. Just the more clear the eyes, the better," he says.

While you're taking a look, see if you can "check out the gills, lift up the jaw and look under the gill," recommends McInnis. "You're looking for some nice red color. If it's slimy or milky, it's not as fresh.

If possible, give your fish a good sniff, recommends Sean Brady Kenniff, senior digital food editor for EatingWell. "Fresh fish should smell like the water it came from. So, sea bass or wild-caught salmon should smell like the ocean."

How to Pick the Freshest Fish Fillets or Steaks

If you're shopping for a fillet or steak instead of the whole thing, you can't rely on looking into the eyes of the fish. Luckily, a quick touch can help you out.

"When you touch the fish, you do want to press into the flesh a little bit. Depending on the fish, there should be some bounce-back. Meaning your finger shouldn't make a huge dent/fingerprint in it. The more spring in the flesh, the better/fresher," says McInnis.

When to Buy Fresh Fish versus Frozen

Whether you don't have as much access to fresh fish, or just want to keep your kitchen well-stocked, shopping for frozen fish can be a "great option," says Milburn, despite the bad rap it sometimes has.

"It takes the pressure off from transporting the fish, which lowers the overall carbon footprint. Lots of fish are frozen at sea, literally they're pulled out of the water and frozen there on the boat, which makes for a totally awesome product. In general, there's really no need to shy away from frozen fish," he shares.

And remember to defrost properly when it's time to eat, either in the fridge or in a water bath, never in a microwave or on your counter.

How to Buy Sustainable Fish

Unfortunately, many global fish stocks have been over-exploited or exhausted, so sustainability is especially important to keep in mind. Factors like location, traceability, the carbon footprint and seasonality are key.

While you're chatting with your fishmonger, "ask them if the fish is farmed or wild-caught," says Milburn. Wild-caught seafood comes directly from a natural habitat (oceans, rivers and lakes), while farmed seafood is raised in tanks. But if you've always thought that wild-caught is the more sustainable option, know that might not always be the case.

"It depends on the farm and how they're raising the fish, but often farmed fish is the more sustainable option, since they're not going out and depleting the wild stocks of fish. It's pretty common for people to say, 'Farmed? No, I want wild-caught fish.' But in reality, sometimes farmed fish is the more ethical choice."

Milburn suggests turning to organizations like the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, a leader in the global sustainable seafood movement "whose stamp of approval can help you make the right choice," he says.

How to Store Fish at Home

When storing your fish at home, keep two words in mind: dry and cold. Whether you're just grabbing fish at the grocery store or shopping with a fishmonger, you can keep your fish in the fridge for one or two days before cooking or freezing.

"If you're waiting more than a few days to eat it, freezing it might be your best option," suggests Milburn. "But if you're eating it soon, you could keep it in the back of your fridge, away from the heat that comes from the door opening and closing."

Bottom Line

Don't be afraid to walk up to your local fish counter and strike up a conversation with the fish handler. Or, seek out a monger by you or a direct-dock sales location, if you're coastal. Ask what's in season and look for clear-eyed, relatively firm fish. Take a peek at the gills to make sure they're a healthy red color, and take a good sniff to make sure the fish smells fresh like the sea.

Feeling inspired yet? Try your hand at this Salmon Rice Bowl, or grab your trusty sheet pan for this Rosemary Roasted Salmon with Asparagus & Potatoes recipe.