Fresh Fish: The New Frontier of Flavor

From The Lecture Series: The Everyday Gourmet — Rediscovering the Lost Art of Cooking

By Chef Instructor Bill Briwa, The Culinary Institute of America

It’s common knowledge that eating fish provides multiple health benefits—but what if you just don’t like that “fishy” flavor? Follow these tips and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how delicious seafood can be.

Fresh Fish

Buying Fresh

The first rule of buying fresh fish is to stay flexible. When fishermen or fisherwomen go out to fish, what they bring back is really shaped by fate and a little bit of their skill. Try to establish a relationship with a fishmonger by getting to know him or her, telling him or her what you like and don’t like, and taking his or her recommendations. You can also take advantage of the services that he or she might offer, such as filleting or gutting a fresh fish. It is worth paying for a skilled person to scale a fresh fish and cut it into portions for you.

Examining and Selecting Fresh Fish

To analyze the quality of a fresh fish, the first thing that you should do is feel the outside of the fish. If it’s slimy, that shouldn’t be a problem because it’s that slime that protects the fish and helps it slide through the water when it’s alive. If it feels slimy but also smells bad, that’s a very different kind of slime, and that’s a problem. When assessing aroma, you will first start to notice aroma probably in the belly, so open the belly and give it a sniff.

This is a transcript from the video series The Everyday Gourmet: Rediscovering the Lost Art of Cooking. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Freshly caught fish

The flesh of a fresh fish should be firm; it should spring back when you press it. If you press it and a small indentation lingers, that is a sign that it’s an older fish. In addition, the scales should be firmly attached. If you rub the fish from the tail to the head and the scales come off, chances are that it is an older fish. Furthermore, if the fins are dried out, broken, and cracked, it could be indicative of a fish that has been mishandled or been out of the water for too long. The fins should be moist and full.

The gills of the fish are where it breathes. Over time, the gills will go from a deep reddish or pink color to sort of a deep brick red or even brown, and as they progress from red and pink to brown, you know that the fish is getting older. It is not uncommon that the gills will be taken out of a fish because they will spoil more quickly, but if the gills are missing, then you should look at other indicators of quality to determine the age of the fish.

Learn more about how to create the perfect kitchen setup (mise en place)

Make sure to examine the eye of a fresh fish because eyes age as well. Once the fish is dead and out of the water, its eyes become a little bit cloudy, so a clear eye is indicative of a fish that is fresh. When you look at a really fresh fish on your cutting board, it should look vital. An older fish does not look vital.

If you’re buying fillets of fish instead of a whole fish, the fillets should be vital and not discolored. They should look fresh and moist, and the flesh should not be torn. The fillets should be firm and should smell fresh and briny. Freshness of Fish

Using Ice to Keep Fresh Fish

frseh fish on ice

Fish live in salted water that is possibly even colder than a refrigerator, so the enzymes and bacteria that are inherent in fish have learned how to work at cold temperatures. When you take a fish out of that cold environment and put it into a refrigerator, the bacteria start to grow very quickly and the enzymes begin to break the flesh down, so you need to keep fish really cold to prevent that from happening. The easiest way to do that is to keep the fish on ice.

When you go shopping for fresh fish, make sure to buy your fish at the end of your trip, and if you can take a little cooler with you, that’s even better. As a rule of thumb, every hour that a fresh fish spends at room temperature shortens its shelf life by an entire day.

Learn more about everything you need to know to fry food like a pro

Evaluating Doneness

When it comes to fish, you can evaluate doneness a number of different ways. You can poke it where it is the thickest, which is right behind the collar, or where the gill opening is. If you use a knife to make a cut in that area, you can expect the meat to be opaque all the way through. The meat should also separate easily from the bone.

Whole Roasted Fish with Fennel, Lemon and Olive Oil

Whole Roasted Fresh Fish with Fennel, Lemon, and Olive Oil

proportions to taste


  • striped bass, whole
  • Florence fennel
  • olive oil
  • onions, chopped
  • salt
  • garlic
  • tomato, diced
  • white wine
  • bay leaves
  • thyme
  • lemon, sliced
  • ground black pepper
  • parsley
  • fennel tops

Cooking Instructions

This dish involves roasting a whole fish—specifically, a striped bass—on a bed of Florence fennel. The reason to roast a fish whole is that when you cook meat on the bone, it absorbs the flavor from those bones and is much more flavorful and moister as a result.

Fresh Fennel

To begin, slice some fennel. To a hot pan that has olive oil in it, add some chopped onions. Don’t focus on browning the onions; instead, make sure that they become tender. Cook the onions until they begin to become translucent, adding a little bit of salt to help draw some of the moisture out. Then, add the fennel, which has a delicate anise flavor. Cook the fennel until it starts to soften a little bit, at which point you can add some garlic to the pan because you don’t want the garlic to burn. Also add some diced tomato, white wine, a bay leaf, and a few branches of thyme. This is the base that the fish is going to cook on.

Before you cook it, the fish needs to be scaled. You should probably have a professional do this for you, but if you have a fish that has the scales on it, drag a knife—or even the edge of a kitchen spoon—backward against the way that the scales lay on the fish (from the tail toward the head). Little by little, the scales will pop off, but it can be a little messy, so keep a garbage bag nearby. If you take your hand and run it along the fish, you will feel any scales that are still intact. You also need to cut all of the fins off because they tend to burn in a hot oven.

Whole Roasted Sea Bass with Fennel

When you are roasting a fish in an oven at about 450 degrees, it will cook for about eight minutes per inch of thickness. Make sure to evaluate the fish at its thickest part before it goes into the oven. Season it on both sides with salt and pepper. Then, stuff the interior of the fish with branches of thyme, a few slices of lemon, and a few bay leaves, which will all flavor the fish from the inside out as it cooks.

When you are ready to put the fish in the oven, make sure that you use a pan that is big enough to accommodate the fish. Then, put a little bit of oil in the bottom so that nothing sticks together and then add the bed of vegetables and lay the fish on top. The bed of vegetables will keep the fish moist and temper the heat of the oven, but the fish will still brown a little on the top. 

To facilitate that browning, top the fish with a little bit of good olive oil.

After about 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish, you can pull it out of the oven. Take the fish off of its bed of vegetables, being careful with it because it is tender, and move it to a cutting board so that you can start to take the bones out of the fish. You should notice that the tail has become crispy, so trim it off. Every place where there was a fin, there will remain a small remnant of where the fin was attached, and you can pull out the bones that would have passed from the fin into the fish. To take the head off of the fish, use a knife to cut through the skin at the tail and continue cutting in a line down the center of the fish to separate the fish from its carcass. It should pull away, so if it is difficult, then it means that the fish is probably undercooked, and you should put it back in the oven.

Learn more about poaching: a popular and gentle method of moist heat cooking

After you have taken the bones out of the fish, you can remove the thyme, lemon, and bay leaves from the body. Then, put the vegetables that cooked with the fish on a plate and carefully move the fish back on top of the vegetables. You can garnish this dish with parsley, or even some fennel tops, and a few slices of lemon. This dish can be paired with a glass of sauvignon blanc.

Common Questions About Fresh Fish

Q: Are frozen fish fresh?

Frozen fish are generally frozen directly on the boat after catching. This preserves their nutrients at peak freshness.

Q: What is meant by “previously frozen”?

The term “previously frozen” means the fish was previously frozen and has since been thawed out. It should not be frozen again and should be eaten within a day or less of being purchased.

Q: How long does fish stay fresh?

Whether the fish was fresh-caught or bought thawed after having been previously frozen, fish should be eaten within no more than two days, preferably the same day it was caught or purchased.

Q: Is the taste of fish changed by freezing it?

Generally the taste of fish is unaffected by freezing it. If there is bacteria in the fish before freezing, it will be there after it thaws. Freezing does not kill bacteria, and this will affect both the taste and the healthiness of the fish.

This article was updated on 1/22/2020

Keep Reading
Get Your Grill on with Perfect Barbecue Sauces
The Story of Japanese Cuisine
The Subtle Art of Sauté