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Do you know how to shop for seafood like a pro? Chefs share their expert tips

Seafood sales have soared during pandemic. Here's how to shop for it — and cook it — like a chef.
Photo illustration of fish in a paper grocery bag
Food pros say it's best for home cooks to buy their fish from a local fish market.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Surprisingly, the answer to "What's for dinner tonight?" for many Americans these days is: "seafood." With sales of fish soaring during the pandemic, many people are looking for the best ways to shop for and cook everything from salmon and flounder to shellfish and beyond. According to an article in Bloomberg, the increase in home cooks adding fish to the menu could be due to the fact that people are visiting restaurants less frequently these days. Typically, Americans spend on seafood when they go out to dinner. But with many restaurants shuttered or switching to takeout, people are trying their hand at cooking and eating a variety of fish in their own kitchens.

Not only can it be fun to try cooking seafood at home, it's also good for your health. The FDA recommends people eat 2-3 servings a week from their "best choices" list, which includes everything from anchovies and sardines to haddock to and tilapia (fish tacos, anyone?). The FDA advises people to eat other types of fish less frequently (see their "good choices" and "choices to avoid" lists) due to increased mercury levels.

Mike Lata, chef and co-owner of FIG and The Ordinary in Charleston, South Carolina told TODAY Food in an email that he's seeing an increase in direct-to-consumer seafood sales.

"In Charleston, there are a few new seafood shops along with the old local standbys," he said. "That certainly helps. Some of the fisherfolk sell their haul dockside and have even started the seafood version of the CSAs, called community supported fisheries. You buy shares, like a CSA, and then meet the producer for a scheduled weekly or month pickup that you purchased in advance, quarterly or annually."

Where to buy fresh seafood and fish

Nina Compton, chef and owner of Compère Lapin and Bywater American Bistro in New Orleans told TODAY in an email that it's best for home cooks to buy their fish from a local market.

"Ideally, your local seafood market or fish monger is the place you should buy your seafood because a) you’ll know you’re getting it fresh and b) they are very knowledgeable and can guide you towards the best seafood or fish they have available," she said. "They’re also very adept at fileting, cracking and packaging seafood. If you don’t have one nearby, then a Whole Foods or Fresh Market is the next best thing. I’d steer clear of your regular grocery store, as it will likely not be as fresh."

Colin Rooney, general manager of Nassau Street Seafood in Princeton, New Jersey told TODAY Food that it's best to avoid purchasing frozen fish if possible.

"It's hard to know when the fish was caught and frozen and how long it has been frozen for," said Rooney. "The best practice would be to purchase fresh fish and freeze yourself."

If you do buy frozen fish, follow the FDA's guidelines and make sure the packaging is not torn or crushed. When fish begins to thaw, consuming it becomes a health hazard. Avoid any frozen fish with ice crystals, which can be a sign that the fish has thawed and been refrozen. "Avoid packages where the frozen fish flesh is not hard," says the FDA. "The fish should not be bendable."

When you get home from the store, put it in the refrigerator or freezer soon after buying it. If freezing fish, wrap it tightly in plastic, foil or moisture-proof paper and store it in the freezer.

Rooney said that when it comes to buying seafood, shopping at local markets really does make a difference.

"When shopping local you will experience a more intimate shopping experience," he said. "At your local fish market you will be able to purchase in-season fish versus fish that has been caught in a previous season and frozen."

You can also ask for sustainable seafood when you shop to protect our oceans and ensure plentiful seafood is available in the future!

When to buy fish

Compton said that when it comes to the best time to buy fish, what really matters is when not to buy it.

"Sundays and Mondays are days to avoid, as there likely will just be remnants and not things coming right off the boats," she said.

How to cook a whole fish

For a beginner, Compton suggests starting with a roasted whole fish.

"Ask your fish monger for a white-fleshed fish like mahi-mahi or branzino," she said. "It’s a good, easy fish to roast and has a nice texture. Be sure to check for freshness with a few simple tips: make sure eyes are clear (not cloudy), make sure skin is firm and shiny and make sure there is no brown around the edges. Ask the salesperson to scale, gut and rinse the fish or just tell them you’re planning on roasting it and they’ll prepare it for you."

"Once you’re home rinse the fish again and pat dry," she advised. "Then brush the whole fish with a really good olive oil. From there, stuff the cavity of the fish with some fresh lemon slices, garlic and your favorite herbs. Don’t forget to season the outside of the fish and don’t be stingy. Use some coarse salt and pepper and garlic powder (or whatever other spice). Preheat your oven to 450 degrees and roast your fish for about 18–20 minutes. This will depend on the size or type of your fish, but you’ll know it’s done when it’s flaky on the fork. Take out the fish, squeeze some fresh lemon juice on it and eat immediately."

Once you're into the swing of cooking seafood, there are some spices you'll want to keep on hand, said Compton.

"Ingredients that you need to keep at home include fresh lemon, maybe some ginger and lemongrass, and fresh garlic," she said. "Dried spices depend on your taste, but you cannot go wrong with keeping some Paul Prudhomme blackening seasoning. It’s delicious on virtually any seafood or fish you cook and is packed with flavor."

Ready to be a seafood chef in your own kitchen? Here are a few recipes to try:

Valerie Bertinelli's Sheet-Pan Baked Salmon is a flavorful, simple recipe that will feed the whole family and minimize clean-up!

Fish Tacos with Cabbage Slaw and Crema

Fish Tacos with Cabbage Slaw can be a healthy alternative to meat on Taco Tuesday! This recipe uses cod but you can use any mild, white fish including tilapia, mahi mahi, grouper, flounder or halibut.

Bouillabaisse with Garlic Croutons

Bouillabaisse may sound intimidating, but this classic French fish stew is extremely doable at home. With clams, mussels, scallops, shrimp and red snapper, this version includes homemade garlic croutons.

Beer-Battered Fish and Chips sounds like an amazing meal for any night of the week. Be sure not to crowd the fish in the pan and save some of the beer from the batter to enjoy with your meal.

10-Minute Shrimp with Zucchini Noodles is a healthy dish that is low in calories, high on taste and super fast to throw together.