Fish Talk: Is Fresh Fish Really the Best Fish?

Fish Talk: Is Fresh Fish Really the Best Fish?

Is Fresh Fish Really the Best Fish? 

Fresh seafood is frequently assumed to be the best seafood, but is it really? This desire for “fresh” is something that has long been held by fish consumers, and until recently it was absolutely true. We can all agree the word “fresh” has a great appeal – especially in the seafood world. But the general assumption is that “fresh” equals “quality,” and this is where most seafood consumers are mistaken. Quality seafood is what we’re after, and to get the best quality of fish, always selecting the “fresh” option won’t produce the results you’re expecting.

Without a question, a fish pulled right out of the water and eaten is the freshest seafood you can get. If one wanted to hold this standard of fresh, however, they would need a way to cook the catch while they’re still on the water. Aside from that, they are going to need to rely on some form of preservation technique to preserve the fish for a duration of time to maintain the high quality of the flesh until it can be consumed. Traditionally, this method is putting the fish on ice.  The very mundane medium of ice has some amazing properties when it comes to seafood. The reason fish go bad is because of a higher temperature that allows the rapid growth of bacteria. This is what gives fish a “fishy” smell – it’s the ammonia released by the bacteria (a quality piece of fish should have no “fishy” smell at all).

Historically, if you lived in an area that had an abundance of seasonal ice, you were in luck. You could harvest and hold ice year-round in an “ice house,” taking it out as needed to cool fish for a few weeks that were caught in the warmer months. In more temperate climates, drying the fish via air drying, smoking, and salting/pickling were the main techniques. After refrigeration came along in the 20th century, commercial ice production helped fisherfolk at sea keep their catch cool even in tropical climates, and freezing fish also became commonplace as a long-term storage method. 

But, as in everything, there is no free lunch. For every preservation technique, there is a quality impact. Air drying, smoking, salting, and pickling significantly change the texture and flavor of the fish. For any of you who have had the pleasure of consuming lutefisk, you’ll understand what we mean! Freezing can also affect the fish, but more on that a bit later. Putting fresh fish on ice is a reliable way to slow down the degradation process – if it’s done correctly – but it certainly doesn’t stop it. In fact, a fish starts degrading in quality the minute you take it out of the water.

In a dedicated seafood shop, you’ll basically see three types of fish on display – Fresh, Previously Frozen, and Frozen at Sea (FAS). Let’s look at all three in a little more depth.

Fresh Fish-

In the seafood world, fresh typically means never frozen, which sounds great at first. Why has frozen fish’s reputation taken a hit? We've probably all had the mushy, frozen fish from the back of Grandpa’s freezer, or the “gift fish” filet that never quite made it to the grill after opening the package it was given in. Soft, mushy fish, or freezer-burned flesh, is off putting to say the least. By selecting a fresh fish at the seafood counter, a consumer tries to avoid that disappointment of mushy, watery fish. But we're going to let you in on a secret of the seafood industry – it is a rare case indeed where fresh fish is the best fish. 

We’ve been a part of the seafood industry long enough to know that most of the fresh fish you buy at your local seafood counter is usually 6-8 days out of the water by the time it is first laid out for the consumer to take home. That’s 3-5 days on the boat, a day at the fish plant, a day for air travel, and a day for the distributor to receive it, process the orders and get it out to the fish counter. In addition, it has had a lot of handling to get to that final ice bed in the display counter, so the flesh runs the risk of being mis-handled and/or not kept in refrigeration for long periods of time during transit – particularly during the air freight portion. Most fish, if properly cleaned at the beginning and iced throughout, have a 10 day shelf life. So if a fish counter takes in a “fresh” shipment and holds fish for 3 days before having to toss it out, you are risking buying the fish in the very last few hours of its “good” life before the bacterial load becomes too great for humans to safely consume. That doesn’t give a lot of time to get it prepared and on the table. Fresh fish is very expensive for the seafood counter to source, and they can’t afford to throw any out until it is on its last legs. But do you want to be the consumer of a product that is just about to be bad? That is much the same as always buying your milk on the date printed on the container. How often do you get full value for your money when you’re constantly racing against it going bad?

Previously Frozen – 

This is what 99% of iced fish that are landed at a shore-based processor are called. The boat fishes for 3-5 days, puts the fish on ice, then sells them to the shore-based processor. Almost immediately, the shore-based processor will get to cutting, packaging and blast freezing the fish. The fish are then shipped out frozen to distributors, who then resell them to fish counters and restaurants. The fish counters/restaurants thaw and sell them. This is a pretty good method, unless the shore-based processor gets overwhelmed and the fish sit a long time before getting cut and frozen. We’ve seen fish sit in totes on the pier for 4 days before getting into the processing line. If that fish was a 5 day old fish on the boat, sold to a tender on the grounds that hauled it into the plant 2 days later, then waited for 4 days to get cut and processed – you’re looking at an 11 day old fish before it gets frozen. Better eat that one pretty quickly after you thaw it!  

Frozen At Sea (FAS)-

The FAS process, for salmon in particular, is done on a small, family-owned vessel that has installed a commercial-grade blast freezer. It is a huge investment, and not many boats have taken the leap. At last count, there were only 61 licensed freezer boats in the Alaska Troll fleet out of 650 active permits. A wild FAS Alaskan Salmon is a scarce commodity, and rarely available to the general buying public. An FAS boat catches the fish, pressure bleeds it with seawater to evacuate all of the blood (first thing that goes bad in a fish and contributes to stronger flavor), meticulously cleans it and gets it into a -40 degree blast freezer within 30-45 minutes of coming out of the water. With such an intensely fast freezing process, the ice crystals inside the individual cells don’t have a chance to link up and grow to such a size that they pierce the cell walls and leak out the nutrients and juices when it’s thawed. This is why freezing fish in your home freezer can never achieve the same quality as a -40 blast freezer – the rate at which the flesh freezes is a huge determining factor in its texture and nutritional content after thawing. Basically, the faster the freeze - the higher the quality.

So you can see that the different methods of processing the catch each have their own challenges and benefits. So how does a small, sustainably-focused custom processor like Catch Sitka guarantee the highest quality fish, without selling “fresh” fish?

The Catch Sitka Method – 

Catch Sitka only buys from local, family-owned boats that are integral to the fabric of our small town perched on the rocky shores of Baranof Island. We have carefully chosen the boats we buy from out of a fleet of hundreds, and the families that run these boats are all committed to quality. Our boats are short trip boats, going out for a single day or two before bringing the well-iced and exquisitely cared for catch back to our docks. We then whisk them off the boats and straight to the production line of our small processing facility staffed by our local artisans, where they are portioned and blast frozen in our special commercial blast freezer built just for the purpose. As on an FAS boat, the blast freezing process here at Catch Sitka truly locks in the nutritional value, texture, and flavor. The end result is a fish that is sustainably harvested by our selected small-boat fleet, and when thawed at home, is of much higher quality than any fresh fish you can get from a seafood market.

Next time you consider purchasing seafood, instead of keying in on how fresh it is, perhaps ask yourself the more important question – “Is this a quality piece of fish?” Ask your fishmonger pointed questions about how it was caught, how it was processed and shipped, how sustainable the fishery is, and how choosing to buy that fish is supporting small family businesses in the coastal town it was caught in.

Or, you can simply shop Catch Sitka’s curated selection and have all of those concerns put to rest, so you can focus on preparing the best Wild Alaskan Seafood for your friends and family.

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