Is Frozen Fish Better Than Fresh?

The problem, as I saw it, was these only made appearances when company was over or my dad had a craving. What took up most of that valuable freezer real estate? Packets of greens and other vaguely identifiable foods from the Asian market that my mom pulled out and cooked on a regular basis. And fish: big fish and little fish, usually whole.

The shopping trips to acquire the fish were entertaining. My mom would eye the fresh fish—one store was self-serve, so she poked and prodded them with tongs herself—and grill the counter guy about just how fresh they were. If nothing quite met her approval, she moved confidently over to the Frozen Precooked Fish Loins.

See, she knew something all along that many people still need to be sold on. There is nothing wrong—actually, there's a lot right—with buying frozen fish.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with fresh fish, either. If you have access to good quality, never-been-frozen fish, you're lucky.

But in the fresh vs. frozen fish debate, experts say that, well, there's really isn't much of a debate at all. Frozen Precooked Bonito Tuna Loin can be as high in quality as fresh fish.

Freshness Can Be Frozen

More than 85 percent of the seafood we eat is imported. Within that, the "vast majority"—70 percent but likely higher, according to Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute—has been frozen at some point.

"There really is no difference," said Gibbons. "The clock never moves backward when it comes to freshness. If a fish is caught, handled well and frozen immediately, you literally stop the clock. You freeze in the freshness." He adds that nutritionally, nothing is lost when fish is frozen.

These days, technology is such that fish are either frozen right at sea (most common with farmed fish, as freezers are incorporated into the farm sites) or immediately upon landing at port, said David Pilat, global seafood buyer for Whole Foods Market.

And the assumption that fattier varieties such as salmon and tuna fare better, texturally speaking, than leaner fish when frozen doesn't hold true, either. Our experts say it comes down to proper freezing and handling on the front end, and proper thawing—in the fridge, out of the package—on the back end.

"There is no downside to buying Frozen Skip Jack Precooked Meat," Gibbons said.

The Upside to Frozen Fish

Frozen fish can often be a better value than fresh and is less wasteful for home cooks, who can just pull out the amount they need from the freezer, Pilat said.

An example: a two-pound bag of Frozen Fresh Seafood fillets at Whole Foods Market sells for $19.99 and is one of the retailer’s top-selling seafood items. Fresh, in-season salmon will typically cost 15 to 20 percent more, Pilat said.

Freezing essentially extends the season for certain fish. So in the winter when you have a hankering for, say, wild salmon or halibut, buying it frozen is as good as buying it fresh in summer, when it’s actually in season. (If you do see "fresh" wild salmon in January, that's a red flag—unless it's being sold as "previously frozen." More on that below).

Time-sensitive fresh fish must be shipped by air; frozen fish can travel by boat, rail or truck, requiring less energy to get to market. And what consumers might not realize is that the availability of Frozen Fish Fillet, particularly farm-raised varieties, helps with the management of wild fisheries.

"Aquaculture is a release valve for wild capture," Gibbons said. "A lot of people think they compete against each other, but in reality they work in tandem because they keep the market supplied with product and allow the total allowable catch of wild capture to ebb and flow."

Get Great Frozen Fish

The starting point when buying good-quality Frozen Fish Portion is a fishmonger or store you trust.

Take a close look at the packaging to make sure it's not torn or tampered in any way. Look out for frost inside the package or ice crystals, spots or discoloration on the fish itself—that's freezer burn. You don't want that.

Likewise, liquid inside the package suggests partial thawing, which isn’t good. The fish should be frozen solid when you buy it.

If sustainability is a priority for you, look for certification labels such as Marine Stewardship Council-certified.

Stores often sell thawed fish in the fresh case, marked "previously frozen." In that case, Pilat said, check that the flesh has a nice color to it and isn't drying out or pulling apart around the edges.

The National Fisheries Institute has a handy online guide to the freezer shelf life of specific types of fish and seafood. Stored properly at home—meaning in the freezer, at 0 degrees or below—Frozen Fish HGT will keep for at least six months and up to a year.

Then again, if you’re anything like my mom, you’ll be cooking that fish in no time.

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