How To Buy Fresh Fish And Shellfish

Everything you need to know about seafood shopping

Think about the last time you went to the fish counter. Row upon row of glistening seafood, sprawled out on ice like a still life. It's beautiful, sure, but shopping for fish can be overwhelming. Wild caught versus farmed? Frozen or not? And which fish are even okay to eat these days?

The answers to all this and more lie with your fishmonger, or a good fishmonger anyway, so we visited with one our favorites, Vinny Milburn of Greenpoint Fish & Lobster Co. in Brooklyn, and his chef/partner, Adam Geringer-Dunn, to help us figure it out.

Finding sustainable seafood is a complicated, ever-changing endeavor not an exact science, the Greenpoint guys say. But like almost everything these days, your phone can help. Start your seafood hunt by downloading an app like the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, which lists dozens of fish on a sustainable scale. Use it to find a sustainably minded fish shop in your city, and once you have, narrow your choices down to domestic fish. The U.S. fishing industry is "highly regulated and transparent," Geringer-Dunn says.

Your next instinct might be to ask if the fish has been frozen and back away if it has, but Milburn encourages people to stop turning their nose up at the frozen stuff. Like many vegetables, fish is flash-frozen at its peak (i.e., shortly after it's been caught) and stays fresher longer.

Another term not to scoff at: farmed fish. Though some farming can have negative impacts on the environment, there are exceptions, Geringer-Dunn says, including shellfish like clams, mussels and oysters. "Don't say, 'I never eat farmed or frozen fish,'" Milburn says. "Those words shouldn't be deal breakers—they should be the starting point."

Here's where things get a bit more complicated: How was the fish caught? "Handline caught is one of the most targeted means of catching fish; because there's one fish at the end of the line, you can tell what it is, and if it's not what you're going for, you can release it," Geringer-Dunn says. Traps are great, too, as "the fish are live, and if they're not what you want, you can let them swim away." Generally, it's best to avoid seafood caught by bottom trawling and large nets that indiscriminately scoop up tons of fish.

Now for the fun stuff: How much do you need for dinner? A third of a pound will satisfy most diners, Geringer-Dunn says. Cook the fish with the skin on to keep it from overcooking.

Once home, your fish is safe in the refrigerator for two to four days depending on when it was caught (that's another good question for your fishmonger). Keep it in its packaging, usually wax or butcher paper. Shellfish keeps for a little longer; just refrigerate them in a bowl covered with a damp cloth.

Finally, don't forget about the bones! Even if you get your fish filleted, ask for those bones to go, Geringer-Dunn, who suggests making stock with them, says. "People are going crazy for bone broth. I use fish stock in everything I cook."