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Buying Seafood? When Frozen Is the Smarter Choice

Know where it comes from, learn how to thaw it properly.

Buying frozen seafood Credit: / Dave Swanson

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With the Pacific Ocean’s bounty at their doorstep, San Diego's myriad seafood restaurants demand nothing but the very best fish. But though the region’s coastal waters are known for abundant yellowtail and tuna, the fishing season is not year-round for all species.

So while Ironside Fish & Oyster prides itself on serving locally caught seafood, come February the season closes for a lot of regional species. At that point, Executive Chef Jason McLeod turns to his freezer.

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“There’s a perception that frozen is bad,” explains McLeod, previously executive chef of the two Michelin star RIA in Chicago. “But we’re open with our guests to explain that it was frozen an hour after it was caught. So, when the fish are lean I’ll use the frozen—though only if I know where it was caught and by whom.”

Similarly, in Juneau, Alaska, Tracy’s King Crab Shack—Yelp’s highest-rated restaurant in the city—serves only frozen king crab when it opens for the summer cruise season.

Alaskans know their seafood, but owner Tracy LaBarge explains that king crab is only caught during the winter. “There’s no fresh king crab during the summer, so everything I sell must be cooked from frozen. But almost no one can tell the difference.”

Quality frozen seafood can survive 6 to 12 months in your freezer at home.

McLeod and LaBarge aren’t the only ones serving frozen seafood to their guests. By some estimates, more than 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. today is imported, and most of that product was frozen at least once before it lands in our kitchens.

“We’ve had a real resurgence in frozen sales over the last five years, especially for things like tuna,” said David Pilat, global seafood buyer for Whole Foods Market. Pilat estimates that frozen currently represents between 8 and 15 percent of the seafood Whole Foods sells, depending on the season. Chains like Trader Joe’s and Costco likely sell an even higher percentage of frozen.

But seasonality of some species isn’t the only reason why you might want to look beyond today’s fresh catch at the supermarket. Consider these other variables next time you go shopping:

1. Frozen fish delivers high quality.

Simply put, unless you’re on a first-name basis with a fishmonger, you don’t know how long that fish has been out of the water. Mark Tupper, owner of boutique Seattle seafood company Triad Fisheries, says that when he started in seafood in 1976, all fish was flown out of Alaska fresh on ice—or it was canned.

“The catch would get to the grocery store 4 to 8 days later. But as the fish got old they’d freeze it. The freezers were destroying the fish by thawing and refreezing, or they’d develop ice crystals because the freezer temperature wasn’t low enough. What started as crappy fish would just get worse.”

Tupper says, today, Alaskan fishermen are paid a premium to ice the fish before it gets to the plant, to prevent degradation. “They have switched production to filets for Trader Joe’s and Safeway, and it’s a much higher quality now,” he adds.

Alaska's commercial fishermen work isolated fishing grounds in some of the world's harshest environments.

Tupper goes one step further with his fleet. The fish are frozen at sea, down to -30 degrees Fahrenheit right on the boat. By stopping the clock, freshness is frozen in, and nothing is lost in terms or flavor or nutrition.

“When you thaw it, biologically it’s just two hours old,” Tupper adds.

2. Frozen fish offers low cost, high convenience.

Aside from rare cases of oversupply of a certain fresh species, frozen fish at supermarkets is usually cheaper and more convenient.

“Frozen seafood almost always offers a better value because of how it can be transported,” says Pilat. “Once October hits, I look in the freezer section for all four species of salmon, halibut, and Pacific cod.” The chain’s farmed fresh salmon from Iceland usually runs $12.99 per pound, while a two-pound bag of frozen salmon fillets sells for $19.99, or 23 percent less per pound.

And those bulk packs make sense for another reason: You can thaw just the amount you need, minimizing waste or leftovers.

3. Frozen fish is usually cleaner.

Large fish, such as tuna, is cut with a band saw for sashimi.

Overseas fishing fleets aren't subject to the same FDA standards or labor regulations as those in American waters, and rare but potentially dangerous parasitic or bacterial contaminants such as anisakis or Toxoplasma gondii are sometimes found in seafood—no matter where it's sourced. Fortunately, cooking the fish will kill most potential parasites.

But so does freezing it. In fact, a lot of sushi lovers probably don’t know it, but most fish used in sushi restaurants—even high-end establishments—starts out frozen. New York City regulations even require it. This is partly because the world’s supply of seafood that's safe for raw consumption isn’t necessarily at the doorstep of most sushi restaurants, especially year-round. But flash freezing also helps guard against contaminants, sometimes leading to the fish being advertised as “sushi grade.”

4. Frozen fish leaves a smaller carbon footprint.

Frozen seafood is a more environmentally sensitive way to source the ocean’s bounty. Unless you live close to a fishery, fresh seafood is more likely to be flown to your area, from places as far away as New Zealand, to get it to the supermarket before it spoils.

In contrast, frozen seafood requires less environmentally damaging shipping methods—usually traveling by ship, truck, and/or rail.

How to Buy and Thaw Frozen Seafood

Start by shopping at a store where you can get to know the staff working the fish counter. Fishmongers are getting harder and harder to locate, but when you track them down they'll be able to advise when and where the fish they sell was caught, and which is worth buying tonight.

A fishmonger will explain the difference between fresh and “previously frozen,” or between farmed and wild. When buying frozen, clear packaging should reveal previous thawing or unwanted ice crystals.

Fresh or frozen, salmon is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, along with protein, vitamin B12, vitamin D, and selenium.

Experts say there’s just one good way to thaw seafood: in the fridge. Overnight is best, but 8 to 10 hours will be sufficient for all but the densest cuts.

“Don’t run it under water—that waterlogs it,” says Chef McLeod. “It takes a bit of planning but you want to let it thaw naturally.”

Seafood seller Tupper concurs. “If you put it under running water, it sucks it up like oatmeal. Fish is 70 percent water already, so by thawing it out under water, even if vacuum packed, you’re still going to have some cell damage.”

Quality frozen seafood can survive 6 to 12 months in your freezer at home. Then again, if you’re buying filets from a good source, why let these beauties hog up freezer space? Get out the frying pan, and let’s get cooking!

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