For those unaccustomed to cooking seafood, buying it can be an intimidating experience. But don’t let that be a deterrent. There is so much good seafood out there — you just need to educate yourself so you know what you are buying.
Mislabeling of fish has been going on for a long time, but only recently has it been brought into the public’s awareness. It’s easy to tell the difference between chicken and steak, but fish can easily be mislabeled and sold as something other than what it really is.
Could you really tell the difference between tilapia and snapper? Sometimes even a trained chef might have trouble just by looking at a fillet.
Before I share differences between varieties of seafood, it’s important to keep a few things in mind when buying seafood for your home.
Tips for buying seafood for the home
- Talk to the person behind the counter. Ask questions. Make sure you feel they have expertise and that they provide reliable answers.
- To be absolutely sure of what you are buying, you have to buy the whole fish and see the whole fish with your own eyes. Then have the fish filleted, or bring it home to do it yourself.
- Make sure the fish is labeled with its harvest origin and whether it’s wild versus farmed. When buying shellfish, make sure it has tags on it that designate where it is from.
- Look around — is the store busy? Is the fish moving quickly, or do you get the sense it is sitting around? Make sure the displays are neat and clean.
- Look at the fish — does it look and smell fresh? There should be no fishy odor when it comes to fresh seafood, and fish should not be sitting in liquid.
- Shellfish should not have cracked or broken shells, and the shells should be closed.
- If you buy really fresh, seafood can last a day or two, so do not feel you have to cook it that day. Simply keep it stored in your refrigerator covered with a moist towel or loosely covered with plastic wrap. Never let fish sit in any liquid and never store in an airtight container.
Now that you have this information, let’s talk about the differences between specific varieties of fish and some of my favorite recipes when preparing seafood at home.
There are two types of cod generally available: Pacific cod and Atlantic cod. Although they are from the same family of fish, they are actually two different species.
Pacific cod is available year round and is caught mainly in Alaska. It is much more abundant and therefore less expensive than Atlantic cod. Most Pacific cod that travels is frozen, and it’s hard to find fresh Pacific cod away from where it is caught.
Atlantic cod is typically larger than Pacific cod and is prized for its flaky white flesh; it is found throughout the Atlantic Ocean, from Greenland to Cape Hatteras. Atlantic cod is mostly sold locally in New England and is largely sold fresh.
Snapper and tilapia are commonly misidentified. They look very different when viewing the whole fish, but once they’re filleted, it is challenging to tell the two species apart. Oftentimes, snapper is used as a generic term for a white-fleshed fish, so you want to be aware of what you are really buying.
Tilapia is farm-raised, mostly in China and South America, and often is fed a non-protein diet. It contains little of the fish oils valued by health care professionals and therefore is not as rich in health benefits as snapper.
There is only one true red snapper, and it is caught primarily in the Gulf of Mexico and its surrounding waters. Snapper has a firm texture and a sweet nutty flavor that holds up to heat and therefore grills very well. Because of its more varied diet, as compared to tilapia, snapper typically has a greater depth of flavor.
It’s extremely important when buying snapper to buy it from a trusted source to ensure you are getting what you pay for, as it is more expensive than tilapia.
The tuna and escolar discussion in the culinary world truly heated up this year, in part due to the media attention paid to the often-mislabeled fish, escolar. Escolar is not in the same species as tuna, even though oftentimes it is labeled as “white tuna.”
Escolar is a warm water fish often caught while fishing for tuna. It has a very high oil content and has been banned in several countries because it can cause digestive problems.
There are a lot of varieties of real tuna, from Albacore (white tuna), which is commonly used for canning, to the highly prized bluefin tuna. Look for beautiful red flesh when buying tuna.
There is a lot of discussion about farmed salmon versus wild salmon. Although wild salmon is more expensive, both are great options for home-cooked meals.
Wild salmon is a seasonal fish caught on the West Coast, from Alaska to California. Its flesh is generally darker and has a richer texture.
Farmed salmon on the other hand can be purchased year round. Mostly found in the Atlantic, the quality of farmed raised salmon can vary, depending on the farming techniques used.
Shellfish is a passion of mine. When I opened my third restaurant, I wanted it to be a great seafood restaurant, so I partnered with Island Creek Oysters in Duxbury, Massachusetts to open Island Creek Oyster Bar. ICOB, as it is known locally, has over a dozen kinds of shellfish on the menu on any given day.
When buying shellfish for the home, whether you are looking for mussels, oysters, littleneck clams, scallops, razor clams, or any other shellfish, there are a few things to keep in mind.
To get tips specific to shellfish, and to get my recipes for Scallop Ceviche and Steamed Littleneck Clams with Beer and Chorizo, download our eBook: Fishing for Real.