Shrimp, oysters, crabs and fish. Blackened, fried, baked, grilled, and stuffed. Seafood can be enjoyable to catch and a versatile entrée for the dinner table. If you were raised catching, cleaning, and preparing your own wild-caught seafood, you can fully appreciate real, fresh quality fillets. The frozen, gray, and poor examples of “fresh” will stand out like a sore thumb. Not everyone has the advantage of capturing their own Gulf protein. Even the most seasoned anglers can sometimes unknowingly treat there catch poorly. Unfortunately, on a few occasions I have learned the hard way from neglecting ice, improperly freezing, and keeping fillets a little too long. Trust me, the taste and quality suffers from poor care. Here are a few quick pointers guide you through choosing the best quality seafood at the store and caring for the catch from your most recent adventure.
1. For The Fisherman: Stay Cold
There is no such thing as too much ice on the boat, unless it sinks it. As soon as you catch your fish, remove the hooks, and take a stunning photo, it is imperative to completely cover the future dinner in ice! Many fishermen complain about how soft trout fillets can become during the process. This is 100% user error. If trout, snapper, and just about any species aren’t cooled and fully submerged in ice, they can fall apart even during the filleting process. Fish should be stiff from the cold as they hit the cutting table.
The importance of cold temperatures continues after the trip, cleaning, and processing is over. Fish fillets should immediately move from the cutting board and into a plastic bag covered in ice. There are great ice chests on the market, but ice is also extremely cheap to buy periodically. Keep the ice box filled and appropriately cold, and you can keep fillets fresh, pink, and dinner-ready for up to a week.
Freezing kills freshness. It’s a fact and sometimes unavoidable with particularly large hauls of fillets. The best solution is vacuum packing. Put it on your next Christmas wish list if you don’t already have one. With this method, fish can be kept close to top quality and quickly thawed for a great meal. On the other hand, if this useful tool isn’t at your disposal, make sure to freeze fish fully submerged in water. This keeps the cells in the fillets well hydrated and prevents freezer burn.
2. For The Prospective Buyer: Smell and See
A seafood shop usually has a distinct smell. It’s unmistakable. Some can be worse than others. Be wary of any shop that absolutely wreaks of seafood. The fact is that truly fresh seafood, caught within a few days, hardly has a smell at all. If it is properly cold and within ice, it should be at a temperature that keeps that smell from developing. The store should not smell like the deck of a shrimp trawler. If that is the case, run away.
As far as the appearance, fresh fish should be pink and translucent. Early signs include a grey tinge or a pale, white appearance to the meat. These fillets have probably been frozen or aged a little past their due date. The bloodline will also reveal a fraud. Ask the person behind the counter to flip the fillet to the skin side. If the dark bloodline on the outside surface isn’t red, it’s not worth the price. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about how often they receive shipments. A $30 dollar fillet or pile of shrimp is worth a few questions.
For those feeling adventurous enough to buy the whole, uncut fish, there are a few things to look for. If the eye of a fish are as bloodshot as a college student pulling an all nighter, it’s old. The eyes of the fish should be fairly clear and puffed out. Shrunken, darkened orbits are a warning sign. Interestingly enough, this is a sign often used in fishing tournaments to weed out the cheaters attempting to weigh in old fish.
3. Shop Local
Avoid the big chains if you can. Unfortunately, this is almost impossible if you are landlocked. In my current locale, Pittsburgh, I have found that Wholey’s, Penn Avenue Fish Company, or Giant Eagle can have some good choices. But, when I was in need of shrimp or an extra fillet on the Gulf Coast, I always shopped at the stand-alone local seafood shops. They usually provide fish and seafood fresh off of the commercial fishing boats. Chain grocery stores usually fail to buy local seafood, thaw out frozen products, and don’t deserve attention.
If you live on the Gulf Coast, SURPRISE! Salmon is not from the Gulf of Mexico. Be wary of the quality of seafood like king crab, salmon, cod, or anything that isn’t from your local waters. Most salmon is internationally shipped and has artificial coloring. If you look carefully, they label these tampered specimens accurately below the price.
4. The Crustaceans
Here are very quick tips. Shrimp should never be bought precooked. You miss out on the most crucial parts of seasoning and keeping that perfect texture. Buy oysters in season, typically the fall and early winter (the months that end in “R”). Crabmeat should be locally caught and cooked. Go through the crabmeat under the sink to pick out the shells. There will always be shells! Those crab-cleaners work fast but aren’t perfect.
5. Take Care of Your Baby
After selecting that choice piece of fish or carrying away a mound of shrimp, take care of your new treasure. Put them on ice as soon as possible. It is ok to keep them in the frig if you are cooking the seafood on the same day. But if not, covering seafood in ice, after placing it in a plastic bag, will keep it at a temperature barely above freezing. If you have a plug on the ice chest, you can make the process of burying the fillets easy. First, place the fillets in a bag and remove the air. Add water until the ice is floating, push the fillets down, then drain the water. Ta-da! The bags are fully submerged and surrounded by cold.