Tips for Buying and Cooking Sustainable Fish

by Katherine Sacks

Published: 5/13/20, Last updated: 12/20/22

Are you missing lobster rolls, sushi and calamari while staying at home during the coronavirus pandemic? If you aren’t used to regularly shopping and cooking for seafood, these dishes might seem like a challenge to prepare. But seafood doesn’t need to be a mysterious ingredient that you’ll miss until restaurants start opening back up again. While the industrial fishing system has felt the upheaval of the shifting market during the crisis, small scale local fishers can still provide fresh, sustainably sourced seafood.

While some home cooks are finding the home quarantine time the perfect opportunity to explore fish cookery, a survey done by the Food Marketing Institute last year found that many Americans feel unsure about how to purchase, cook, prepare or flavor seafood. If seafood feels daunting, you can use our tips for how to shop for sustainable seafood and easy ways to cook sustainable fish at home.

The Current State of Seafood

According to NOAA Fisheries’ most recent data, Americans eat an average of 16.1 pounds of seafood a year, a number that was expected to rise by five percent by 2022, in part thanks to the popularity of protein-focused diets like keto and paleo. But, as with other parts of the food supply, the COVID-19 crisis has upended commercial seafood business. With prices plummeting for big-money items such as lobster and baby eel — the wholesale price for live lobsters in March was 33 percent under 2018 levels, for example — and restaurant closures leaving fishermen and purveyors without their main customer base, many are struggling to make ends meet.

However, some smaller fisheries have been able to adapt, shifting to direct-to-consumer sales, community-supported fishery models and online sales operations, and some restaurant suppliers have opened business to the consumer market. Last year Food & Wine magazine predicted that an emphasis on sustainable seafood would be one of the major food trends of 2020. Before COVID-19, more than 80 percent of the seafood eaten in the US was imported, and two-thirds of the seafood sold domestically typically went to restaurants and hotels, meaning the seafood you were purchasing from the grocery store, and much of what you were eating out, was most likely not local nor responsibly caught. But with many restaurants closed, and commercial fisheries opening up to consumers, home cooks have more opportunities and responsibility than ever to purchase sustainable fish.

How to Choose Sustainable Fish

While tossing a bag of frozen shrimp into your cart at the market might be easy, shrimp has a big foodprint, including environmental and labor concerns. However, finding responsibly-caught, sustainable fish is not always easy. The fishermen using responsible practices catch what’s local and abundant, but that doesn’t always translate to popular, in-demand items like tuna or cod. However, supporting smaller suppliers and choosing local, sustainable fish helps create a marketplace for sustainable fish, which would otherwise be replaced by giant conglomerates.

The first step in finding responsibly-sourced fish is asking your fishmonger or market where the seafood they offer comes from and how it was produced. Seafood guides like Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Guide can help you make informed decisions. Some questions to ask: Where is this seafood from? Is the seafood farmed or wild? How was it caught? Our Seafood Label Guide can also help you parse through the options and find choices that support good practices that prevent overfishing.

Community-supported fisheries (CSFs), like Western Oregon’s Port Orford, North Carolina’s Walking Fish or Philadelphia’s Fishadelphia, provide options that allow consumers to directly support fishers, supplying customers with “shares” of local fish in exchange for an upfront payment that helps the fishery maintain operations.

These shares range in what types of fish they provide. Montauk, New York’s Dock to Dish operates on a catch-of-the-day system: members receive a weekly mix of fresh local fish such as golden tilefish, fluke, speared mahi-mahi, triggerfish and silver hake. Alaska’s Iliamna Fish Company, self-described as one of the country’s first member supported fisheries, focuses solely on salmon, bringing its shares to communities in Portland, Washington, Seattle, Austin and New York City, areas where members of the family-run CSF have settled outside of Alaska.

As Dock to Dish founder Sean Barrett explained in our 2016 interview with him, CSFs allow customers and fishermen to directly engage in business, supporting the fishermen and providing the highest quality, most environmentally friendly fish to consumers. “There’s a whole traditional chain of custody in fisheries between a fisherman and a consumer where maybe 10, 20, 30 sets of hands that touch that chain — in every step the quality lowers and the price raises,” Barrett said. “So in the end, the consumer is typically left buying a very high-priced, low-quality good.”

Some independent fisheries have turned to the CSF model as restaurant business dried up during the coronavirus closures. After polling members of a Facebook mom’s group and finding eager response, Mindy Nunez Duffourc helped her father and brother, commercial crab and shrimpers in New Orleans, set up their Boat to Table direct-to-consumer business. Duffourc and her sister help deliver the bi-weekly orders, serving about 20 customers a variety of fresh fish, shrimp and soft shell crab. “It depends on what we have,” she explains. “They will find a spot and catch whatever is there, lately it’s been drum fish, and of course catfish. One thing that’s been hard is keeping up with customers because it changes, and having to say ‘Hey I’m sorry we don’t have that anymore, I thought we would,’ or ‘How about this instead?’ ”

Read our report The FoodPrint of Wild Seafood

While Duffourc has found some of the logistics a challenge — she’s also determined to find an alternative to plastic delivery bags, and has tried out compostable and biodegradable options — overall the move has been a success.

“Over the years we’ve done different versions of a direct-to-consumer model,” she says. “People always like it in the beginning, and then they always move to a sort of spontaneous way of getting seafood, either in the grocery store when they are already shopping or at a restaurant where the work can be done for them. But I think with the pandemic, people are sort of forced to do these things by delivery. They don’t want to go to the grocery stores even if they are open, which has made it strangely easy.”

Along with CSFs, other options include purchasing from restaurant purveyors that have also begun selling to consumers, such as New York’s F. Rozzo & Sons and Brooklyn’s Pierless Fish (make sure to check for sustainable options here, as restaurant purveyors often provide a wide variety to their customers), or companies like Real Good Fish, a CSF-style delivery service run by a commercial fisherman out of Monterey Bay, California that quickly expanded operations in March and now delivers to seven nearby states. Maine’s Port Clyde Fresh Catch and Petersburg, Alaska’s Schoolhouse Fish Co. also offer limited memberships to their CSFs nationwide.

Tips for Cooking Seafood

Once you’ve found some quality seafood, you’ll need to go about cooking it. Here Chef James London, owner of Charleston’s sea-to-table restaurant Chubby Fish, offers his advice.

Try Something New

Keep in mind that choosing the sustainable option might mean choosing something you aren’t familiar with. When London decided to open Chubby Fish, he approached a number of local, independent fishermen and offered to purchase whatever they caught, no matter the species. “By doing that, the [fishermen] aren’t weeding out the fish they normally would be throwing back in the ocean; we committed to buying all the bycatch,” he explains. “That’s what really excites us, buying all the bycatch. All seafood is delicious, it’s all phenomenal, it doesn’t matter what species it is.”

The CSF model usually presents customers with a mix of local fish, typically some familiar fish and some unfamiliar. If you are shopping at the fish counter, skip the shrimp or salmon, and ask for what’s local (unless shrimp and salmon are local in your area!). “Always get what’s coming out of the local waters, there are less middlemen involved,” London says. “Whenever you can get something that’s coming from around you, you’re going to wind up with a better product.”

Learn the Technique for the Fish

Of course, when you find yourself with a new fish, you might not know how to cook it. Luckily, fish are relatively easy to cook, especially good quality fish; most species do well grilled or sauteed in a hot pan. But it doesn’t hurt to do a bit of research. London frequently works with wreckfish, a local species to South Carolina that was once thought of as bycatch, but has gained popularity thanks in part to chefs like London featuring it. Although wreckfish is similar in appearance and taste to grouper, London says the fish cooks up very differently. “It can be a little more difficult to cook in the traditional way, it has a tendency to dry out,” he explains. “Instead of dry searing it, [like we would with grouper], we poach it in liquid, a dashi broth with butter, and let the liquid cook the fish. It turns out extremely silky and luscious.”

There are two classic ways to prepare fish, either dry heat or wet heat. Dry heat usually is done with a hot saute pan or grill, while wet cooking is done with steaming or poaching. If you are preparing a type of sustainable fish for the first time, check online guides or cookbooks like Mark Bittman’s “Fish” to decide the best method.

Keep it Simple

Although there are many ways to cook seafood (Barton Seaver’s new cookbook “The Joy of Seafood” offers more than 900 recipes!), at the end of the day keeping it simple is easiest and best. “When it comes to seafood, approach it as simply as possible,” says London. “With seafood, you don’t have to do a whole lot to it to make it exceptional, generally it’s already exceptional. Just hit it with salt, cook it on a grill if you have a grill, or a pan if you have a pan, then either hit it with a little butter or olive oil, and you’re going to get something amazing.”

Although London is currently managing take-out operations for Chubby Fish during the restaurant’s COVID-19 shutdown, when he has time to cook at home, his favorite method for seafood is using the grill. He suggests leaving the scales on the fish, also called “on the half shell.” Preheat the grill until very hot, season the filet on the flesh side with salt, place it on the grill scale-side down, and cover. “Let it cook like that, steaming in its own juice,” he explains. “The scales act as a barrier to the heat and as a hot plate, so you don’t have to worry about the scales sticking to the heat.” To finish, he’ll add in some compound butter and lemon. Try the method out with this recipe for the grill or this oven-baked version.

Get a Cake Tester

One of the biggest uncertainties home cooks have when it comes to cooking fish is the question of “Is it done?” Instead of guessing, make sure you have a cake tester nearby. Just like this thin metal rod is used to see if a cake is wet or dry, it can also be used for fish. “That’s what we use to gauge our fish to see if it’s done, for the filet or whole fish,” London says. “When it has no resistance, you aren’t feeling the sinew, that fish is done. Pull it off.”

Don’t Forget About Mollusks

Along with fresh fish filets, some CSFs and online vendors also offer fresh shellfish like oysters, clams and mussels. Clams and mussels are particularly easy to cook at home, great for steaming for pasta dishes, curries or to serve with crunchy bread. Boat to Table’s Duffourc grew up cleaning shrimp and soft shell crabs, and says she took that knowledge for granted when they started delivering these items to customers. Although they usually de-head shrimp, occasionally they are sold head-on for specific recipes. “I get people asking, ‘Well wait, how do I de-head shrimp?’ and the same thing with soft shell crab,” she explains. “People love them, people know them, but they don’t know how to clean them.” As part of her monthly email to members, Duffourc includes information about the month’s offerings, recipes and tips, and YouTube videos for how to clean the fish and mollusks. “Don’t be scared off from ordering soft shell crabs, because you can totally clean them,” she says.

And while shucking oysters might not seem like a home cooking task, now’s the time to learn. As Robert Rheault, executive director of East Coast Shellfish Growers Association, recently told Marketplace, “It’s your civic duty to learn how to shuck oysters and cook seafood at home because thousands of jobs are counting on you.” The flavor of those locally sourced, freshly shucked oysters will be worth the extra work. Get oysters delivered overnight from Island Creek Oysters, then learn how to shuck oysters like a pro with these tips.

Use the Leftovers

Once you’ve put the work into finding responsibly caught fish and cooking it in a delicious way, don’t let any of it go to waste! Pro tip: the oils in fish are very fragile and can oxidize over a short time, and reheating fish can amplify the compounds that some eaters find overly “fishy.” Rather than serving a piece of leftover fish as is, eaters may find that leftovers are better in dishes that stretch the fish by mixing it with other flavors and textures. Making fish tacos, fish cakes, chowder and chopped salad are all ways you can reuse leftover fish in this way.

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