How to tell whether the fish is really fresh

Being able to buy the best ingredients is as important for a good chef as is being able to cook them to perfection. Especially when it comes to seafood, the freshness can make all the difference. Luckily, there are easy ways to determine whether the fish staring back at you at your favourite fish market was caught recently.

Whole Fish

  • Perhaps most obvious, but also most important is to smell the fish. A fish should not smell bad (if a fish smells fishy there is something fishy going on). Rather, it should smell like clean ocean-water, even like cucumbers or a touch briny. In general, the smell at a fish market or store can already say a lot about the quality of fish being sold.
  • Then look at the eyes as they are the windows to the soul….or in this case the freshness of the fish. The eyes should be bright, bulging and clear, as opposed to dull and grey.
  • Proceed with examining the skin of the fish. It should look metallic and clean as opposed to dulled and discolored.
  • Perhaps the more difficult one as you might not like your hands smelling like fish, but another characteristic of a fresh fish is that it should have bright red or pink gills as opposed to a faded brick-color. Also the gills should be wet, not slimy or dry.


  • Shellfish are sold alive and so you should look for life when buying mussels, clams or oysters. After cooking them, the ones that do not open were dead and so you have to throw those.
  • Buy only at the fish markets that are very busy. High turnover typically means that they don’t sit long on their stock of fish and shellfish.
  • If buying live crab or lobster, look at whether the crabs or lobsters are active in the tank. As they tend to starve themselves in the tank, a motionless, barely alive crab or lobster generally means they have been living in captivity for quite some time.

Fish Fillets

  • If the fillet still has skin, the same rule applies as with whole fish: the skin should be metallic and clean. If the fillet does not have skin, then the flesh should be vibrant as opposed to dull and faded.
  • The smell-test is perhaps even more important with fillets and stay away from any with a stingy foul or fishy smell.
  • If there is liquid on the fillet, it should be clear and not milky. The fillet should be moist and without change of color.
  • Although it may seem odd to put your finger on food you may end up not buying, the fingerprint test can also be a good indication of the freshness of the fillet. If you press the fillet and the meat bounces back and your fingerprint disappears, the meat is generally fresh.