Buying fresh fish has never been easier. Restaurants commonly have a fish selection while more and more grocery stores are providing fresh fish counters. Finding fresh fish is not the problem. The problem is finding good quality fresh fish. For restaurants and retail stores "what sells" does not always keep customers coming back. Yet, a select number of eateries constantly have patrons asking the kitchen where they purchase their fish. So what are the secrets of these elite fish buyers? The goal of this article is to provide you with a description of fish buying basics and allude to some of the more complex aspects of buying fish.

Let's start with the basics. You have two goals when buying fresh fish. First, you want to buy fish that spends the least amount of time from the boat to the plate. Secondly, you want to buy fish that has been handled properly. Mark Gorogianis, an executive with The Plitt Company, Chicago's leading supplier of fresh fish, stated, "The best fish will be caught and cooked on the back of one of our boats. But traveling to Alaska or the North Atlantic is not the most practical for an evening meal. But the buyer must do their homework to ensure that this "back of the boat" quality has not diminished."

Odor is the only universal characteristic that can be used across all fish species. If a fish has a "fishy odor" the product is already in decline and resultantly will taste fishy. If a retail fish counter smells "fishy" you are probably in a place that does not sell the best. What should fish smell like? That depends on the species. For example, halibut will have a fresh oaky smell and whitefish smells like cucumbers.

Many buyers look for eye clarity as an indicator of freshness. Wally Lesniak, The Plitt Company's Vice President of Operations, states, "Eye clarity is useful on about half of all fish species. Deeper caught fish such as grouper will have cloudier eyes."

Bloodiness is also a good indicator of freshness. A fish with fresh blood in the cavity or veins is going to be fresh. Fish with dried blood or brown blood stains will lack freshness. Gill color is also an excellent indication of freshness. Because the gills are responsible for oxygen exchange with the blood, they are generally deep red in color. Similar to the bloodiness characteristic, gills that are brown in color suggest a lack of freshness. Additionally, gills should be clean and clear of any mucous.

But every fish species tends to be a little different when it comes to freshness. For example, halibut emits a translucent green slime up to 72 hours after it has been caught. Several species of fish will develop a yellowing of the collar or belly meat as it ages.

In conclusion, back of the boat freshness is measured via odor, bloodiness, gill color and conditions, meat color and in some cases eye clarity. But what separates the pro from the amateur fish buyer is determining handling.

Determining proper fish handling is only a concern of those who wish to be the best of buyers. Handling measurements require time and effort on the part of the buyer. The easiest available handling characteristic is the search for flesh bruises. Bruised meat suggests a rough handled fish. Connoisseurs of the fish world ask more detailed questions such as:
  • How is the fish caught?
  • Is the fish stunned immediately upon entering the fish deck?
  • After the fish has boarded the boat, how long does it take before it is bled and gutted?
  • How much ice per pound of fish did the boat carry?
  • What is the transport temperature to markets?

As you can see, you'll never be the best fish detective by reading a pamphlet. The best eateries and retail stores either employ these experts or know whom to turn to for this fish expertise.

So the next time you are price shopping for fish, make sure you are comparing apples to apples . . . . or should that be fish to fish.
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