“Fresh” has such a nice ring to it, right? Fresh fruits and vegetables. Fresh baked goods. And if you want to have some delights from the sea: fresh fish. But a lot of the fish at a counter is likely to have been frozen before it got to the store. And even if it wasn’t, it’s not automatically better than the stuff you can find in the freezer aisles.
What you’ll find at the “fresh” fish counter
You probably think of fresh fish as stuff that was pulled out of the ocean just recently, and brought directly to the store. But as a labeling term, “fresh” just means not frozen.
That means that fresh fish at the counter may not be “fresh” in the sense of having come straight off the boat. Fresh fish may be days old by the time it gets to the store, and not taste nearly as good as it did on day one. That delay also means fresh fish won’t last long once it’s at the store, and the seller will likely have to trash some of it if it doesn’t sell quickly enough.
To solve this problem, stores often buy frozen fish, ideally stuff that was flash-frozen right after it was caught (often while it’s still on the boat). The flavor is well-preserved, and there is less waste because they can defrost only what they expect to sell. It’s also more sustainable in other ways: Frozen fish can be transported by truck or train, instead of having to be flown in.
How to buy the best frozen fish
You can apply the same logic to what you buy for your own kitchen: Buy the frozen stuff, and defrost it as needed. It will taste just as good, if not better, and tends to be a lot cheaper.
Depending on where you shop, the counter may still have a better selection than the frozen aisle. But if the sign says the fish was previously frozen, consider asking whether they could sell you some still-frozen fillets.
When you’re looking at labels, “quickly frozen” and “flash frozen” fish will taste the freshest. The fillets should be still fully frozen when you buy them, with no liquid in the packaging. And they should ideally be vacuum-sealed or coated in ice. Avoid anything with ice crystals or freezer burn, since those are signs that the fish may have thawed at some point; fish that re-freezes can be mushy.
If you have a long drive home, pack them in ice to make sure they stay frozen. If you want to get fancy, there are companies that will ship high-end frozen fish to your door.