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Fish is delicate and begins to deteriorate as soon as it's lifted from the water, making shopping for fresh fish a little trickier than shopping for a beef steak. If you're lucky enough to have access to a fresh fish market, you have the best chance of shortening the time between catch and plate. Otherwise, here's a quick guide on what to look for so you'll always buy the freshest fish no matter where you shop. We'll also offer tips on how to store fish once you get it home.

Tip: Take a cooler with you when you're shopping for fresh fish and put the package on ice for the journey home. This is especially important if you have a long, hot drive ahead of you.

Choosing Fresh Fish: What to Look For

  • In the fish display section of your market, whole fish is typically stored directly on ice. Look for clean, well-drained ice; there should be no staining or greying areas on the ice, which might indicate that it's not changed frequently.
  • If the fish is packaged, look for clean, dry packaging materials.
  • Sniff test: There should not be a strong fishy or ammonia smell indicating that the fish is deteriorating.
  • Ask if the fish has been previously frozen. Flash-freezing techniques have improved to such an extent that texture is hardly affected by freezing, but a fish that was previously frozen and thawed should not be refrozen: Ideally it should be eaten on the day of purchase.
  • Ask for recommendations on choosing the fish, and how it is best prepared. A good fishmonger will know these things and more.

How to Choose Whole Fresh Fish

When you shop for whole fresh fish, your senses are your best tool. Here's what to look, feel, and sniff for:

  • Fish should look as if it might jump up and swim away. The skin should be bright and shiny with close-fitting scales. Dry, dull flesh and loose scales are signs of age.
  • The eyes should be clear and bulging; if the fish has sunken or cloudy eyes, look for a fresher specimen.
  • Gills should be reddish and damp, not sticky.
  • It may not be possible to poke and prod the fish before purchase, but the feel of the flesh is also an important indication of freshness. The flesh should be firm and elastic: when you press it, the flesh should bounce back, leaving no indentation.
  • Smell, as previously noted, is one of the most important indications of freshness. Fish should have a pleasant smell.

How to Choose Fresh Fish Steaks and Fillets

There are many good reasons to choose steaks and fillets. The cleaning is done for you, it is possible to buy just the right amount for your needs, and mealtime preparation is shortened. To choose steaks and fillets:

  • The flesh should be firm. It should appear moist; a whitish film on the surface indicates dehydration.
  • The coloring should be even. White-fleshed fish such as cod or bass should be white, with no darkened areas.
Fresh fiish fillets on ice at market
Credit: Meredith

Choosing Sustainable Seafood

Another key consideration, is the fish sustainable? You can find out by glancing at Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Consumer Guides, which include recommendations for sustainable seafood. The guides rank seafood choices by "Best," "Good Alternatives," and "Avoid." You can also download a Seafood Watch app for your phone, so you'll always know which fresh seafood is sustainable.

How to Store Fresh Fish

It's the question we all ask ourselves when we shop for fish: How long does fresh fish last in the fridge?

  • You can store fish in the fridge for up to two days at 40 degrees F (4 degrees C).
  • Frozen fish can be stored in the freezer for up to 8 months before the quality starts to fall off.

Check out our complete collection of Fish Recipes.