How to Pick the Freshest Fish at Your Market

Take the uncertainty out of buying fish from your grocery store with these expert tips on how to check for freshness as well as the telltale signs of spoilage.

When it comes to choosing fish at the market, it's actually necessary to be picky before bringing those fillets home for your next seafood dinner. You've probably heard fish shouldn't actually have a fishy smell, but what exactly are the characteristics of fresh fish and shellfish? And what about frozen fish? To make you feel at ease when purchasing fish, we've got some expert tips from our Better Homes & Gardens Test Kitchen® as well as an Alaskan fishmonger to give us the details. Read on to learn details about how to safely handle fish, such as how to tell if a fish is fresh, and how long fresh fish will last in the fridge.

raw fish on sheet pan with oil
Andy Lyons

How to Select Fresh Fish

Before you buy any seafood, our Test Kitchen relies on recommendations from Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch. Another way to make sure the fish is top quality is by seeking out a knowledgeable fishmonger that can speak to the origin and variety you're buying. When you've arrived at the store or fish market, here are some ways to tell if your fish is fresh.

Check the Label

Determining the freshness of fish starts with what's on the package. According to Kendall Whitney, director of marketing at Seafood Producers Cooperative, you should seek out terms like "wild," "product of USA," or specific locations such as "Wild Alaskan" on a label. "If you can infer how the fish was handled on the boat, it's a bonus," he says. "If you trust how it was stored at the store, of course, that's important, too." He also notes that cold chain (the uninterrupted temperature during production and storage) and cleanliness are key.

Observe the Fish Case

Before even looking at the fish itself, Whitney is adamant about checking the storage conditions of fresh fish. "Good fish cases will have high-quality flake ice keeping the fish cold and will be changed frequently," he says. Also, go ahead and take a deep whiff of the air in the seafood section, which Whitney says, "Should not smell of fishiness at all. It should have a pleasant fragrance of the sea and saltwater."

Characteristics of Fresh Fish

When choosing fish, always look out for clear eyes (in whole fish), firm flesh that springs back when pressed, and a fresh, mild scent. As for the scales, Whitney always looks to see if the scales are intact and are bright silver in color. If the fish is skinless, the flesh should appear moist, freshly cut, and cleanly skinned. Buying frozen fish? The flesh should be tightly sealed and frozen solid.

Seared Salmon Pistachio Gremolata
Jacob Fox

How Long Does Fresh Fish Last in the Fridge?

If you just bought a few fillets of fresh salmon (or any other fish), we recommend storing it in its original packaging and plan on preparing it within 1 to 2 days. Whitney notes, however, some fishermen believe species such as king salmon taste best resting for up to a week after being caught, similar to how you'd age an expensive cut of beef. In these cases, check with the fishmonger for recommendations.

Freezing Fish

If you bought frozen fish, try to keep your freezer at its coldest setting and don't open the door too often. To freeze fresh fish, wrap in moisture- and vapor-proof packaging and store for 3 to 6 months (never refreeze fish). To thaw, place in a container in the refrigerator overnight.

Need some ideas for what to do with the fresh fish you just bought? Enjoy one of our delicious quick and easy seafood recipes for dinner tonight.

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