Frozen vs Fresh Seafood

I get asked questions about food at the farmers markets almost every week. What cuts should I buy? Is that a good price (which I never answer)? How do I cook that? Is frozen as good as fresh? That is the question I will address in this article. More specifically, on seafood. The answer is not a simple yes or no. “ It depends” is the best answer: on the type of fish, how you plan on cooking it or not cooking it. My insight comes from five years working at Superior Fish Co. and 30 years of cooking. Below I will answer some (but not)all of the questions I get.

General rules of thumb – If the seafood looks freezer burned or damaged, thawing will not improve things. If the fish is not its fresh color, beware. If it has been thawed and looks dry, I would pass on it. Sometimes it’s best to substitute another kind of fish, or just have a burger.

Price – You would think that frozen would be cheaper than fresh. I have not found that to be true. The ones that are cheaper, like tuna or swordfish, are not the same quality as fresh. I was looking at scallops recently, and both fresh and frozen were $28 per pound (Yikes!). Now, there is an old joke about seafood costing more on the coast, but that only applies to restaurants.

Shellfish – I have a general list of shellfish that are usually safe bets frozen. Shrimp, scallops, squid, any crab, with the exception of soft shells (unless they have been cleaned before freezing). I have never found mussels, clams, or overly breaded (more breading than seafood) pre-fried seafood very good. I just had frozen scallops from Cold Country Salmon which were excellent (www.coldcountrysalon.com).

Farm raised – Whitefish would include catfish or tilapia. I would read carefully on country of origin. If they come from Asia, I would pass, but that’s your call. As for tuna, salmon, and swordfish, here is the problem: are they individually frozen portions and is the color right? If not, I may be too picky, but I have not had any luck; they have tended to be dry when cooking, even when deep frying.

My favorites – Cod freezes exceptionally well and is used by a lot of restaurants. Sole, flounder, and dabbs are all the same family and are great lightly breaded and shallow fried. Midwestern folks can get frozen walleye and perch which hold up well.

Salmon – This is a tricky one. I have found the frozen fish from Alaska hold up very well to the freezing process. The sides of sockeye work really well. King salmon works well because of its fat content. Stay away from coho and chum salmon; they are what Alaskans call sled dog food.

Last thing, where you buy your fish. Sustainable, well sealed, vacuumed pack seafood is best. If they freeze it on the fishing boat, so much the better. If it looks bad at the store, it won’t get better at the home. Ice crystals are a sign of age – more crystals mean it’s older. Pick the frozen seafoods with the best quality and have been handled properly.

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