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The freshness of food is important, not only from a nutritional point of view, but also from its taste. Imagine baking an apple pie with stale apples or cooking a rich casserole with old vegetables. Even old meat can leave a nasty taste when cooked and can cause serious harm to the body, since the germs in rotting or old meat, are toxic. Fish is one non-vegetarian food that should be consumed as fresh as possible. Toxins such as scombrotoxin and histamine, can develop in the fish as it ages. Consuming such aged fish can be very bad for your health, even if the fish is completely cooked. But how to select fresh fish?

How to Buy Fresh Seafood

To buy fresh fish, one needs to use three of the five body senses: sight, smell, and touch. Tips on choosing and buying the freshest and best fish are outlined below, based on the type of fish.

Uncut Fresh Fish
Whole fish should have all body parts, head, fins, tails etc. intact. Ask the fishmonger to let you touch and examine the fish. A key indicator of freshness are the gills of the fish. They're located on the head of the fish, near the eye socket and appear as a flap. Gently push the flap open and see what color the gills are. If they are a bright red, the fish is fresh. Discolored pinkish or brownish gills indicates an old fish. This is because the gills start to discolor as the fish dies. The gills should also be moist, not dry or grimy.

The next part of the fish to examine are the eyes. Irrespective of the actual color of the eyes, a fresh fish has clear, translucent eyes. Gray or cloudy eyes means the fish is at least 5 days old and not at all fresh. They should be convex in shape and be slightly bulgy in the eye socket. Old fish have eyes that have sunk into the sockets. The body of the fish should be firm to touch. Gently touch the body with one finger, the flesh should spring back. If your finger sinks into the body or your touch has left an impression on the flesh, the fish is old. The flesh should be slippery. The tail of the fish should be stiff and whole.

Observe the scales of the fish. They should have a metallic sheen. Yellow or creamy scales are signs of an old fish. Even brown or yellow spots on the fish, means it is not fresh. Even after death, the scales of a fish remain moist and fixed firmly to the body. Avoid fish with missing scale patches or whose scales fall off, when touched or moved. After physically examining the fish, take a deep breath and smell the fish. This may seem funny but fresh fish does not smell "fishy". A fresh fish should have a sea-breeze or watery smell, that may be strong but is not offensive or unpleasant to your nose. Even a salty or briny smell means the fish is fresh. Old fish stinks, with a distinct ammonia or sulfur-like odor. A sour smell means the fish is rotting internally. No amount of cooking will eliminate the odor of a foul-smelling fish.

Fish Fillets/Steaks
The best way to ensure a fresh fish fillet, is to choose a fresh whole fish and then get it cut into a fillet, right in front of you. The following points will help judge the freshness of a fish fillet:
  • Fish fillets should be firm and moist to the touch. The flesh should be stiff and should bounce back when pressed, just like fresh whole fish.
  • There should be no bruises or discolored spots on the fillet. Bruises and patches means the flesh is aging or has been mishandled. Avoid buying such fillets.
  • The freshest fillets have a clear, consistent metallic color throughout. A dull or yellowish flesh tone is a sign of age.
  • The flesh of the fillet should be continuous throughout, meaning there should be no tears or gaps in the flesh. If the flesh separates, the fillet has been cut from an old fish.
  • Fillets can ooze liquid but it should be translucent and clear. A milky liquid indicates the fillet is rotting.
  • Look at the cut edges of the fillet. If they are brown or colored differently from that of the fillet's color, then the fillet is old.
  • Fillets should smell fresh and salty, just like whole fish. Avoid fillets with a sulfur-like odor.
  • Packed fillets should contain very little packaging liquid. Check the label for the packaging date. Do not buy fillets with a packaging date older than 2 days.
Oysters
Do not buy frozen or dead oysters. Most oysters are sold in their shell alive. They should be completely shut. If there is slight gap or the shell is open, gently tap the shell of the oyster. If it immediately closes up, it is alive and healthy. Do not purchase oysters that do not close up when tapped. If the shell is closed, it should be tightly shut and not cracked or broken. The shell of the oyster should be slimy and scratchy to the touch. It should be free of any algae or seaweed. Fresh oysters have a salty or briny, sea smell. They should not smell unpleasant or ammonia-like. For a fresh and flavorful taste, consume the oysters within 24 hours of purchase.

Lobsters and Crabs
These types of shellfish spoil rapidly after death, so for utmost freshness, always buy such seafood live from tanks. Ask the shopkeeper how long the fish have been residing in the tank. Select the friskiest and most active lobster or crab. Let the shopkeeper lift the lobster up from the tank and see if it tucks away its tail. A healthy lobster is active and mobile and this reflex action shows how healthy it is. Make sure all the limbs are intact and full. Lobsters and crabs should be an appropriate color and when carried, should be heavy for their size.

While buying fresh seafood, you should shop smart and consider all angles, even the fish store. A fish shop located near a port or pier, will obviously have the freshest fish right off the boat. Their advertised "catch of the day" is the real deal. If you purchase fish from a local grocery, then the fish may not be as fresh. In such cases, ask when the shopkeeper receives his fish and shop from him only on those days. A fish shop should not stink of fish but should have an ocean and salty smell. Note the level of cleanliness. Are there bloody knives lying around or ill-kept displays? Is the fish displayed on dirty ice? Is the fishmonger handling the fish with clean hands and tools? Even such factors count in purchasing sustainable seafood.