Jane Says: Surprise! Frozen Seafood Is Often the Best Choice

It might sound counterintuitive, but you'll find fresher, more eco-friendly fish in the freezer section of your market.
Don't be fooled by the pretty displays at the fish counter—frozen is often a better choice. (Photo: Nicholas Eveleigh/Getty Images)
Jul 25, 2012· 2 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

“I live in northwest Pennsylvania, where fresh seafood is extremely hard to come by. Are there any frozen brands that you’d recommend?” —Kait Sampson Griffin

I generally stick with American seafood, and the more information on the label, (how was the fish raised or caught?), the better. If it’s certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, that’s a big plus, too. The MSC website has a product finder page that’s helpful—you’ll find MSC-certified seafood in a variety of stores that range from Walmart to Whole Foods—and the organization even has a (free) smartphone app that tells you what certified products are at your nearby supermarkets.

To address the larger issue here, though, I’m thrilled you are even thinking about frozen seafood. I didn’t discuss it in a previous column about sustainable fish, and it’s been bugging me ever since. Frozen fish is a great eco-friendly choice—in many cases, a far smarter one over anything that’s available at your typical retail fish counter.

Sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it?

Not to Barton Seaver, National Geographic Fellow, Washington, D.C. chef, and author of For Cod and Country: Simple, Delicious, and Sustainable Cooking. “With frozen fish, there is far lower waste,” he said. “Fresh seafood is so perishable, that retailers end up throwing away about thirty percent. And consumers are paying for that yield shrink.”

Thirty percent! Good grief.

The perishability factor also affects the carbon footprint. “Frozen fish doesn’t need to be shipped as fast as fresh does,” Seaver noted. “It can be delivered in a more carbon-friendly fashion—by train, for instance.”

What about quality? Frozen-food technology has come a long way. “The technology is really advanced,” explained Seaver. “The fish is frozen, often at sea, at its peak of freshness and nutrition.” It’s frozen so fast at such a low temperature, that there’s no cellular rupturing, thus no compromise in texture.

Bear in mind that much of the artfully displayed “fresh” seafood you see glistening on crushed ice at the seafood counter was also flash-frozen at sea or at an on-shore processing plant. Once a retailer thaws it, the clock is ticking. Always ask if something has been previously frozen, and, if so, when was it thawed. If that turns out to be more than a day ago, avoid buying it. If it was thawed the same day, that’s perfectly fine, snap it up, but know you need to cook it for dinner that evening.

I’ve lost patience, pretty much, for that sort of tyrannical food. What I’ve really come to appreciate about buying fish in the frozen-food aisle is, well, the convenience. I’m not sure when that became a dirty word, but with an increasingly hectic schedule, I’ve grown to like the fact that the fish is there in my freezer when I want it, and cooking it fits into my life instead of the other way around.

“Look at pollack,” said Seaver. “You can find MSC-certified individual fillets in cryovaced packets at the store. Put just as many as you need in the refrigerator in the morning, and they will be thawed and ready to cook when you get home that evening.” Resist the urge to thaw frozen seafood at room temperature or in warm water; that will affect texture, and not in a good way.

The newest fish fillet in the frozen food aisle is barramundi (a.k.a. Asian seabass), a freshwater species that’s native to Australia. A western Massachusetts outfit called Australis is now farming it in a very sustainable way, and the company’s fish have landed on the “best choices” list of environmental watchdog organizations like the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch and the Environmental Defense Fund.

Seaver and other chefs will tell you that barramundi is a great alternative to red snapper, which can be expensive and not usually eco-friendly. Its firm, mild flesh plays well with lots of other flavors (try Seaver’s almond butter), and when broiled, its thin skin crisps up like a snapper’s does. Yum. I hope there’s some in my freezer.

Is this news to you? What do you prioritze when buying seafood? Tell us in the comments.