How to Buy Seafood: Everything You Need To Know

Food, How-To
joe fish chicago
joe fish chicago

Photo: Leigh Loftus

One of the most complicated choices in the food world is fresh seafood. While you’re going to find the same chicken breasts and ground beef at the market year round, you might notice that the selection at your seafood counter changes with the seasons. Plus, how do you know when your fish is sustainable and at its freshest?

We spent an afternoon in the kitchen with Chef Ashley Elech of the former Joe Fish in Chicago and learned all about what you need to pay attention to when selecting, storing and even seasoning your seafood.

Elech, a culinary graduate of Kendall College, has been wrangling seafood alongside some of the best chefs in Chicago for the past four years…and she’s one of the only women we know who can expertly handle a 30-pound halibut.

swordfish cooked

Photo: Leigh Loftus


“Think about fish the way you think about produce. There are certain peak seasons for different types of fish,” said Elech. “For example, from mid-May to mid-June the sockeye salmon from Copper River Alaska is especially popular because the fish are swimming upstream.”

Elech says to buy seafood as you would produce, looking for bright vibrant colors and firm filets. Even when you’re buying seasonally, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the numerous seafood options at the seafood counter. While it’s important to know the different between types of fish and how to prepare them, you also want to feel certain that you’re getting a quality product.

ahi tuna

Photo: Leigh Loftus


Even if your corner bodega is a lifesaver when you run out of salt or need to grab an extra tomato, you want to buy seafood exclusively at markets that you trust.

“Look for acclaimed grocery stores or fish houses,” said Elech. “When you buy your seafood, you should smell the ocean, not the seafood itself.” When purchasing whole fish, look for a bright, glossy color and clear eyes, an indicator of healthy fish. If you’re purchasing filets, make sure your fish has a smooth clean texture and doesn’t feel sticky or gooey. “When in doubt, ask your purveyor to let you see and smell the fish before you take it home.”

joe fish swordfish

Photo: Leigh Loftus


When you buy seafood, never be afraid to ask questions about how long the seafood has been in the case and how it was stored. If you’re planning to eat seafood raw, in sashimi or ceviche, you want to be especially certain that you’re buying quality fish.

“You should always ask the purveyor when they received the fish,” said Elech. “It’s especially important with mussels, clams and anything you plan to eat raw.” If your fish has been on ice at the seafood counter for three days, you’ll want to eat it immediately when you get home. If it was flown in that morning, you can be even more confident that you’re getting a quality piece of fish.

“Make sure your seafood is always kept cold, cold, cold,” said Elech. “Make sure your purveyor stores it on ice and when you take it home, it’s best to keep it as cold as possible.” If you’re not sure what temperature your refrigerator is, keep the fish on ice until right before you take it out to prepare and cook it.

whole branzino

Photo: Leigh Loftus


While it’s common to marinate steaks and chicken breasts up to 24 hours before you cook them, pre-seasoning or marinating seafood can actually damage your fish.

“If you season beforehand with a spice rub or marinade that contains salt, it will leach all the water out of your fish and you won’t wind up with a nice final product,” said Elech. “Season your fish right before cooking and it will both look and taste better.”

whole halibut

Photo: Leigh Loftus


As with any other type of food, it’s important to know how your seafood is produced.  Pay attention to how the fish is being caught, whether by trawling, free line fishing or long line fishing.

Elech has an app called “Seafood Watch” from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which helps consumers decide which fish to purchase and which to avoid when shopping at markets or even dining in restaurants. Because different fish are on different lists at different times, it can be hard to keep track.

“For awhile, Chilean sea bass was being overfished and was on the list of items to avoid,” said Elech. “When buying seafood, I try not to use fish that are endangered of becoming extinct.” Some good choices are wild Alaskan salmon, Alaskan cod, North American swordfish, striped bass, Arctic char, rainbow trout and red snapper.

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    […] than a chicken breast. Until you reach that point though, seafood is daunting. We’ve covered how to select the best seafood, but what do you do once you get it […]

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