Wednesday, August 24, 2011

How to choose fresh fish for sushi and sashimi

How to choose fresh fish for sushi and sashimi
By: Chef Cristian Feher

You’re having one of those do-it-yourself weekends. Your bathroom is a new “sea foam” color, you gave your car and oil change and there is something resembling a wooden deck in your yard. Why stop there? You’re hungry. Why not make sushi? Sounds like a plan. But first, how are you going to ensure that the fish you’re buying is fresh? And more importantly, how can you assure it's safe to eat raw?

Frozen vs. Fresh.
Most people assume that sushi requires only the freshest fish. This is true. But a lot of the sushi you have eaten at your local Japanese restaurant has been previously frozen. And this is not necessarily a bad thing.
Ideally, your sashimi has been cut from a fish that, only hours ago, was swimming happily in the ocean. Many sushi restaurants use fresh fish that have arrived on ice (not frozen). These tend to be the more expensive restaurants. Your local seafood store may also have fresh tuna or salmon that arrived shortly after being caught. The positive side of this is that you end up with a really good, fresh product. But if you’re doing this yourself, you may not be able to tell if the fish has any parasites in it. A trained sushi chef has the skill and experience to be able to tell whether a piece of fish is safe to eat. Generally speaking, fish that touch the bottom and hang out in warmer waters (reef fish) tend to have more parasites, than pelagic fish like tuna (pelagic means that they constantly swim - they never stop) that live in colder waters and have less of a chance of coming into contact with worms or parasites.

You probably haven’t realized that most of the sushi you’ve eaten has been prepared using previously frozen fish. At first, you may think you got ripped off, or that it would be a lesser quality product. But that’s not the case. I actually recommend that sushi beginners use frozen fish. In my opinion, the quality is still good, and most people can’t tell the difference. The advantages of using frozen fish are several. First, you can buy more and keep it in your freezer for when you’re craving sushi. You can also purchase seasonal fish (like Chilean salmon) and keep it around for a while longer so that you always have your favorite fish for sushi. It’s also more economical.

The best way to make sure the fish doesn’t have parasites, besides visual inspection, is to freeze the fish. According to the FDA you must freeze the fish at -35 degrees F for 24-48 hours, or at 0 degrees F for 7 days. This ensures that any parasites that might be present in the fish will be dead. Most people’s freezers at home don’t get this cold, so what you can do is ensure that the place you’re buying your fish from has industrial-strength freezers that will reach that temperature. Most fish purchased IQF (individually quick frozen) have already undergone those temperatures at the processing facility and can be assumed safe to eat raw. I have had much success with IQF fish.  
Most times, I prefer to purchase frozen or previously frozen fish to make my sushi. I can buy more, at a better price, store it more easily, and have the confidence that I’m not going to get parasites. As I mentioned before, the quality of frozen fish is better than you might think. It’s actually quite good if it’s been processed quickly. Unless I caught it myself, I stick to frozen 9 out of 10 times.

Make-Up or No Make-Up:
You’re probably used to seeing that cherry red tuna steak or bright orange salmon at your local fish store. It looks really fresh and appetizing. But you probably didn’t realize that the bright red color in the tuna is a result of a process called “cold smoking” where they expose the tuna to carbon monoxide until it turns (and stays) bright red. This is done to “doll up” the fish in hopes that you’ll buy it. The bright orange or pink salmon, if farmed, has been given a mixture of fish food and food coloring pellets to color its flesh a bright color. These practices are not necessarily bad, since untreated fresh tuna would turn a chocolaty-brown color and the salmon might fade to a homely pink (this would not alter the quality). However, you should realize that color has nothing to do with freshness. So it’s very important that you ascertain the freshness of the fish first, and worry about the color second.

How do I tell if it’s fresh?
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again - your nose was put on your face for this purpose. Always smell your fish. If it stinks, don’t eat it. What is the definition of “stink”? Stink is when it has an offensive odor, or starts to smell a little like poop (which, unless you’re a princess, is offensive). Fish should have a light, natural fishy smell. It should smell like the ocean (not the Jersey shore.. the nice part of the ocean). It should not be an offensive odor. If you find yourself making the who-cut-the-cheese-face, or if you’re sitting there in doubt, put it down. There should be no doubt. There should only be a pleasant smile on your face when you smell it. Better safe than sorry. You should also visually inspect if for tiny worms, etc. which are are not very likely to be there.

What type of fish should I buy?
This part is really up to you. If you were in Japan, you would see that most every fish is game. Aside from your regulars - tuna family, salmon, trout, mackerel, cooked eel, cooked octopus, shrimp - you can try different fish like grouper, snapper, amber jack, etc. I sometimes enjoy trying new fish in the form of sushi or sashimi from my local fish monger. Sometimes it’s a hit, sometimes it’s not. But it’s always fun to try. Just be sure that you follow the safety and freshness precautions as above.

Storing your fish.
If you’re buying IQF frozen fish, just store it in your freezer. Remember to take the plastic wrapping off before thawing out in your fridge over night, then smell it once it’s thawed. If you’re storing fresh fish, time is of the essence. I usually buy it the day of, and I would never store it longer than 24 hours if I’m going to eat it raw. Beyond that time frame you might be playing a game of roulette.

I hope this guide will help you in your purchase, storing and preparation of fish for sushi and sashimi. Enjoy!


  1. Good information - thank you. What store in Northwest Tampa/Oldsmar would you shop for fish?

    1. I buy all of my fresh fish at Ward's Seafood in Clearwater, FL. They have a great selection, and are very clean.

      I have also purchased good quality frozen fish from Sammy's Seafood in St. Petersburg, FL in the past.

  2. What is the contemporary consensus for where to buy sushi grade fish in Tampa (St Pete preferably)?