Fish can be a pesky thing to buy. For some of us, it’s in regular rotation, going into the cart at the supermarket or farmer’s market once or twice a week. For others, concerns about not being able to cook it before it goes bad or its often hefty price tag preclude the purchase in the first place.
That’s where frozen fish comes into play. A decade ago, the Washington Post asked, “Can Chefs Cozy Up to Frozen Fish?” The article noted its lower carbon footprint, often superior quality (to the fresh stuff that is air-shipped), and Americans’ reluctance to buy frozen fish. A full 10 years later, that same publication asserts that technology has shifted to the extent that frozen fish is nowadays often of extraordinary quality, surpassing the shiny fillets you see perched on ice at the market. (A lot of the time, those have often already been frozen, too; it’s just not trumpeted on the price tag.)
Although the iconic image of healthfulness for many of us involves everything fresh—maybe a vision of ourselves at a farmer’s market, stuffing a tote bag with veggies, a bouquet of kale, and the freshest fillet from the fishmonger—more often than not you’re reducing waste, being a better environmentalist, and saving money by buying frozen fillets.
I was wary about this notion myself, preferring to buy less fish in favor of cheaper meats like chicken and pork, until I found myself drawn to the frozen food bins on a recent excursion to Whole Foods. Salmon fillets were selling fresh for $21 per pound. The value packs of six 6-oz. fillets, however, was $19.95. That’s more than 50% off, just for cooking frozen fish.
I kept two fillets in the freezer and defrosted four overnight. (To do so, I took them out of their packaging, which is recommended to avoid bacterial growth, and covered them with plastic wrap on a plate in the fridge.) The next day, I made delicious salmon in my Instant Pot using Melissa Clark’s recipe for a savory caramel. I did not notice the difference of fresh from frozen, texture-wise.
A few days later, I defrosted the rest, sautéing the fillets in butter. They were excellent.
“What most consumers don’t know is that outside of the July-August window, any time you see Alaskan salmon in the supermarket, it would have been previously frozen,” author, seafood expert, and frozen fish proponent Paul Greenberg said in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air recently. “So what a lot of times supermarkets will do is they’ll buy the salmon frozen from the processors, defrost it, put it out on the ice, and it looks all beautiful and stuff.” If you don’t ask, you’d never know it had been pre-frozen. This is an issue because, as he said, “any time you expose fish to air, you’re exposing it to contamination and to, you know, degrading.”
If fish is flash-frozen right when it’s caught on a boat, on the other hand, and you’re able to keep it frozen from the supermarket to your home—consider bringing a cooler and asking for a bag of ice from the fishmonger—it will experience minimal air exposure and only defrost once.
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In you’re concerned about seafood sustainability generally, you might download the Seafood Watch app or visit the Seafood Watch website from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The sustainability watchdog group can help you distinguish between overfished salmon populations and those that are doing OK. As Greenberg said, “If you’re worried about your carbon footprint, frozen fish that is frozen on site where they’re caught are a much lower carbon footprint than fresh fish. Fresh fish … often have to be airfreighted.” (And if you’re pregnant, of course, keep an eye on the mercury levels of the fish you’re purchasing.)
I’m a convert: I’ll be moving on to frozen cod next, likely steaming it, covered, on the stovetop with capers, lemon, and white wine. The goal is to have fish in the freezer at all times, so I don’t always yield to the pleasures of the slice or takeout delivery.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Alex Van Buren—follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen—is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and content strategist who has written for The Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Epicurious.