How to Buy & Store Fish


Whether they’re behind the counter of a major supermarket or running their own business, find a fishmonger who cares about cooking, eating and selling seafood. Wherever you are, don’t buy seafood in the same way you’d buy frozen meat or vegetables. Make it an occasion and try to eat it the same day if possible. Fish and seafood aren’t commodities you want to buy and eat the following week!

How to Buy & Store Fish

Be Flexible

Don’t think that just because you want to grill barramundi on a certain day, you’ll be able to go out and buy it. Availability of all seafood here in Australia depends on seasonality, fishing conditions and general supply. Sometimes there may not be any fresh barramundi the day you’re looking for it. As a general rule, head to the fishmonger first, then plan the menu or dish based on what you find. Or, simply have a plan B or substitute option eg replacing mussels with pipis or other clams. It’s also important to consider frozen seafood. It can be a safe and reliable option, but in some instances it’s the only option. For example, deep sea prawns never find their way to the market in a fresh state, they are snap frozen on trawlers instead. Note that seafood remains highly fragile and is subject to rapid deterioration with a limited shelf life. Your domestic freezer is not the place to store frozen seafood for much longer than two months.

Use Your Senses 

Inspect your seafood visually and where possible, with smell and touch before buying. It might seem pushy to ask your fishmonger a feel or sniff, but it will save you much anxiety (and money) when you get home and find that your selection doesn’t need to be thrown out. Learn to recognise fresh seafood. Stop by your fishmonger regularly and get to know their sources. Take their advice as to what’s in season, what’s coming through and moving fast. You should also see what they’re taking home for dinner, an inside tip to the best in the shop.

Try to buy whole fish where possible, except if the fish is large, such as tuna or salmon. Whole fish generally keeps for longer and the flesh stays in better condition. It also allows you to analyse the quality upon closer inspection. The eyes should be clear and plump, not sunken or cloudy. Fish gills should be a bright shade of red/pink (if you can’t see them properly ask your fishmonger to open them up and check). The aroma should be a clean, fresh smell of the ocean and never “fishy”. Good quality whole fish should look visually spectacular. There should be an even covering of scales with no obvious evidence of indents or bruising. The fish should be covered in a clear, fresh sea ‘slime’ (trust us, this is a good thing!) that has a distinct marine aroma. If a whole fish doesn’t have this, it’s probably been washed and rewashed in fresh water, which shortens the shelf life and removes a great deal of flavour.

Try Filleting Yourself

If you don’t have the confidence to fillet a whole fish, ask your fishmonger to do it for you. If you can, ask for ‘dry-filleting’, which means the fish isn’t soaked in water before or after cutting. Fresh water is the enemy of fresh fish, it removes the essential oils from the flesh and increases the core temperature, which reduces its shelf life. Having said that, don’t be afraid to give filleting a go as fish that’s been filleted just before cooking will provide a delicious eating experience. Make sure you have an appropriate sharp knife, then practice on simple, inexpensive ‘round’ fish such as mackerel or mullet. You’ll be surprised how quickly you can learn the basics. You could ask your fishmonger to gill, gut and scale the fish for you, leaving them with the mess. Then at home, rewrap your fish in a clean chux cloth or cling film. Prepare an airtight container with a layer of ice on the bottom and a drip tray sitting above. Rest the wrapped fish on the drip tray, seal and store the container in the driest part of the fridge (usually the vegetable crisper) until required. 

Use Fillets As Soon As Possible

When buying fillets, look for those with a translucent sheen, a vibrant sparkling colour and a fresh aroma. Wrap them tightly in plastic wrap, as fillets will oxidise even more quickly than whole fish, then store them in the same way. If you choose to freeze fresh fillets at home, be aware that their quality and shelf life can be very limited. If you want to use frozen fillets, try to purchase them pre-frozen, as these are usually produced using professional deep-freeze technology and packaging. If frozen fillets aren’t vacuum-sealed, wrap them tightly in plastic wrap or freezer bags. To thaw, place unwrapped frozen fillets on a drip tray in an airtight container and leave overnight in the fridge, then use immediately.

As a blanket rule it is best to cook fresh fish within two days of bringing home. If your fish is particularly oily (eg sardines) it is best to eat that day, it only deteriorates with time! Our biggest tip is to try to store your fresh fish with ice (separated by a drip tray). It is no coincidence that fish is displayed on crushed ice at the markets. It rots really quickly, even in the fridge, unless it is iced. Deep sea fish swim in water that is sometimes a lot colder than air and have evolved to survive in water that is just above freezing. It is no wonder arm air increases the speed at which they spoil. If you don't plan to eat the fish within a couple of days, freeze it instead.

Buying Preserved

Fresh or frozen isn’t always the only option. Dried, canned, preserved or fermented seafood provides a delicious component of a meal when fresh isn’t available. Dried seafood such as baby prawns or bonito flakes, or heavily salted fish such as anchovies often give more flavour and umami to dishes than the original fresh item.

In spite of what you may have learned from your parents or grandparents, canned seafood is a lot more than just a practical and economical way to shop. It’s not just an inferior, more convenient version of the fresh stuff. Quality brands of tinned fish can be a whole category of its own, full of carefully crafted specialties with the potential to reinvigorate your home cooking. In some countries such as Portugal, the canneries actually get first choice of fish from the wholesale markets. Reputable gourmet food stores and deli’s often stock a wide range of canned seafood items, beyond your regular tuna and sardines. These food items are excellent on sandwiches, in nourishing rice bowls, salads, potato dishes and make for unbelievably easy picnics or antipasto.