Buying Seafood From the Counter? "Fresh" Fish May Not Mean What You Think It Does

The truth about fresh fish, plus why you might be better off buying your fish frozen.

a photo of two salmon filets
Photo: Getty Images

As a supertaster who has had a complicated relationship with fish (short version: I have about 10 times more tastebuds than the average person, so certain foods are difficult for me to eat because their intensity is unpleasant), I have been late to the game when it comes to fish cookery. I know how essential it is to source fresh fish for a peak dining experience, but I am also in a landlocked area, nowhere near a pier or wharf or quay. Which means I rely entirely on the fish counter at my grocery store and reputable fishmongers to find my next water-based dinner.

You can imagine my shock when, at the fish counter one day, I ordered my slab of halibut, mentioned that I was so glad they had it fresh, and was told that it had been previously frozen.

The horror.

When I asked if there were other options that had not been previously frozen, the response was an offhand comment that almost all the "fresh" seafood at the counter will have been previously frozen, and then simply thawed under controlled conditions to put out as "fresh."

Which made me wonder, why have a "fresh" fish counter at all if it is all previously frozen? Are we consumers being duped? Turns out, the answers aren't simple.

What’s the Difference Between Fresh Fish and Frozen Fish?

Technically, "fresh" fish should refer to fish that has never seen a freezer. However, when it comes to your marketplace, unless you live near a fishing port, you should assume that the "fresh" fish counter is stocked with seafood that has been previously frozen.

But there are two types of frozen fish, and that is where the big differences are:

Fish that’s flash-frozen on the boat

Many boats pull in their catch and immediately flash-freeze it on the boat. This means that those products are frozen quickly at the peak of freshness and can often actually be better quality than fish that was never frozen, which can take up to three or four days to make its way to you.

Fish that’s frozen at a processing plant

Other boats keep their haul chilled but not frozen, and these products are sent to a processing plant that does the freezing. Many of these are then sold as frozen products, but some can end up in your "fresh" fishmonger's hands. Super confusing.

How to Know If “Fresh” Fish Has Been Previously Frozen

This is where a little bit of knowledge will work in your favor. We reached out to Elliott Myers, vice president of seafood for Whole Foods Market, to get the insider info on how to shop for fish.

Check the label

Grocery stores should label anything in their seafood case as either fresh or previously frozen (often also called 'refreshed')," says Myers.

Ask the fishmonger

"If you're not seeing a direct callout on the label, the best way to be sure is to ask your fishmonger, as they should be extremely knowledgeable about everything they're selling," Myers adds.

Find out if the fish you are buying is in season

Beyond looking at labels and chatting with the person at the fish counter, Myers says you can make a pretty good guess about whether the fish you are buying is fresh if you know when it's in season. "For example, the wild sockeye salmon harvest for Bristol Bay, Alaska—the largest source of wild, sustainably caught sockeye salmon on the planet—takes place late May through September, so you can expect to see fresh wild sockeye in stores throughout the summer," Myers says. "But if you're buying sockeye salmon during the fall, winter or spring seasons, most of what you're seeing in the seafood case is likely previously frozen."

Check the appearance

"There are a few attributes you should look for when buying fish, regardless of whether it is fresh or previously frozen," says Myers. "You'll want to check out the color; wild salmon is often deep red or orange due to their natural diets of crustaceans filled with carotenoids, and white fish should typically have a translucent to light pink color. The fish should appear moist, vibrant and firm. Avoid anything that looks dried out or has brown or gray spots or bruising."

Is Fresh or Frozen Fish Better?

This is not an easy answer. If your fish was flash-frozen on the boat, it may be fresher than a fish that was never frozen and shipped chilled to where you are. But if you live near water where the fish is being caught, it is worth seeking out the fish that was never frozen for a superior texture and flavor, and no loss of moisture.

Nutritionally, fresh and frozen fish are equally healthy.

From a cooking perspective, while there is a certain ease of having already-thawed or "fresh" fish, especially if you are cooking it on the same day, if you really want to get more fish into your diet, you may waste less if you buy frozen and thaw it at home as needed. Frozen fish is usually also less expensive than fresh.

Myers agrees that both fresh and frozen seafood are great options: "You may find a greater variety of fresh or frozen depending on your location and the seasonality of the fish." So see what's available and looks good before you decide between fresh and frozen.

Is Fresh or Frozen Fish Better for Sushi?

Again, this will depend on the type of fish. Freezing can kill parasites, so if the type of fish is prone to those, using frozen fish can be a better choice. Tuna and most farmed salmon, for example, are not prone to parasites, so it can be safe to make sushi with those when truly fresh. Do your research, talk to a reputable fishmonger and look for fish that's labeled "sushi grade" before making sushi with any fish.

Can You Refreeze Fish That Has Been Previously Frozen?

You can, with some best practices in place. The USDA is clear that if fish has been thawed under refrigeration and kept chilled to proper temps (40°F or below), you can safely refreeze it without worrying about food safety. That is how the fishmongers and fish counters thaw fish, so if you take a cooler bag to the store and keep that thawed fish cold on the way home, and then transfer it to the fridge, you can refreeze it if you are unable to cook within a day or two.

Bottom Line

Fish, regardless of whether it is fresh or frozen, is a great part of a healthy diet. So, whether you inspect that fillet closely for signs of freezing before buying, or just pick the fish that tempts you most and choose not to worry about it, cooking fish at home is easy and something everyone should do regularly. Need a place to start? I always turn to these healthy halibut recipes for inspiration.

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