Buying Seafood

Choosing Quality

Buy seafood from knowledgeable, reputable dealers—those you trust with a known record of proper handling practices—and keep these tips in mind:

  • If a seafood counter or freezer case smells fishy, shop somewhere else. Fresh, quality seafood should smell like the ocean, not sour or fishy.
  • Look for seafood that is properly iced and refrigerated or frozen.

When buying seafood from your local seafood counter, follow these guidelines:

  • Whole fish or fish fillets should generally have firm, shiny flesh. Fish fillets that have been previously frozen might not look as shiny, due to the freezing process, but they are still great to eat.
  • Whole fish should have bright, clear, full eyes that are often protruding and gills that are bright red or pink. As the fish loses freshness, the eyes become cloudy and sunken.
  • Check to make certain that there is no darkening or brown or yellowish discoloration around the edges of fish fillets and steaks, especially if the edges appear dry or mushy.
  • If you’re still uncertain about how fresh the fish is, ask to have it rinsed under cold water and then smell it. Fresh fish should not smell fishy or like ammonia.

Frozen seafood is also a great choice, as fresh catch is often immediately processed and frozen after being caught. Follow the tips below when buying frozen seafood:

  • Whole fish should be free of ice crystals, with no discoloration.
  • Fillets or steaks should be solidly frozen in the package.
  • There should be no evidence of the fish drying out (white spots, dark spots, discoloration, or fading of red or pink flesh).
  • There should be no signs of frost or ice particles inside the package. If ice crystals are present, the fish has either been stored for a long period or thawed and refrozen. There should be no liquid (frozen or thawed) in the package.
  • Make sure there are no open, torn, or crushed edges on the packages.
  • Avoid packages that are above the frost line in a store’s display freezer.

Here are tips on buying specific types of seafood. Also, check out our Seafood Profiles.

  • Live clams, oysters, and mussels might have slightly gaping shells and should close tightly when tapped. If not, the shellfish might be dead and should be discarded.
  • Live crabs and lobster legs should show leg movement. Leg activity will lessen if refrigerated, but legs should show some movement.
  • Raw shrimp meat should be firm and have a mild odor. The shells of most varieties are translucent with a grayish green, pinkish tan, or light pink tint. The shells should not have blackened edges or black spots: this is a sign of quality loss. However, tiger shrimp have bluish colored shells with black lines between the segments of the shell (these are not black spots).
  • Fresh scallop meats have a firm texture and a distinctly sweet odor. A sour or iodine smell indicates spoilage. The smaller bay and calico scallops are usually creamy white, although there might be some normal light tan or pink coloration. The larger sea scallops are also generally creamy white, although they might show some normal light orange or pink color.
  • Whole squid should have eyes that are clear and full, and the skin should be untorn and the meat very firm. The skin of fresh squid is cream colored with reddish brown spots. As squid ages, the skin turns pinkish and the flesh will yellow.

Handling Seafood

Once you’ve made your seafood purchase and take it home, be sure that you properly store and handle it. Seafood is more perishable than most other food items, so careful handling is important. Remember to follow the tips below to “keep it cold, keep it moving, and keep it clean.”

Keep It Cold

  • Purchase seafood last during your shopping trip, and bring a cooler to transport it home. If you’ve caught your own fish, bury them in ice immediately or use an ice slush with two parts ice to one part water to keep your catch cold.
  • At home, store seafood in the coldest part of your refrigerator at a temperature as close to 32° F as possible.
  • To store fresh fish, pack whole dressed fish on ice in the refrigerator. Seal fillets and steaks in plastic bags or containers, and cover them with ice in a pan.
  • For fish that is not prepackaged, wash it under cold water and pat it dry with paper towels. Wrap it in moisture-proof paper or plastic wrap or place it in a plastic bag or air-tight container, then place on ice in the refrigerator. Drain the pan and add more ice as necessary.
  • To freeze fresh fish, wrap it tightly in moisture-proof bags or in plastic wrap and aluminum foil and store it in the freezer.
  • Place shellfish purchased live in its shell (mussels, clams, and oysters) in a dry shallow pan, cover it with moistened paper towels, and refrigerate it. Place shucked shellfish in a sealed container and freeze.
  • Store fresh shrimp, scallops, and squid in a zippered bag or airtight container and refrigerate on ice.

Keep It Moving

Shelf life varies by species, but a good rule of thumb is to use fresh fish within 2 days of purchase. Check out the National Fisheries Institute’s Seafood Storage Guide for the shelf life of a variety of fresh and frozen seafood.

Keep It Clean

When working with seafood, keep your hands, work area, and utensils clean. Keep raw seafood away from other foods to prevent cross-contamination. Use cutting boards that are easy to clean—plastic, acrylic, or rubber—instead of wood. Finally, be sure to serve your cooked seafood on clean plates, not on a plate that held the raw product.

For more information on safely selecting, storing, and preparing seafood, check out the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s information on Fresh and Frozen Seafood: Selecting and Serving It Safely.