"It doesn't take a genius to spot fresh fish," says Bob Kinkead, chef and owner at 21 Federal restaurant in Washington. "Real fresh fish has a real glistening, real alive quality. Fish that's been sitting around looks it."
Consumers should demand high-quality fish and complain if it isn't, says Ken Coons, executive director of the New England Fisheries Development Foundation. Coons believes that the marketplace will respond.
To demand high quality, however, you must know what it is. One of the best ways to learn is to compare fish at different stores. Once you see top quality, you'll realize what isn't, and vice versa.
While fish may have a slight seaweed scent, it should not smell fishy, and neither should the store. When selecting a fish, one Washington-area wholesaler believes consumers should ask seafood clerks to remove it from behind the display for closer examination and for a whiff.
Other than that, here's a checklist from "The Northeast Seafood Book: A Manual of Seafood Products, Marketing and Utilization."
Eyes: Look for clear, full, bulging eyes with black pupils. As fresh fish ages, the eyes become cloudy, dry and sunken and the pupils turn gray or whitish. A bloody eye is often an indication of mishandling. Eyes, however, are not always the best quality indicator. Sometimes they may be bloody or cloudy on perfectly good fish.
Gills: They should be red or pinkish red, free of slime and smell like fresh seaweed. With age, their color fades to light pink, then gray and finally brownish or greenish. By then, the gills will have a strong sour odor and may be covered with a thick yellow or gray mucus.
Skin: Check for moist, unbruised, unfaded and shiny skin. As fish ages, characteristic markings and colors fade and become less pronounced and a thick milky or yellowish slime layer builds up.
Flesh: Look for flesh that is firm, adheres closely to the bones and is elastic to the touch. Test by depressing the flesh with a finger; it should spring back to its original shape leaving no indentation.
Belly Cavity for Gutted Fish: It should be clean with no traces of blood, viscera, silvery or black belly lining or belly burn. The latter appears as yellowing or browning of the belly cavity flesh. The cavity should not have a strong objectionable odor.
Fillets and Steaks
Flesh: Should be firm, moist and have a sheen to it. It should not look dried out or have an off-color, and should not have separations (gaping between flesh segments). Use the depression test to check the firmness of the meat. After depressing the meat with your finger, it should spring back to its original shape leaving no indentation.
Odor: Should be fresh and mild. Oily fish may have a faint fishy smell, but it shouldn't be disagreeably strong. Do not purchase fish that has an ammonia-like odor as this is an indication of spoilage.
And finally, says Coons, don't go into a store with a preconceived notion about what kind of fish you want. Buy what looks good.