Supermarket seafood counters can be a source of excellent products and first-rate advice. But, as with any purchase, caveat emptor applies. The following tips can help when choosing fresh fish and seafood.
You Can't Beat Fresh -- Or Can You?
Fresh is always better, right? That's a perfectly reasonable assumption, but in some cases, it may not be true. Fish and seafood are very perishable, and choosing local species over those that come from far away is the best starting point.
But even 'fresh-from-the-boat' is not a guarantee: Seafood 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. But 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.
Convenience Can Cost More Than You Think
In addition to the considerations above, it may be that the 'fresh' fillets 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, too. There's nothing wrong with the practice if the product is labeled as "Previously Frozen", but it's not always done.
Seasoning Can Hide The Truth
Speaking of shrink-wrapping, have you ever seen those packages of Teriyaki-Marinated Swordfish Skewers or Cajun-spiced Salmon or Lemon Pepper Parmesan Tilapia in the seafood department cooler case? They're usually considerably more expensive than the 'plain' variety for the few cents worth of seasoning and the questionable convenience you get for your money.
Fish and seafood don't need to be marinated longer than 15 minutes anyway, so do the seasoning yourself and save.
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!
Real Convenience Can Be Free!
Are you 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? Almost every supermarket seafood department will do it for you at no charge. They'll even bag up the head and bones for you if you want to make fish stock (freeze them until you're ready if you're short on time.)
Even better, many will steam your shrimp, crabs, lobsters, etc -- seasoned or unseasoned -- for free and either chill them or wrap them up hot for you. Now that's real convenience.
Discounts Are Not Always A Bargain
It pays to cruise past the seafood counter of your regular supermarket even if you're not planning to buy anything. That way you'll have a general idea of what's available and in season.
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' $2.99lb trout is probably last week's unsold $7.99lb trout -- just older and grayer.