You CAN Buy Good Fish at the Supermarket

Alex Van Buren
Food Features Editor
February 5, 2014

Photo credit: StockFood

Fish: It’s easy to cook, it’s simple to find (both at the fishmonger and at the grocery store), and it’s good for you. You know all these things.

Choosing the freshest fish at the market is a more daunting task. Should it smell like the ocean or should it be devoid of scent? Should its flesh be shiny or matte? What signs should you rely on if you’re at the supermarket, and the fish is wrapped in cellophane? 

William Arruda, Vice President of Kyler Seafood in New Bedford, Massachusetts, can answer these questions. He’s been selling fish for 38 years. The owner of two small shops, Arruda naturally prefers that you not go to the supermarket—"when you got a meat guy and he’s taking care of the meat, he usually doesn’t pay attention to the fish"—but even he admits to occasionally buying seafood from Stop & Shop. (The grocery store can be more convenient, plain and simple.)

Here are Arruda’s top fish-buying tips.

Lead with Your Nose: "If it smells like dead fish when you walk in, you should walk right back out the front door," says Arruda, who says this applies to grocery stores and fishmongers alike. Fresh fish shouldn’t smell fishy or salty; it should smell like nothing—a "fresh, clean smell in the air," says Arruda. At the supermarket, hold the plastic-wrapped fillet right against your nose. There should be zero odor there. 

Look at Texture: When it comes to fillets, avoid anything that looks like “it’s falling apart,” says Arruda. “If it’s soft and mushy looking, it’s probably not the best quality.” You want a firm-textured fillet.

Shine Is Good: The meat of the fillet should be “shiny and bright,” and never matte. 

Clear Eyes, Full Fish: About whole fish, Arruda declares, “clear-eyed, red gills; that’s the bottom line.” He also notes that “we’re lazy.” Read: most folks don’t buy whole fish. But we should!

Arruda also told us what to look for in some of the most popular fish:

Swordfish and Tuna: "Anything that has blood in it, the bloodlines should be reddish," says Arruda. "If they’re brown or dark, or if they haven’t got a bloodline, then something’s really up." He goes farther to say, "If it’s brown, I’m not buying it—even if it’s 50 cents a pound.” And if you can’t find fresh swordfish or tuna, he suggests trying marlin or shark.

Salmon: "Depending on what you’re buying nowadays, wild salmon tends to be red, farm-raised tends to be orange, and there are a lot of white salmon out there," says Arruda. As is true of all fillets, a mushy texture should act as a warning. Pro tip: If you see "fresh wild salmon" right now, it’s not; the fish isn’t in season. Arruda sells farm-raised Scottish salmon, which he prefers in taste to the wild stuff. 

Scallops: Look for “dry, very, very firm, white scallops.” Ask if they’ve touched tap water; “people wash stuff nowadays and they shouldn’t!” (This will serve you well when you get home; a dry scallop loves a hot pan. Wet ones don’t caramelize as well.)

Shrimp: "Shell-on is the way to go," says Arruda, because "usually shell-off is processed." An avid home cook, he reminds us that "the art of cooking shrimp is to use shells as flavor" in the base of broths

Tilapia: "Everybody’s got a price point," says Arruda, and tilapia is a lesser-priced item that fits most budgets. As is true of tuna, look for one with “that red bloodline, that’s got a nice color to it.”

Mussels and Clams: Always buy mussels and clams whose shells are closed. The sniff test applies here, too. 

Haddock: If you’re after codfish or grouper, but it doesn’t pass the sniff test, go for haddock.White and flaky, it’s a fish famous for its ability to take on other, stronger flavors—we love it both baked and fried. And according to Arruda, it's a close sibling to both codfish and grouper. 

Keep your nose as well as your eyes peeled next time you broach the fishmonger or the fish counter. You’ll be happy you did.

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