We were sitting at a table in the bar at the Ketchikan, Alaska, airport waiting for our plane and lamenting the fact that we had to leave after a wonderful few days of fishing at Yes Bay Lodge. There were 10 of us and we had done rather well. Ten good-size boxes of frozen halibut and salmon had been checked in at the luggage counter minutes before.
At the next table, another group of lucky anglers was talking of their good fortune and the good food they had enjoyed at their lodge. "There's nothing like fresh salmon," one man remarked. "That's why I wouldn't let them freeze my catch; I want my family to taste it fresh."
"But it won't be fresh by the time you get it home," one of his buddies exclaimed. "You should have had it frozen."
There is, it seems, a general misconception with regard to the quality of many frozen foods, fish in particular. Generated and perpetuated (I think) by the current craze promoting the "new American cuisine" or "California cuisine," which uses "only the freshest of ingredients," anything frozen has gotten an unjustified bad rap.
Fresh is the opposite of stale, it is not the opposite of frozen. Some things must be frozen to maintain their fresh quality. Fish often is one of them. I'm not going to try to convince you that the fish I brought home from Alaska and that now fills my freezer is going to taste as good as the fish the cooks at Yes Bay Lodge served two hours after the fish had been caught.
Nor am I suggesting that the "fresh" fish you are served in one of those wonderful new "freshest-of-ingredients" restaurants isn't great. What I am saying is that the frozen fish in your supermarket's meat case is apt to be fresher than the "fresh" fish in the same case.
Stop and think about which is fresher. A fish caught off the coast of Alaska, kept in a slush ice bath on the fishing boat for several days until it was picked up and taken to Ketchikan, where it was repacked in more ice for shipment to Seattle (another few days) for distribution across the country (another day or two) to supermarkets, where it sits in the meat case a day or two until you buy it "fresh"? Or is the fresher fish a fish that was processed and flash-frozen the same day it was caught and kept frozen until you thaw it in your refrigerator? I think you'll agree--frozen is fresher.
A Few Basic Signs
Modern techniques and technology allow the attributes of fresh-caught seafood to be captured and preserved for months by freezing. There are, however, a few basic signs of frozen seafood quality to keep in mind when shopping to make sure you are getting the quality you should.
Many pre-wrapped packages of frozen seafood have an expiration date stamped on the label. Look for that date and pay attention to it. As a general rule, fish should not be kept in your freezer or any freezer for more than six months.
If you plan to keep fish in the freezer for more than a day or so, be sure that it is wrapped in moisture-proof freezer paper. One of the guys at Yes Bay Lodge recommends dipping solidly frozen fish steaks in cold water before wrapping for the freezer. The water forms an ice glaze that helps prevent freezer burn.
Don't buy frozen fish that is stacked above the load line in the frozen food case; it has not been kept at the proper storage temperature.
Watch for water stains on the packaging, ice crystals inside the package or other signs that the fish has thawed at some point.
Avoid buying any frozen fish that isn't solidly frozen.
If you are ever lucky enough to fish the icy waters of Alaska and consume your catch only hours after it's been caught, you are in for a treat. That's fresh fish. If not, buy frozen. That's fresh, too.