By Sara Bonisteel, Epicurious
Photos: Morgan Keuler
Buying fresh fish can be a daunting endeavor. How should it smell? What should it look like? How should you treat it once you get it home? We spoke with Anders Miller, a fishmonger at the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle, and one of the coauthors of In the Kitchen with the Pike Place Fish Guys: 100 Recipes and Tips From the World-Famous Crew of Pike Place Fish, for advice on how to buy, clean, and cook fresh fish.
The Pike Place Fish Market, which sees more than 10 million visitors a year, is renowned for Northwestern favorites like salmon, Dungeness crab and Pacific rockfish. Miller, who had no fish experience aside from the fishing hole prior to starting work at the market, says shopping for and cooking fish is a breeze if you know what to look for. Here Miller shares some of his advice for buying, preparing and cleaning fish.
Tips for Buying Fresh Fish
The most important thing you can do to ensure you're buying quality fish is to make friends with your local fish purveyor, says Miller. "It's important to create a relationship with somebody you trust, whether it be a fishmonger or somebody at the fish counter. They should be able to answer whatever questions you have."
Use Your Senses: When buying fish, use the tools nature intended: your nose, your eyes, and even your fingers. "If it smells bad it's not good," Miller says bluntly.
Look for shiny fish with healthy-looking scales. "If there's slime on it, it's always good," Miller says. "Slimy means fresh. Scale loss is an indication it's been handled. If you're buying tuna or any whole fish check the blood lines... look at the gills and make sure everything's nice and bright and looks fresh." Blood lines should be red, not brown like old blood, he says.
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It's ok to poke around the gills to check the freshness of the fish, just do it gently. "There's nothing that a fishmonger likes less than when you come up and just jam your finger into the fish." Look for flesh that is firm and springs back, Miller says. "It will be shiny and the scales will be on there."
Buy Tail Pieces for Kids
: Tail meat is leaner than the rest of the fish. "And it's also completely boneless," Miller says. "So if you're worried about bones with the little kids, if you always buy tail pieces you'll never have to worry about bones."
Storage Tips for Fresh Fish
Keep Your Fish Cold: "You've got generally a couple of hours of transit time where you don't really need to put it on ice, if I wrap up some fish for you in newspaper. Provided it's not 100 degrees out then you've got easily a couple of hours you can go and continue shopping." But once you get home, Miller advises, get that fish chilled ASAP.
Rinse Fish When You Get Home: Fish from the market is often placed in a plastic bag sitting in its own juices, so should be cooked or repackaged once you get home. "Even if I pack something up today and it's super fresh, when I get it home I'll rinse it and dry it with a paper towel before I cook it," Miller says. This is especially important if you plan to sear the fish. "To get a nice sear on it you really want to make sure you start with a dry piece of fish," Miller notes.
Freeze Fish in Water: If that fresh fish you've just purchased won't be cooked for a few weeks, repackage it for the freezer in increments of what you think you'll thaw and cook at one time. Miller uses freezer bags with some water added to store the fish cut. "You want to keep the air out," he says. "I double-bag it just in case it gets snagged in the freezer."
When it comes to thawing your fish, it's important to have a little foresight, Miller says. Put the frozen fish in the fridge to thaw the day before you want to cook it. Don't thaw it by running it under cold water.
Filleting and Prep Tips for Fresh Fish
Keep Your Knife Supersharp
: If you're working with a whole fish or dividing or boning a large piece, "a sharp knife will make a master out of you, and then just let the knife do the work," Miller says.
You'll know your knife is dull when you feel like you're sawing through the fish flesh, and then, Miller warns, you'll start losing meat.
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Keep Your Other Hand Out of the Way:
Your non-knife hand should not be holding the fish anywhere near the blade. A knife can easily slip while you're filleting a slithery fish, so make sure the hand holding the fish is behind the hand doing the cutting.
Take Your Time: "You're going to ruin some when you're a rookie -- that's just how it is," Miller says. "Everyone hacked up a couple of fish to get to where they can fillet beautifully."
Try Ceviche: If you're afraid of cooking your fish, you're not alone. "Everyone's worried that they're going to get sick, so they overcook fish," Miller says. "I would say that's the number one problem." A simple solution is not to cook it, and make ceviche instead. In ceviches, raw fish is marinated in citric acid -- usually lemon or lime -- which changes the appearance and flavor of the fish by coagulating the proteins. Although the fish hasn't been heated, it appears cooked -- the flesh turns firm and opaque -- thanks to this reaction. And it takes the stress out of cooking fish, as all it requires is chopping the meat and marinating it. "If you have a knife and a cutting board you can do any of the ceviche recipes," Miller says.