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Fish & Shellfish: A Buyers Guide


There are over 30,000 species of fish that inhabit oceans or freshwater. Learning how to purchase fish - what to look for, and those telltale signs that will distinguish great from grim is paramount to preparing, serving, and consuming fish or shellfish at its highest quality.


Nutritional Breakdown of a fish –

Fish, like other meats, are composed of protein, fat, water, vitamins and minerals. Fish and shellfish are naturally low in calories. Most fish are naturally very lean and benefit from cooking process which are low in or void of fat.

The fat content of fish and shellfish range from .5%-20%. Fish that are low in fat include:

  • Cod
  • Flounder
  • Halibut
  • Snapper
  • Sole

Fish that have higher fat contents include: (fish that have higher fat contents are poor for stock making)

  • Anchovies
  • Mackerel
  • Salmon
  • Sardines
  • Tuna

Just because a fish has a higher fat content doesn’t mean it is less nutritious. Fish with higher fat contents are rich in omega 3 fatty acids. Omega 3 fatty acids are great for the body because they help in the prevention of heart disease and are great boosters for your immune system.

Inspection & Grading –

The FDA requires that all fish and shellfish producers adhere to the strict HACCP process for food safety. HACCP stands for Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points. Inspection of fish and shellfish is voluntary. There is a fee for service inspection program run through the USDC (department of commerce) and there are specific inspection marks that designate the type of inspection performed.

  • The US Grade A mark for fish and shellfish means all products have been processed under federal inspection in an approved facility. The stamp also means that the products produced have been done so to meet the highest standards for quality. Grade A fish and shellfish is of the best quality, texture, flavor, and odor. Grade B & C refer to quality that is only fair. Fish and shellfish that have been graded below a B are considered substandard.

There are also other stamps to consider when purchasing fish or shellfish.

  • The PUFI stamp means that the products have been inspected and are from a facility certified to be safe.
  • The Lot Inspection Mark indicates that the fish or shellfish have been officially sampled and inspected and have met all approved criteria for purchase.
  • The Retail Mark for fish and shellfish means that retail establishments use products from USDC approved facilities and ensures that the facility adheres to the proper procedures for handling and sanitation of fishery products.
  • The USDC HACCP Mark for fish and shellfish can be used in conjunction with any other mark and just identifies that the fish or shellfish produced were done so in a HACCP program approved facility.

The structure of a Fish: Round Vs. Flat

  • Round fish swim upright. A round fish has 1 eye on each side of its head, and its body can be round, or oval. The backbone lies along the upper edge of the fish’s body. Salmon and Trout are examples of round fish.
  • Flat Fish swim flat, and spend most of their time on the ocean floor. The backbone of a flat fish runs horizontally through the center of the body, and its eyes are located next to each other on the top of the heat. Halibut and Flounder are examples of flat fish.

When selecting fish, there are 3 important things to consider. The smell, the feel, and the appearance.

  1. Smell – the odor of the fish should be that of the ocean or maybe reminiscent of seaweed. The fish or shellfish should never smell fishy. The older a fish or shellfish gets, the more the odor will intensify.
  2. Feel – Top quality fish will feel firm to the touch. The fish should spring back when touched, and there shouldn’t be any indication of an indention from your finger. Check that the scales are still firmly attached. The fish should feel fresh, older fish will feel slimy.
  3. Appearance – Examine the fish thoroughly before purchase. The eyes should be very clear and not cloudy. The gills should be bright red. Older fish will have gills that are pink. In very old fish, the gills will start to turn brown. When bent, the flesh should not separate – that is a sign that the meat has begun the breaking down process.

*** ALWAYS, AND I CANNOT STRESS THIS ENOUGH, ALWAYS ASK YOUR FISHMONGER TO SEE THE FISH OR SHELLFISH YOURSELF SO YOU CAN CHECK FOR THESE THREE CRITERIA! DON'T EVER TAKE THEIR WORD FOR IT - AND BE VERY SKEPTICAL AND WEARY IF THEY TELL YOU NO ***

Popular Varieties of Saltwater and Farm-Raised Fish

  • Anchovy - Tiny, round, firm texture
  • Catfish - Firm texture, mild flavor, muddy
  • Cod - Lean, firm texture; mild flavor
  • Flounder - Lean, fine texture, delicate (FLAT)
  • Grouper - Very lean; moderately firm texture, tough skin that has a strong flavor
  • Halibut - Firm flesh, mild flavor (FLAT)
  • Mackerel - Oily and full flavored
  • Mahi Mahi - Firm, flavorful flesh
  • Monkfish - “poor mans lobster”, flake free with a texture similar to lobster, only the tail is edible
  • Salmon - Lives in the ocean but returns to freshwater to spawn, light pink-orange pink, oily – lean depending on the species
  • Snapper - Lean fish with a soft texture, good fish to use carcasses for stock
  • Sole - Lean, firm flesh, delicate flavor (FLAT)
  • Swordfish - Grows up to 15 feet, firm texture, slightly pink flesh
  • Tilapia - Mild flavor, firm texture
  • Trout - White–orange-pink flesh, delicate, moderate fat content, very bony, small bones
  • Tuna - Part of the mackerel family, deep pink to dark red, mild flavor, very meaty

There are many Market Forms for Fresh Fish. When purchasing fish, take into consideration what you can do with a fish in the form that it is in. For example, Whole fish are great broken all the way down and with the carcasses eventually used for stock. But if you are cooking for multiple guests, maybe it is easier and more cost and time effective to purchase fish that has been slightly more processed.

  • Whole – the whole fish as it comes out of the water. Fish is completely intact – containing organs. Fish in this form have the shortest shelf life.
  • Drawn – refers to fish whose belly has been cut open and the internal organs are removed. A drawn fish has the longest shelf life.
  • Dressed – internal organs, gills, fins, and scales removed. Heads may or may not be intact.
  • Fillets – most popular market form, easiest preparation. Fillets can be purchased with the skin on of off. Round fish produce 2 fillets, 1 from either side, and flat fish produce 4 fillets, 2 from the top on either side of the backbone and 2 from the bottom of the fish. Flat fish are sometime popular to being prepared and consumed whole.
  • Butterflied – dressed fish that are cut open so the two sides lay flat like an opened book.
  • Steaks – cross cut sections of fish that are opposite from the fillet. There is usually a cross section of the backbone with the belly meat attached and is usually found skin on. Steaks are great for grilling.
  • Cubes/Nuggets – leftover pieces from the fish breakdown process. Cubes and nuggets are used in kabobs, stews, soups, and stir-frys.

Market Forms for Frozen Fish –

  • IQF- individually quick frozen. Ice glazed. IQF refers to fish that is flash frozen and sold individually or can be used individually in bulk packaging.
  • Block – common for shrimp. Block frozen fish or shellfish are pieces that have been frozen in a mass block form. The entire block must be unfrozen for use.
  • Shatter Pack – the combination of IQF and Block. Fish/shellfish are IQF and then laid between sheets of poly or plastic and frozen. The fish/shellfish is then vacuum packaged or sealed together which allows for easy separation.

Shellfish -

Shellfish have shells to protect their bodies. Shellfish do not have internal skeletons or backbones. There are many different forms of shellfish.


  • Mollusks – live in salt water and have shells that protect their bodies. There are 3 types of Mollusks.
  • Univalves – have a single, open pieces shell that covers the body. Also known as gastropods, univalves are marine snails that use a single foot to attach themselves to rocks. Univalves include: abalone, conch, and snails.
  • Bivalves – have two large shells on a hinge. Includes: oysters, clams, mussels and scallops.
  • Clams – bivalves that are harvested from the ocean or freshwater. There are two major kinds of clams – soft and hard shell. Softshell clams are tender and sweet. Shells are not really soft, but thinner than that of hardshell clams.
  • Oysters – bivalves with rough, asymmetrical shells. Market Forms – live, in shell, shucked, fresh or frozen. Shucked oysters are graded by size.
  • 3. Cephalopods – have thin, internal shells, with no outer protection. Cephalopods have developed tentacles that attach near the mouth. Squid, octopus, and cuttlefish are types of cephalopods.

Types of softshell clams are: (this is not an all inclusive list)

  1. Steamers/longnecks
  2. Geoducks

Hardshell clams have thicker shells are classified by size - (this is not an all inclusive list)

  1. Surf Large, white, grow to 8 inches
  2. Quahogs Aka chowder clams, 3 inches across, great for stews
  3. Cherrystones 2-3 inches, 5-7 per pound
  4. Littlenecks 1.5-2.25 inches, good for steaming
  5. Pacific littlenecks Small, west coast clams, tougher than an east coast littleneck
  6. Manilla Pacific coast, 1 inch
  • Market Forms for Clams – available whole, live, in-shell, frozen, fresh, canned, chopped, minced

Mussels – bivalves that are farmed and harvested world-wide. Resembling clams, mussels are smaller with thin, dark colored shells, and tan colored meat. Common types of mussels include: PEI (Prince Edward Island) and New Zealand Green Tip Mussels. Green tipped mussels are larger and more expensive than the blue-black mussels typically found in grocery stores and restaurant menus.

  • Market Forms for Mussels – sold live, fresh, in-shell, or frozen, vacuum sealed in shell or shucked. Mussels are also found canned in a variety of cooked and smoked forms.

Scallops – bivalves collected all over the world. Mainly the abductor muscle is eaten. The adductor muscle is what opens and closes the shell. There are 3 popular varieties of scallops that are widely available for purchase.

  1. Sea Scallops / Diver Scallops – the largest and most popular scallop. Delicate and sweet with a firm texture. Diver scallops are generally harvested individually and by hand so they are more expensive yet than regular dry scallops.
  2. Bay Scallops – come from the waters from the Atlantic coast. Harvested October- march they are very small, but have the sweetest and most desirable flavor of the common American scallop varieties.
  3. Calico Scallops – resemble little marshmallows, smaller than bay scallops. Flavor isn’t as developed as bay scallops.
  • Market Forms for Scallops – most commonly fresh shucked. Sold by the pound or gallon. Scallops are labeled as dry and wet. Dry scallops have not been injected with any liquid and caramelize easily. Wet scallops are injected with a solution that makes them appear larger, but when combined with heat, the liquid leaches out a shiny opaque color, and due to the moisture loss, do not caramelize well, if at all. Wet scallops are less expensive than dry scallops, but beware of the difference.

Squid – a cephalopod with 8 short tentacles and 2 long ones. Squid is often listed on menus as calamari (the Italian name for squid).

  • Market Form for Squid – available cleaned or uncleaned, whole, cut into steaks or rings, tentacles whole or sold separately from the body. Make sure the beak inside the body is removed before cooking.

Octopus – cephalopod with 8 tentacles of equal size. Can range in size from 1-50 pounds, but most common sold between 2-3 pounds. All of the octopus is edible, but it is very firm and chewy. Needs a delicate or mulit-parted cooking process. Octopus is great pickled or with raw preparations; also delicious grilled.


Crustaceans –found in fresh water and salt water.

Crustaceans have hard, segmented shells, jointed legs, and breathe through gills.


Lobster – Maine lobsters are to be of the highest quality. The cold water produces a delicate and very flavorful meat. Lobster has a white meat when cooked with a firm texture.

  • Market Forms for Lobster – whole, live, frozen, cooked meat, tail, claw, IQF

Shrimp – Most consumed shellfish in America. Come in range of colors from white, pink, brown, and blue. Graded by size.

  • Market Forms for Shrimp – fresh or frozen, head on or off, tail on or off, deveined or whole. Shrimp are available commonly by their count per pound. Common sizes include U/10, 16-20, 21-25, 41-50. The larger the size of the shrimp, the more expensive the shrimp. Avoid shrimp that has been farm-raised, as it has a diminished texture, and greatly lacks flavor. Gulf Coast shrimp and Argentinean Shrimp are among the favorite and most popular shrimp in the US.

Crab – there are thousands of varieties of crab worldwide. Crabs that are harvested in different parts of the United States will greatly vary in size, shape, texture, and taste. Popular types of crab in America –

  1. Alaskan crab – includes snow and king crab. The king crab is very large and can weigh up to 20 pounds. King crabs are very meaty and have large, long, sweet tasting meat. Snow crabs legs are thinner than those of king crabs, and the meat has a mild, salty flavor.
  2. Pacific Crabs – Dungeness crab is the favorite among pacific coast crabs. These crabs are known for their sweet, pink meat. Dungeness crabs weigh in between 1.5-4#’s.
  3. Atlantic Crabs – the blue crab is the east coast crab, average weight of 5 ounces. Harvested with hard or soft shells, has a very white and succulent meat. Soft shell crabs can be eaten whole – shell and all. Hard shells are often found steamed in Old Bay seasoning.
  4. Caribbean Crabs – stone crabs come from the Caribbean and are only harvested for their claws. The claws are cut off and the crabs are thrown back in the water where their claws will re-grow within a year. Stone crab has a flavor that is close to lobster.
  • Market Forms for Crabs – fresh, raw, cooked, frozen, whole, meat only, soft shell, cake.

Crawfish (Crayfish) – freshwater crustaceans. Resemble miniature lobsters, and grow to 3-6 inches in length. Prominent in Cajun and Creole cuisines. The tail meat is small, but packed full of flavor, and firm.

  • Market Forms for Crawfish – live, fresh and frozen, whole, tail meat.