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How to Discern Fish Freshness

A cheap, but fresh fish is far superior in both quality and taste to a high-priced, seemingly upper-class fish. Because of this, it is crucial that a true seafood lover be able to discern the freshness of a fish.

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The difficulties of discerning fish freshness do not apply to a fresh catch that has just arrived on the docks from the open sea. The freshness of a fish that was alive two or three hours earlier is obvious to all based simply on its appearance and smell. But freshness becomes increasingly difficult to discern as the hours pass. Customers must be on their guard when purchasing fish, whether it be from the hackling fish venders in a marketplace or the smiling waiter in a fancy restaurant.

The freshness of a fish depends firstly on the length of time that a fish is out of the water, and then secondly on the means by which it is preserved. But it is more complicated than just this. The time factor is not the same for all fish. There are fish that can remain incredibly fresh for 10 to 20 hours without refrigeration and those that lose their freshness within 5-6 hours. The firmer the flesh and the tougher and harder the skin, the longer a fish can maintain its freshness. Similarly, relatively clean fish with few intestines can remain fresh longer. Even the type of equipment used in catching fish plays an important role in preservation. Fish caught in drift nets go off easily because they emerge from the net in a sorry state – battered and bruised. Fish caught by spears or harpoons decompose even more quickly.

The smell of the fish is the easiest way through which the freshness of a fish can be determined. Strange as it may seem, live fish and fish that have only been dead for a few minutes are totally odorless. In a very short while the fish will give off a sea smell. Although this smell indicates the initial stages of decomposition, chefs declare this stage to be the height of freshness. Soon after, the fish will smell less of the sea, and will start to smell "fishy." This stage too is widely considered to be fresh. As it enters the third stage of decomposition and the smell becomes heavier, though not unpleasant, most still consider the fish to be fresh. The fourth stage, when the fish begins to smell repugnant, is usually when it is considered to be defective. Nevertheless, fish venders often still try to sell fish in the fourth stage, as it is still safe to eat. Once fish reaches the fifth stage, its stench becomes unbearable. Though a vender may still desire to make a profit, he will most likely be forced to dispose of his product, simply because the odor is so potent.

Although placing fish in strong, dry refrigeration will stop a fish from smelling momentarily, the meet will develop an even stronger odor once removed. It must be cooked as soon as it’s removed from the fridge.

The smell of a fish is the surest indicator of its freshness. If it smells nice, or is at least bearable, then it’s fresh or relatively fresh, and therefore safe to eat. However, it is easy to become lost in the gray zone between what is considered bearable and unbearable. If you are not convinced by the smell, you must resort to other tell-tale signs.

Check the back and the belly, then the gills, and then the eyes.

The back of a fish provides important clues as to its freshness. Although a hard, firm back is a good indication of freshness, this test isn’t infallible since ice can make fish hard and firm. Also, some fish, for instance fresh cod, have a soft back no matter how fresh they may be.

Fresh fish have an unblemished, intact belly, red gills and clear, lively eyes. Any fish whose belly is bruised or battered, sunken or grazed is not fresh. If the eyes are dull, a fish is not fresh. Similarly, a fish displaying gills of a dull color is not fresh. Beware: fishmongers have been known to resort to using dyes to liven up dull gills. Also, there are fish whose eyes are naturally dull, as well as fish whose eyes remain clear even when they have gone bad. Therefore, in order to be certain that a fish is fresh, it’s best to check everything – smell, back, belly, gills and eyes.

Freshness can also be discerned in cooked fish. The backbone should be white and easy to remove from the flesh; however, a garfish is an obvious exception to this rule, as its bones are always green.

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