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How To Choose Fresh Fish

The whole experience of eating fresh fish is quite different from eating something that was taken from the water a few too many days ago and then was not carefully gutted or, most important, thoroughly chilled. Ideally, fish should be enjoyed within 48 hours after capture. Fish must be stunned and bled immediately after it is caught. Then it must be drawn – gutted, washed and chilled – before rigor (stiffness) sets in.

All fish have some bacteria on their skin, in their gills and in their guts. The flesh of a fish is slightly acidic during rigor, so bacteria growth is inhibited, but 4he bacteria spread Into fish quickly after rigor passes. The growth of bacteria is greatly reduced when fish are gutted and properly iced or refrigerated by the supplier at 32°F (0°C) Unfortunately, our home refrigerators are set at around 39°F (4°C), so once brought home, fish should not be stored uncooked longer than a day. Some markets sell ungutted fish, which is not a good idea if they are to be kept for any length of time, even if properly chilled. (Exceptions include farmed fish such as striped bass, which have a good shelf life. Also note that freshwater fish have a longer shelf life than marine fish.) Ask the market to clean and gut the fish for you before bringing it home.

Buy from reliable stores where the fish are displayed on a lot of ice or in a good refrigerated state. The place should smell fresh and be well patronized by the local community so that there is an abundant turnover. The store display should look bright and lively, with sparkling ice, glistening skins, brilliant fish eyes and translucent fish fillets and steaks. Ideally, you would use smell, sight and touch to tell the freshness of a fish. The questions that follow are clues to freshness – if the answers to most of the questions are yes, then we can assume that you have chosen well.

Whole Fish

SMELL: Does the fish have an aroma of the sea?
SIGHT: Does the fish look fresh? Are its eyes clear and bright and flush with the surface of the head? Are the scales (if any) shiny and intact, coated with a clear, glossy, thin mucous layer? Are all the fins in good shape so you know that the fish has not been mishandled? Are the gills of a strong red color and not gray, discolored or misshapen? A thick, gray, viscous coating is a bad sign.
TOUCH: Is the flesh firm? Does the flesh bounce back if you make an indentation with your finger? Does the fish feel rigid when you pick it up? The flesh (muscles) around the backbone should still be in rigor. When the fish is first out of the water, it is supple, but when rigor sets in, the muscles stiffen. Later, when the fish loses this stiffness, bacteria start to invade the flesh which then starts to soften indicating that the peak of freshness has passed.

Fillets, Steaks and Other Cuts of Fish

SMELL: Does the fish have an aroma of the sea?
SIGHT: Is the flesh unblemished, with no traces of bruises or blood spots? Does it have a translucent look? Does the flesh look firm, not flaking or falling apart due to a condition called “gaping?”
TOUCH: Is the flesh firm? Does the flesh bounce back if your make an indentation with your finger?

Smoked Fish

Smoked fish, whether packaged or not, should look moist and be firm to the touch, with no telltale excretions of oil or salt. They should not be dry – dryness denotes an old article. Keep them well refrigerated.