Bourbon glazed salmon, crab Louis, deep-fried cod filets, mahi-mahi steaks, low country boils . . . is your mouth watering yet?  There’s nothing like seafood to give your dinner that extra “wow” factor.  It’ll make your guests feel extra special and is a great way to treat yo self.

Tips for getting started with comparing, selecting and storing your sea treasures:

1.      How to buy fish We’ll discuss the benefits of fresh versus frozen and how to properly defrost frozen fish and seafood.
2.      Salmon What’s the difference between wild-caught and farmed Atlantic salmon?
3.      How to store fish Let’s talk about how to store fish when you get it home and how long you can keep your fish in the refrigerator or freezer.
4.      How to buy shrimp, muscles, and clams Questions to ask your seafood counter representative about the shrimp, muscles, and clams in the case and what to look for when you buy bagged frozen shrimp, muscles, and clams directly from the freezer.
5.      Wet versus dry scallops Understanding the difference between these two types of scallops – and how to tell which type you’ve purchased.
6.      Crabmeat Learning the difference between different types of crabmeat.
7.      How to prepare your seafood Before you start diving into your recipe, here’s what you can do to make sure your fish and seafood are ready.
8.      How to properly pan-sear your fish, shrimp, and scallops We’ll go over some tips and tricks for the perfect pan-fried seafood.

By the time you’re finished with this article you’ll have the information you need to confidently prepare your seafood, and impress guests with your new found knowledge.

1.    How to Buy Fish

The question of fresh versus frozen can be a hotbed of debate, but it doesn’t need to be.  Fresh is always best.  However, for those of us who don’t live next to the ocean there are a few basic questions you can ask to determine which option is right for you.

Why Is There a Debate Between Fresh and Frozen Fish?

For some, the debate is one of perception – that frozen fish won’t taste as good as fresh fish.  As long as the fish has been frozen relatively quickly after coming out of the water, it will taste almost identical to fresh.

For others, it’s a question of whether or not nutrients will get lost in the thawing process.

Fish that has been frozen within the first few hours of coming out of the water will retain nearly as many of the nutrients as its fresh counterpart.  In some cases, the flash-frozen option is actually safer in that it hasn’t been exposed to the air as long.

Fish that has been frozen, thawed, and refrozen, however, may not taste as good as fresh fish that has only been frozen once.  It is safe to refreeze fish fillets, according to the USDA, if they have not been cooked and if they have been thawed correctly (in the refrigerator) and are still fresh when refrozen.

Warning Signs to Look For When Purchasing Fish

So how can you tell if your fish has been exposed to the air for too long or has been refrozen?

Frozen Fish

If you look at the fish and see evidence of freezer burn or ice crystals, this means the fish has been previously frozen and either partially or fully thawed and refrozen.

You can identify freezer burn by looking for areas of the fish that seem to have different coloring (light gray splotches for example) or look dry – think of jerky – you can clearly see the grain of the meat and separations between them.

Many chefs say that you can use freezer-burned fish, but they don’t recommend it.  The freezer-burned portions of your seafood will have a tough and dry texture and a different, off-putting taste.  To avoid an unsatisfactory experience you can either:

  • Cut away the freezer-burned section of your fish and dispose of it.
  • Thaw the freezer-burned fish in a buttermilk bath in the refrigerator for a few hours.  The buttermilk is known to reconstitute the freezer-burned sections of the fish.  Kind of like a day at the spa . . .

Fresh Fish

If you’re at the market and want to know if the fish you’re examining is truly fresh, you can do the following:

  • Ask the person behind the seafood counter when the fish was caught, when it was shipped, and if it was shipped fresh or frozen.
  • Look at the fish’s scales. Are they shiny and tight or are they flaking and separating? If the fish’s scales are the latter, this fish is not fresh and has started going bad.
  • If the fish has a strong fishy smell or feels slimy, this is another indicator that the fish has been sitting around too long and you don’t want to choose that particular cut.
  • If the fish’s eyes are bright and clear, you have found fresh fish. If, on the other hand, the fish’s eyes are cloudy and sunken, the fish is not very fresh and has been sitting around for a while.

Thawing Fish

The frozen fish passed your inspection, you got it home, and now you want to make sure that you thaw it properly.

The buttermilk bath in the refrigerator is an option used by many chefs for frozen fish that have passed initial inspection.  In addition to allowing the fish to thaw gradually, the buttermilk adds moisture back into the fish that may have been lost in the flash-freezing process.

Another method for properly thawing your frozen fish is to place the fish in the refrigerator overnight or up to 24 hours.  The second choice is to use a bag and rinse or soak it in cold water.  The general rule of thumb is that it will take about 1-2 hours per pound for the fish to thaw.

With the second method, monitor the fish closely and replace the water if it is getting warm.  Due to the room temperature of the air, your water can warm up quickly and you don’t want to let it bath in the danger zone (40°F – 140°F) while the inside is still frozen.

2.    Wild vs. Farm-Raised Salmon

There are some basic differences between wild and farmed salmon.  Wild salmon is usually caught in the Pacific Ocean mostly during the summer months.  Farmed salmon, on the other hand, are usually sourced from the Atlantic Ocean, hatched, raised and harvested in a controlled environment.

Note: Virtually all salmon labeled as “Atlantic” salmon come from salmon farms.  This is why farm raised salmon is available year-round even when it is out of season.

Body Type

Farm raised salmon are typically rounder (or bigger boned if you prefer) than wild salmon.  They don’t have to struggle against the currents like their wild cousins do.  Much like the difference between muscles that have been worked and those that haven’t, farmed salmon are not as toned as wild salmon that work to avoid bears and swim upstream for peak fitness, or is it spawning?

Attention: Farm raised salmon can contain more calories and up to 3x the fat content of wild fish.  There are also concerns with pollutants and toxins with farming practices.  Do your due diligence if this is important to you.

Color

Wild salmon has a more intense and vibrant pink or deep red coloring than the more orangish tone of their farm raised counterparts.

Flavor

Farm raised fish tend to be somewhat dull and fishy compared to the pronounced quality and taste from the wild.  Interestingly, however, most diners are accustomed to farm raised taste due to it being less expensive and more readily available.  Spring for the wild and you’ll see what we’re talking about.

There are many different varieties of wild Pacific salmon:

  • Chinook or King salmon is considered to be the best of the best.  It is the highest in fat content and has a soft, silky, melting texture that is prized by connoisseurs.
  • Coho or Silver salmon has a mild flavor appreciated by those who don’t care for a “fishy” taste.
  • Sockeye or Red salmon is lower in fat content than the King salmon, but still high enough to have a similar smooth texture.
  • Humpback or Pink salmon has a very delicate and mild flavor. So mild that one food critic even compared it to sole.
  • Dog or Chum salmon has a mild taste similar to Pink salmon. The dog salmon is mostly valued for its roe, which is often used in sushi.

Pro Tip: Seek out Copper River Salmon for the ultimate experience

3.    How to Store Your Fish

The storage of your fish begins as soon as you remove it from its refrigerated home at the market.  Once in your cart, you are responsible for its freshness.  To ensure your fish remains as fresh as possible, make sure that your visit to the seafood counter is the last on your list.  Fish does not fare well in warm temperatures, so have it packed on ice if you have a long ride home.

As soon as you get home, remove your fresh fish from its packaging and pat it dry with paper towels.  Once you have patted the fish dry, before placing it in the refrigerator, transfer it on a paper towel lined plate as it will not keep well in its own juices.

Fresh fish begins deteriorating quickly.  As a result, it begins to lose its freshness and taste.  Therefore, it is best to prepare your fish the same day you buy it.  If this isn’t possible – unwrap it, dry it, bag it and set it on an ice bed for one day . . . two if you really seal the bag, press out the air and change the ice.

Frozen fish should be immediately placed in the freezer, or the refrigerator if you’re going to prepare it soon.  The USDA says that fish can be frozen in air-tight containers for an indefinite period of time without compromising safety.  For best results, consume within 3-8 months.

4.    How to Buy Shrimp, Muscles, and Clams

When you are buying fresh shellfish, it should be firmly closed and odorless (well, as odorless as seafood can get).  If it has a strong odor – just say no!

When you are buying frozen shellfish, talk to the person at the seafood counter.  Ask when the shellfish was caught, how quickly it was frozen after it was harvested, and if it has been kept thoroughly frozen.

If the seafood is in the freezer section, look for bags that have been vacuum-sealed or for packaging that explicitly states that the contents were “flash frozen.”  In most cases, flash frozen seafood is fresher than the seafood you’ll find laying out at the seafood counter.

5.    Scallops – Wet vs. Dry

Before we dig into the wet versus dry question, we first need to identify if we’re talking about bay scallops or sea scallops.

Often times restaurants try to pass off bay scallops as true sea scallops.  Here’s the difference:

  • Bay scallops are small. They are about half an inch wide and are harvested in shallow waters of bays and estuaries.  They are sweeter than sea scallops but offer much less meat.
  • Sea scallops are considerably larger – three times larger, in fact.  Sea scallops tend to be about two inches in diameter.  They’re chewier than bay scallops, but still tender.

So, in addition to the differences between bay and sea scallops, there is also a distinction between wet and dry scallops.

  • Wet scallops are those that were shucked on the boat, right after harvest, and are immediately placed into a container filled with cold water.  This process preserves the scallops longer and keeps them fresh. This process also plumps the scallops up, though, and dilutes the flavor.
  • Dry scallops are shucked on the boat too, but they are immediately placed in a dry container that doesn’t have any water or preservatives.  This retains the flavor – keeping it pure and concentrated.

Unfortunately, if you are land locked or don’t purchase directly from a specialty seafood store, your scallops are most likely of the wet variety.  That means they are treated with STP (sodium tripolyphosphate) a chemical preservative that plumps them up and releases a milky white liquid.  Not only do they not taste as good, but they are much harder to sear due to all of the water content.  Frozen scallops usually contain STP as well.

6.    Crabmeat Basics

All crabmeat is not created equal.  Below are seven different kinds of edible crabs:

Alaskan King Crab This is the king of them all because it is the biggest. There are four different species of King Crab – Blue, Golden, Red, and Scarlet. Their meat is sweet and delicious, and their extra large legs are stuffed with succulent meat
Alaskan Snow Crab This crab is also large and tasty, but not nearly as large as the King crab. Male Alaska snow crab can reach 6 inches in shell width, but females max out at 3 inches. Snow crabs prefer the deep, cold water conditions of the northern seas. The meat turns snow white when cooked; hence, the name.

Blue Crab.

 

This is a soft-shell crab that is sometimes eaten in its shell. These crabs are swimmers, as opposed to crabs that stick to the ocean floor. These crabs can normally be found in the Chesapeake Bay area, off of Florida, in the Gulf of Mexico, and down as far as the Bahamas.

Dungeness Crab

 

The most abundant crab to be found in the western part of the US. It is also second-most flavorful after the King crab.  However, you have to work harder for the meat.
Red Rock Crab Similar to the Dungeness crab, these have a thick, hard-to-break shell. They are much smaller, though, and don’t offer as much meat.
Stone Crab These are burrowers. The adults dig up-to 12 to 20 inches deep. Their claws are large and strong enough to break open an oyster’s shell. The Stone Crab’s body is too small to eat, but their claws are full of good, succulent meat.
Chinese Mitten Crab This variety is aggressive – even bully-like. They have mitten-like hairy claws. These are famous in Shanghai and are considered a delicacy.

In addition to fresh crab, refrigerated crab is another option for getting tasty crab if it has been pasteurized and vacuum sealed.  Avoid canned crab meat.  All other options are just – better.  And no matter what, please avoid imitation crab!

7.    How to Prepare

When you get home from the store, here are a few tips for preparing your seafood.

Fresh Fish

To keep your fresh fish nice and attractive, brine it as soon as you get home:

  • Dissolve 6-8 tablespoons of salt in two quarts of water.
  • Submerge your fresh fish in the mixture for 10-15 minutes, weighing it down with a plate, if necessary.
  • When you remove the fish from the brine, rinse it in cool water.
  • Pat it dry, place it on a paper towel-lined plate and place it in the refrigerator.

Shellfish

  • For clams and mollusks scrub the shells thoroughly to rid them of any grit, dirt, and possible microbes.
  • For shrimp, rinse them thoroughly.

8.    Pan-Searing Your Seafood

When you are finished preparing your fish or shellfish, have chosen the recipe and prepared the ingredients, it’s time to get your cooking utensils ready.  Here’s the best way to pan-sear your fish or seafood:

  • Make sure the food has been dried thoroughly to prevent splattering and promote browning.
  • Use a very hot non-stick pan with ghee or avocado oil.
  • Have soft-tipped tongs at the ready.
  • Once the pan is literally smoking hot, place your seafood in the pan.
  • Make sure that you don’t over cook it.  A digital thermometer works fantastic.

Pro Tip: When you are searing your scallops or shrimp, place the pieces of seafood in a circle like a clock.  Then, starting at 12, work your way around the pan in a clockwise fashion.  This will help you easily keep track of the pieces you have and haven’t yet turned.

Conclusion

Seafood is glorious.  With so many types, flavors and varieties there’s literally something for everyone.  Unless you’re allergic . . . then you’re probably not reading this article anyway.  So, get started with some of the aforementioned core techniques and you’ll be on your way to cooking bliss.

Some people may avoid cooking seafood because it can seem a bit scary or intimidating.  It’s delicate and easy to overcook.  Now, not overcooking your fish may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s actually one of the top most common cooking mistakes.  A quality digital thermometer will become your best friend, and take all of the guess work out of the equation.  And no, it’s not cheating.

The reality is that seafood, like any other food, simply needs to be prepared right.  Once you know the basics, a whole new world is at your hands.  Oven roasting, steaming, pan-searing and frying are just a few of the techniques you can employ.  The door is wide open!

– Have Fun In The Kitchen