I’m a Grocery Store Fishmonger — Here’s What All Shoppers Need to Know

published Oct 14, 2021
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Beautiful mature woman selling at fish market.
Credit: Getty Images/ Vesnaandjic

Professional chefs rely on their vendors for guidance when ordering meat, veggies, and fish. Fishmongers, in particular, provide insight on what’s fresh, what’s in season, what’s sustainable … and what to avoid. But for the rest of us home cooks, shopping for fish and seafood can be overwhelming. Standing at the fish counter at your grocery store often feels like a mystery. (Does “farmed” mean less flavorful? Is cod sustainable? Wait, what does “sustainable” even mean? Why the heck is that salmon $15 more than this one?

We chatted with a professional fishmonger from Wegmans, Mark Fromm, to get some pointers. The man can talk tuna for hours, but these are the top things he wants customers to know about buying seafood.

Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

1. The fish delivery day isn’t as important as you think.

Fish, like any animal, needs a little time to firm up after being harvested. If you were to pull a salmon out of the water and immediately try to fillet it, it would be too soft. So a little aging isn’t a bad thing — it’s actually necessary. In terms of freshness, more important than when the fish was delivered is the time “off the knife.”

Think of an apple sitting on your countertop. As long as you don’t bite into or cut the apple, nature’s clock moves very slowly, and the apple will remain fresh. Once you cut into the apple, nature’s clock speeds up and the apple will quickly begin to brown. Whole fish is very similar in this respect: The less time that the flesh has had exposure to oxygen, the fresher it will be. So, instead of asking “When did this arrive?” consider asking “When was this filleted?” Wegmans buys whole fish and fillets them in-store, but not all grocery stores do. I’d recommend avoiding fresh fish that’s been filleted and shipped days ago.

2. Shop on the busiest days if you want the most variety.

Most seafood retailers’ busiest days are Thursday through Sunday, so that’s when customers can expect to find the greatest variety of offerings. Staple seafood items (e.g., salmon, cod, scallops, shrimp, swordfish, tuna) are likely to be available seven days per week at most seafood retailers. However, if you are in the market for more specific species (e.g., Opah, sardines, Mahi) or the widest selection of fresh whole fish, your best bet is usually Thursday through Sunday.

Credit: Leela Cyd

3. Just write “fish” on your list.

By this, I mean: Don’t lock yourself into just one species, as it might not be available or it might not look great when you’re ordering. Be open to trying something different and shop with your eyes. The vast variety and seasonality of seafood is truly amazing, and many species can be easily substituted in recipes. For example, flounder, fluke, and turbot are very similar. If you’re not sure, just ask your fishmonger what good substitutions are available.  

4. Quality fishmongers are all about transparency — ask them about it!

I get it: You don’t want to look silly asking for halibut if it’s not in season. If you go to the meat department, there’s chicken, beef, and pork — things people understand. Then you go to the seafood department and there are so many varieties; it can get overwhelming quickly. I blame the food industry, not the customer, for the lack of education around seafood.

Some retailers rely entirely on accreditation by the MSC or the Seafood Watch when ordering, but it’s better to use that as a guide, and do your own homework too. Ask questions at the fish counter. Reach out to corporate if you are not satisfied with the response given by your fishmonger. A responsible seafood retailer should be happy to answer your questions in detail. If all you receive is platitudes and insufficient responses, you may want to look elsewhere.

5. Sustainability has several meanings.

Sustainability in seafood can mean any of the following: the health of the fishery and the overall biomass/stock of the fish; whether or not the commercial fishery is acting as good stewards; human rights and social responsibility; third-party audits and certifications; neutral/reduced carbon footprint; the fish-in, fish-out ratio for farmed seafood; or the bycatch/environmental impact within a particular fishery. So having a one-size-fits-all approach to “sustainability” is just no longer feasible or productive.

6. Farm-raised isn’t “worse” than wild-caught.

There is this sense that farm-raised is “lesser than” wild. The USDA doesn’t have a certification for “organic” seafood, so some consumers choose wild-caught as the “best” option. There are bad players in the farmed seafood industry; those stories can stick with people. But not all seafood farmers are “bad;” in fact, the majority of them are good stewards of the environment, and adhere to strict standards. And there are also bad players in the wild-caught seafood industry.

Wild stocks are really at their limit now; it’s important that we have a good balance between wild-caught and farmed fish. It’s simply a misconception that all farmed seafood is bad.

In terms of species/items to avoid, here is the list of wild species we do not carry at Wegmans due to insufficient sustainability standards: black tip and porbeagle shark, all species of marlin, bluefin tuna (unless farm-raised), orange roughy (unless MSC-certified), wild sturgeon, domestic Atlantic cod, and Pacific cod (bottom trawler caught).

Credit: Joe Lingeman

7. Frozen can be (almost) as good as fresh.

Back in the late 1990s, much of the frozen seafood on the market was not very high-quality and was frozen using early technology, leading to freezer-burned fillets and bad customer experiences. However, today, frozen seafood has vastly improved in both quality and freezing technology. And most frozen seafood is packed during the height of the season when the fish is most plentiful, meaning the price tends to be much more affordable.

Look for fillets that are individually vacuumed-sealed, as these tend to be the highest quality, and avoid packages with any of these things listed: sodium tripolyphosphates, bisulfites, carbon monoxide. (More on these below!)

Credit: Joe Lingeman

8. You can ask your fishmonger for recipe ideas.

Burn the heck out of that $1.99-per-pound chicken breast? Order a pizza and move on. But burning the heck out of $34.99-per-pound king salmon fillets can spoil your evening. Each seafood department at Wegmans has a KBS (knowledge-based service) Team Leader, and their mission is to educate our customers and employees on seafood cooking techniques. Any quality retailer will have something similar.

At Wegmans, our favorite technique for cooking seafood is pan-searing. Pan-searing caramelizes the natural sugars of the fish fillet, and the high heat of the pan locks in the moisture. It’s a great place to start if you’re new to cooking seafood at home. Another easy technique is the sheet pan method, which is nearly foolproof and makes for easy cleanup.

Credit: Leela Cyd

9. There are some additives you’ll want to avoid.

Remember those three things I said to avoid in tip number 7? Let’s take a deeper look.

Sodium tripolyphosphates (STPP) is a chemical additive used by some seafood processors. When seafood is soaked in a briny-slush solution of STTP, the chemical causes the seafood to absorb and retain water. Processors can add 7 to 10% or more to the weight of the seafood through this process. So customers are paying seafood prices for water weight. It is most commonly used in the processing of shrimp and scallops, but we’ve seen its use in cod, tilapia, and salmon recently. 

Further, because the seafood is loaded with water when soaked in STTP, it will never cook properly. A STTP-soaked scallop (often referred to as ‘wet scallops’) will hit a hot pan and quickly purge all of the retained water — meaning it’s impossible to get a good sear or caramelization.

Thankfully, U.S. law dictates that sodium tripolyphosphate must be listed on the ingredient label if it is used. If STTP is listed, I suggest you put it down and walk away. If you are a Wegmans customer, you will find all of our seafood is 100% natural, with no chemical additives.

Sodium bisulfites are commonly used in shrimp (and sometimes lobster tails) processing to prevent melanosis, the black spotting which naturally occurs on the shell of shrimp as they age. The use of bisulfites in shrimp processing is entirely for aesthetic purposes; bisulfites make the shrimp in the seafood counter appear “fresher” than they truly may be. Although approved in low doses by the FDA, about 1% of the U.S. population has a sensitivity to bisulfites. Just like STTP, bisulfites must be listed in the ingredients if they are used in processing, and again, you will not find bisulfites used in any of the seafood department offerings at Wegmans.

I realize how awful this sounds, but carbon monoxide-treated seafood is fairly common and used to “brighten” the flesh and bloodline of certain frozen fish. Most commonly used in the processing of frozen tuna, it alters the cosmetic appearance of the meat, turning into a shade of bubblegum-pink. It is a practice that provides no benefit to the consumer, and similar to bisulfites, its sole purpose is to mask the true age of the fish.

Not only that, CO2 has a detrimental impact to the texture and flavor of the fish, rendering it mushy and near flavorless. Tuna (both fresh or frozen) should have a ruby-red to purple hue when it is all-natural, unadulterated, and truly fresh. So if you walk up to a seafood counter or a sushi bar and the tuna is neon pink, I’d suggest you find another establishment.

Do you still have questions about buying seafood? Let us know in the comments below.