The secret to a perfect seafood meal lies in the raw material – the seafood itself must be of impeccable quality. Here's how to buy the best.
Stephen Hodges, Sarah Swan

11 Jul 2018 - 10:20 AM  UPDATED 12 Jun 2020 - 5:44 PM

We caught up with Stephen Hodges, co-author of seafood bible, Australian Fish & Seafood Cookbook, for his tips on how to buy seafood like a pro. You can catch his masterclass on how to cook fish perfectly in the all-new series Food Safari Water (watch on SBS Food Ch. 33, with streaming on SBS On Demand).

1. Seeking out a good fishmonger is important

Whether they’re behind the counter of a major supermarket or running their own store, find someone who cares about seafood and, most importantly, is an avid fan of eating seafood. Wherever you are, don’t treat buying seafood the same as buying sausages or frozen peas. Make it an occasion and try to eat it on the same day – you don’t see people buying seafood at the markets of Europe or Asia to eat next week!

2. You need to have an open mind when buying seafood

Don’t think that just because you want to cook steamed hapuka on Friday night, you’ll be able to go out and buy hapuka. Availability depends on the vagaries of the season, fishing conditions and general supply  – there simply may not be any fresh hapuka the day you’re looking for it. Where possible, we’ve tried to offer alternatives in the descriptions, but as a general rule, head to the fishmonger first, then plan the menu or dish based on what you find. It’s also important to consider frozen seafood. It can be not only a safe, reliable option, but in some instances it’s the only option – the beautiful subantarctic toothfish or deepwater scampi simply never find their way to market fresh. But note that freezing is not like embalming  – seafood remains highly fragile and subject to rapid deterioration. Its shelf life is limited. Your domestic freezer is not the place to store frozen seafood for much longer than two months.

3. Use your senses 

Look, smell and, where possible, taste. It might seem pushy to demand of your fishmonger a feel, sniff or bite, but it will save you much anxiety (and money) when you get home and find that your selection doesn’t need to be thrown out. Learn to recognise fresh seafood  – stop by your fishmonger often and get to know their sources. Take their advice as to what’s in season, what’s coming through and, importantly, what they’re taking home for dinner  – a surefire tip to the best in the shop.

4. Buy whole fish if possible

Always try to buy whole fish where possible, except if the fish is large, such as tuna or swordfish. Whole fish will keep for longer and the flesh will stay in better condition. It also allows you to scrutinise the quality closely: the eyes should be clear and plump, not sunken or discoloured. The aroma should be a clean, fresh smell of the sea with a soft, buttery sweet note. Good-quality whole fish should look visually stunning  – there should be a consistent covering of scales with no obvious indents or bruising. The fish should be covered in a clear, clean protective coat of natural fresh sea ‘slime’ (believe us, this is a good thing!) that has a distinct marine aroma. If a whole fish doesn’t have this, it’s probably been washed and rewashed in fresh water, which shortens the shelf life and removes a great deal of flavour.

5. Try your hand at filleting

If you don’t have the confidence to fillet whole fish, ask your fishmonger to do it for you. Be sure to ask for dry-filleting, which means the fish isn’t soaked in water before or after cutting. Remember, fresh water is the enemy of fresh fish. It rips the essential oils out of the flesh, increases the core temperature and dramatically reduces shelf life. Having said that, don’t be afraid to give filleting a go as fish that’s been filleted just before use will undoubtedly provide the best eating experience. Make sure you have an appropriate sharp knife, then practice on some simple, inexpensive ‘round’ fish, such as blue mackerel or mullet. You’ll be surprised how quickly you can learn the basics. You could ask your fishmonger to gill, gut and scale the fish for you, leaving the mess with them. Have them wrap your ‘dressed’ fish, then, at home, rewrap the fish in muslin (cheesecloth) or freezer film (plastic wrap designed for freezer use). Prepare an airtight container with a layer of ice on the bottom and a drip tray sitting above. Rest the wrapped fish on the drip tray, seal and store in the driest part of the fridge  – the vegetable crisper  – until required.

Cook the book: panko-crumbed ling fillets star in these burgers. Get the recipe here

6. Always fillet as close to the time of use as possible

Cut flesh has a tendency to oxidise quickly. If your fishmonger fillets the fish for you, remind them to dry-fillet and to wrap the fillets tightly in freezer film or butcher paper. Once home, store them the same way as whole fish.

7. Use fresh fillets as soon as possible

When buying fillets, look for those with a translucent sheen, a bright sparkling colour and a fresh, clean aroma. Wrap them tightly in freezer film, then in plastic wrap, as the fillets will oxidise even more quickly than whole fish, then store them in the same way. If you choose to freeze fresh fillets at home, be aware that both their culinary quality and shelf life will be very limited. If you want to use frozen fillets, try to purchase them pre-frozen, as these are usually produced using professional deep-freeze technology and packaging. If frozen fillets aren’t vacuum-sealed, wrap them tightly in plastic wrap then again in newspaper or butcher paper. To thaw, place unwrapped frozen fillets on a drip tray in an airtight container and leave overnight in the fridge, then use immediately.

South Indian curry of mullet.

Tear up some roti and tear into this South Indian mullet curry

Edited extract and images from Australian Fish and Seafood Cookbook by Susman, Huckstep, Swan, and Hodges (Murdoch Books, HB, $79.99). Photography by Ben Dearnley.

More from the book
Salmon pâté

This dish is a clever way to use left-over scraps of salmon. It can also be made with salmon fillet, cut into thin strips, or a mixture of fillet and other pieces.

Grilled garfish fillets with cucumber and anchovy salsa

Garfish must be super-fresh and given close attention when cooking. The sweet, lean flesh goes well with simple flavours that won't dominate.