how to choose the best fresh fish

Choosing the Best Fresh Fish

The How-to Guide for Choosing the Best Fresh Fish

Fish is renowned as being a great option for all types of healthy diets, and is a perfect fit for the low carb lifestyle. Fish is high in protein, and is a very versatile ingredient for many different styles of cuisine from around the world. It’s also an ingredient where freshness is absolutely critical to its taste and how well the final dish turns out. Choosing fresh fish is an important skill to have, but it’s not always clear on what to look for, especially since there are so many ways to buy fish. The things you look for in a whole fish are different from what you need to see in a filet. Fortunately, in this article, we will detail all the tips you need to know in order to choose the best fresh fish at your local grocery store or fish market.

For starters, it’s essential that you know the telltale signs of truly fresh fish, and what to be wary of if the fish may be past its prime. Some of these factors are visible to the eye, but some rely on touch or smell. If the fish is sealed up, you may not be able to smell it or touch it, which reduces the number of signs you can rely on to make your choice. So, while you may not be able to use them all each time you shop, using as many as you can will help ensure that you get the best insight in to the freshness of the fish.

Is It Really Fresh?

Figuring out the freshness of a fish is essentially as simple as going through a checklist and seeing if the fish hits all the right marks. This list of factors is slightly different for whole fish and for filets, since whole fish will usually include the head and gills, which give additional indications of freshness. Here’s how to check for freshness for both types of fish you’ll find at a typical market.

Freshness of a Whole Fish

Check the eyes – The eyes of a fresh fish will be clear, bright, and shiny. If the eyes have taken on a dull, grey, or cloudy appearance, this is an indication that the fish is no longer fresh.

Examine the skin and scales – Similar to the eyes, the scales and skin of a fresh fish will be clear and shiny, with a metallic appearance. Avoid it if the skin and scales look dull or dry.

Have a look at the gills – If you can examine the gills of the fish, they should be a vibrant red. If they’ve started to take on a pale hue or brownish tinge, then skip this fish.

Smell check – Ironically, a fresh fish shouldn’t smell ‘fishy’, but rather will have very little odour to it at all. If it does have a scent, it should be very light and similar to brine or simply like fresh water.

Freshness of a Fish Filet

Colour of the flesh – This is easier to see on coloured fish like salmon, tuna and trout, but the flesh of the fish should be a vibrant colour. If it appears faded or dull, this could indicate the fish is no longer fresh.

Firmness of the flesh – Fresh fish meat will spring back quickly to shape if you gently press it with your finger. If it feels spongy or mushy, it’s not fresh and should be avoided.

Examine the skin and scales – If the filet is still on the skin, check it for the same signs you look for on a whole fish. Shiny, clean, and metallic scales are signs of freshness.

Smell check – Filets should not have any strong smells to them at all. If they smell the least bit fishy, they aren’t fresh and you should choose something else.

If you want an additional bit of guidance on choosing the best in fresh fish, you’d be hard pressed to find better advice than this video featuring celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay as he dishes all the details on choosing the perfect fish.

Different Types of Fish

Now that you know what to look for in a fresh fish, how do you know what kind of fish you really want to buy? Well, if you’re not using a recipe that calls for a specific type of fish, and just want to try something new to grill or pan-fry for dinner tonight, there are three main types of fish you can choose from that each has unique characteristics.

Dark Coloured Fish

Dark coloured fish tends to be very flavourful and is more oil-rich, and comes from fish that are generally open-ocean and long-distance swimmers. Examples of dark fish are Bluefin tuna, Chinook salmon, herring, and mackerel.

Medium Coloured Fish

Medium coloured fish are also quite rich in oils, and include fish such as Arctic char, mahi mahi, yellowfin tuna, and sockeye salmon. These fish tend to have a stronger flavour than white fish, but are generally not quite as strong as the darkest fish types.

White Coloured Fish

White fish is the lightest tasting fish type, and comes in a wide variety of textures and oil content. Some white fish, such as halibut, rockfish, haddock and catfish are lean in oil and have a firm feel. Others, such as tilapia, sea bass, and flounder have a flaky texture and are lean in oils. You can also find white fish that are firm and oil-rich, such as sturgeon, lake whitefish, and albacore tuna.


We certainly hope that you’ve found these tips helpful, and that you’ll put them to good use the next time you visit your local fresh fish market. As with any type of food, however, you’ll find that choosing a fish is as much a personal preference as how you like your steak done or what toppings you want on your burger. Sure, some fish lend themselves to certain styles of cooking, but ultimately the choice is yours when it comes to what ends up on your plate.

We suggest trying fish from different categories and exploring the different tastes and textures to find what you truly enjoy in fish. Regardless of the type of fish you desire, we know that with these tips you’ll be better equipped to get a nice, fresh fish that will definitely taste great in whatever recipe you use it in.