Some grocery store fish departments get a bad reputation for having questionable quality and poor customer service. But supermarket seafood counters can be a source of excellent products and first-rate advice if you know what to look and ask for. As with any purchase, however, caveat emptor applies—it is the buyer's responsibility to check quality before purchasing. Follow a few tips and you will feel confident when choosing fresh fish and seafood at your local market.
Fresh Isn't Always Better Than Frozen
It may seem a perfectly reasonable assumption that fresh is always better, but in some cases when it comes to fish, it may not be true. Fish and seafood are very perishable, and seafood "fresh-from-the-boat" needs to be handled properly from the minute it leaves the water (for example, kept on ice—not in ice water.)
In the market, it's important to know the signs of freshness since you probably aren't privy to how the fish was transported and stored. Recent advances that allow for super-fast freezing and immediate vacuum sealing right on the fishing boats have resulted in much higher quality frozen seafood that can be the equal of—or better than—fresh.
A good starting point to finding the freshest fish is choosing local species over those that come from far away.
Convenience Can Cost You
In addition to whether the fish is fresh or frozen, or if it is local or not, you also need to take into consideration how the fish is presented (or packaged). It may be that the "fresh" fillets arranged on ice in the seafood case are actually the very same fillets available a step or two away in the freezer case; they've just been defrosted for your convenience—and marked up for the store's profit. The same goes for the shrink-wrapped packages. There's nothing wrong with the store doing this, as long as the product is labeled as "previously frozen," but this is not always done. If you are considering a fresh piece of fish, ask the person behind the counter if it has been previously frozen if not marked as such.
Supermarket fish departments also often offer pre-seasoned fish, such as teriyaki-marinated swordfish skewers or Cajun-spiced salmon or lemon pepper parmesan tilapia, either over ice or in packages. They are usually substantially more expensive than a plain piece of fish, which is not always warranted since many use only a few cents worth of seasoning. Considering fish and seafood don't need to be marinated longer than 15 minutes, the pre-flavored fish is not really a time-saver, so save the money and do the seasoning yourself.
Also, some unscrupulous vendors use heavy seasoning to cover up seafood that's not fresh enough to sell otherwise. Another good reason not to pay extra!
Take Advantage of Free Services
You might be eyeing that beautifully fresh, reasonably priced whole black sea bass in the seafood case, but don't want to risk mangling it by filleting it yourself. Luckily, almost every supermarket seafood department will do it for you at no charge. They'll even bag up the head and bones if you want to make fish stock, which you can freeze until you're ready to use.
If you're in the market for shellfish, many grocery store fish departments will steam your shrimp, crabs, lobsters, etc—seasoned or unseasoned—for free, and either chill them or wrap them up hot for you.
It pays pause at the seafood counter of your regular supermarket even if you're not planning to buy anything. Take in how the fish looks and what it costs—that way you'll have a general idea of what's available and in season and how it's priced. You'll also be able to tell when a cheap price is a good deal or not since you'll know with fair certainty that this week's "fresh" $2.99 per pound trout is probably last week's unsold $7.99 per pound trout—just older and grayer.