We have all had that moment when we’ve encountered a piece of fish that is past its prime – in our own fridge, in a store, or somewhere else.
That one event can turn a person off on fish for the rest of their life, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Simply knowing a few qualities of fresh fish, any one of us can rest assured we will bring home a great product.
One of the first classes in most culinary schools, including mine, was fish identification and fabrication. There were two things that every student in my class could rehearse when our time in that class was over.
1. When fabricating fish, you need two things: a clean and dry cutting board and a clean and dry fish. Of course, you always have a sharp knife.
2. The five qualities to look for in fresh fish.
- Clear bulging eyes
- Maroon colored gills
- Flesh that responds to soft pressure
- No belly burn
- A sweet ocean smell
I find that the five freshness checks hold true whether a person is buying a whole fish or just a section.
Clear bulging eyes are important! When a fish is swimming in water its eyes protrude out from the head. After the fish is caught its eyes will begin to sink into the body. Concave eyes indicate the fish is no longer fresh.
Maroon colored gills are another great sign. The gills in most living fish are a maroonish red. Off-colored gills (dark red or very light pink) are a sign the fish is not fresh.
When you touch the flesh of the fish it should not be mushy. It should hold up to soft pressure and spring back to its original shape when you let go. If your fish does not do this, it is no longer fresh.
Belly burn is a condition that occurs when fish a fish isn’t handled carefully. Once a fish is caught, it should be gutted as soon as possible. If this doesn’t happen, and the rib cage is broken, the liquid from the stomach can seep into the fish’s flesh. This create a off color and smell. If a fish shows signs of belly burn, it is not fresh.
Most importantly is a sweet ocean smell. Many people associate a foul “fishy” smell with fish. This smell is only on a fish that is past its prime. Fresh fish should smell like that waft of air you get when sitting on the beach. If you can smell your fish, it is definitely not fresh.