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How to Buy Sushi Fish & Keep It Fresh

How to Buy Sushi Fish & Keep It Fresh

Finding fresh fish and keeping it fresh is essential to producing high-quality sushi. Ensuring that the fish does not have parasites is another key component of creating sushi, since most sushi or sashimi includes raw seafood ingredients. Here are some tips on how to find the best fish for sushi and how to store it safely and keep it fresh to maintain flavor and texture.

In this article you will learn:
  • How to find fish that is truly sushi grade
  • How to choose the freshest fish
  • Methods for storing fresh fish

A yellowtail fish being prepared for service at a restaurantSushi Grade Fish: A Warning
The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) does not offer any clear regulations or standards for what makes fish acceptable for serving raw. Health codes do recommend that the fish be frozen to kill any parasites that might be present, but this law only regulates sales of certain species of fish served raw. Sushi bars usually operate without any clear regulations from their local health codes on preparing the raw fish.

So even if fish is sold as “sushi grade,” this is merely a marketing term that fish retailers use to promote their fish as high-quality. It may or may not have been frozen: even fish that is marketed as “fresh” is often thawed from a frozen state. The best way to find fish that is appropriate for sushi is to purchase the freshest fish possible.

General Tips for Purchasing Sushi Fish

  • Shop for live fish. Some grocery stores and meat markets will keep live fish in an aquarium for customers to purchase. If you pick out a live fish to take home, you know exactly how fresh it is. Just check the skin for blemishes, which might be a sign of disease.
  • Buy fish in season. The safest way to find fresh fish is to look for fish that is in season. Each species of fish is unique and may have a different harvesting season. Browse the sushi fish buying guide by species to find out when a certain fish is being freshly harvested.  » How to Select and Store Sushi
  • Note how the fish is stored. Choose fish that is on fresh ice, not ice that is melting. It should be in an enclosed case or under a cover.
  • Smell the fish. The fishier the fish smells, the more likely it is not fresh.
  • Look at the eyes. In most fish, the eyes should be clear and bulging. This is an indication of freshness. Only a few fish, like the walleye pike, naturally have cloudy eyes.
  • Feel the flesh. The flesh should be firm and shiny. It should spring back when pressed. If the flesh is firm but not shiny, the fish was probably frozen at some point. If the flesh is mushy, the fish is not fresh enough for sushi.
  • Inspect the gills and blood. Gills should be red in color and should not show any traces of slime or goo, as these can be signs of disease or spoiled flesh. Any blood around or near the gills should be dark red in color. If the blood is pinkish rather than red, the fish has probably been sitting in ice too long.
  • Examine the color. Avoid seafood with green or yellow coloring or darkening on the flesh, unless it is naturally yellow in color like the sea urchin. Also be suspicious of fish that is unusually bright red. Some fish are treated with carbon monoxide, which will give the fish an unnatural red color that makes old fish appear fresher. If you are unsure whether the red color is natural, try to find out if the fish was treated with carbon monoxide.
  • Check the label on shellfish. When buying shellfish, look at the label to make sure it is up to code. Any shellfish sold in the United States should have a label that notes that it meets FDA recommendations.
  • Avoid broken shells. Do not use shellfish with cracked or broken shells. Once the shell is penetrated, the meat of the shellfish begins to spoil quickly.
  • Pick thick fillets. If you will be buying your fish with the scales pre-removed, it is better to buy a thick fillet than a steak. The fillets are easier to cut, and the thickness ensures that you have plenty to work with when creating your sushi.

General Tips for Storing Seafood

  • Keep seafood in the refrigerator to reduce the risk of getting parasites from eating it raw. Use it within two days after purchase.
  • If you do not use the fish within two days, it should be wrapped in water-proof bags, paper or foil and stored in the freezer. It can still be used for sushi, although it will not have an ideal texture.
  • To thaw frozen seafood, place it in the refrigerator overnight, or microwave on your “thaw” setting until the fish is soft enough to cut. It should still be icy cold.

Avoiding Parasites in Raw Fish
One way to avoid parasites in raw fish is to avoid eating the internal organs, since this is usually the region of the body where the parasites live. Another way to avoid consuming parasites from raw fish is to freeze the fish for a sufficient time to kill the parasites. While many sushi chefs believe this method will destroy the subtle flavors and texture of the fish, it will decrease the chances of contracting a parasite. Use the FDA, Ontario Ministry of Health (OMH), & EEC (European Economic Community) guidelines given in the chart below to determine how long and at what temperature to freeze your fish in order to kill parasites:

 Regulatory Organization  Temperature  Duration
 FDA & OMH  At or below -4° F (-20° C)  7 days
 FDA & OMH  At or below -31° F (-35° C)  Until solid, then for an additional 15 hours
 EEC  At or below -4° F (-20° C)  24 hours

It is unlikely that one will contract a parasite by eating the raw flesh of most species of fish, but each type of fish has different levels of risk and different guidelines for how to choose and prepare the fish. Therefore, before choosing and preparing your fish, you may want to research tips for selecting and storing that particular kind of fish.  
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