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How to Tell Whether Fish & Other Seafood are No Longer Fresh

by Emily Matthews

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Fish and other seafood are highly perishable commodities. In order to maximize their value, the freshness quality must be maintained. It is not uncommon to find fish at the point of sale exhibiting off odors and flavors.

If you want to enjoy seafood, you have to ensure that the food items are fresh. Seafood quality deteriorates due to age, or a combination of age and poor temperature control. To figure out whether or not the fish or seafood being sold in your supermarket is indeed fresh, I’ve put together an informative guide that will help you as a consumer.

Stored fish gradually deteriorates in flavor with time. Take cod for instance. Straight out of the sea, it bears a little flavor. After about 2 days maximum pleasant sweet flavors develop. After one week, the intensity reduces until it has almost no flavor at all! At around 12 days, you will definitely be able to detect something ‘off’ through its flavor, which will become stronger and more unpleasant over time.


How Exactly Does Fish Spoil?


The fish spoilage process starts immediately the fish is captured. The skin and slime of the fish harbor natural spoilage bacteria. After capture, these bacteria quickly invade the muscle blocks of the fish. For the first few days, however, the changes in fish are predominantly due to the intrinsic enzymes in the flesh. 

If happen to be an avid cook or a professional chef, you’re most likely aware that ‘stored’ fish gradually deteriorates in flavor with time. Take cod for instance. Straight out of the sea, it bears a little flavor. But after about 2 days maximum pleasant sweet flavors develop. After one week, the intensity reduces until it has almost no flavor at all. At around 12 days, you can detect off flavor, which becomes stronger and more unpleasant over time.




Fresh fishes in a fishing net


The appearance of fresh whole fish is bright and shiny with most of the scales intact and adhering tightly to the skin. The eyes are bright, clear and often protrude. As the fish deteriorates, the eyes usually turn pink and become sunken and cloudy. Note that this may not always be the case for small-eyed fish such as salmon.

The gills are red and slime free. With time, they turn to light pink, then gray and finally dull brown or greenish. You can use this color scale to ascertain the freshness of the fish. The odor should be fresh and mild. The characteristic fish odor develops over time. However, it should never be strong and objectionable. Fresh whole fish has firm and elastic flesh. The flesh should not be separating easily from the bones.

If you’re looking for the best quality of fish, I would highly recommend visiting your local fish market in the early morning – since that’s when you’re likely to get the freshest catch. Curious as to how you can ‘transform’ a whole fish into a spectacular homemade dish?



Freezing seafood can help it to last longer


Do you prefer the convenience of frozen fish? Keep in mind that flesh of frozen fish is solid with no discoloration or drying on the surface (freezer burn). Always check for the odor. It should be fresh and mild. 

The wrapping material should be vapor and moisture proof, undamaged, and fitting closely around the product. The packing materials should not contain ice crystals, water stains or any signs that the product had thawed at one point. 




Fresh shrimp


Shrimp is definitely one of the most popular seafood. If you often cook dishes that contain shrimp, you should be aware that it is a particularly highly perishable seafood. Fresh shrimp possess a mild salty odor and firm textured flesh. The shell and meat should not be slippery or have black spots or patches. Multiple patches and spots indicate that the shrimp had begun breaking down before being frozen.

Frozen shrimp that has gone bad often has a strong ammonia smell. The shell of fresh shrimp may be light pink, pinkish tan or grayish green. When you cook fresh shrimp, the shell should turn red and the flesh takes on a similar reddish white hue.




Fresh lobster and other varieties of seafood


Lobsters have to be cooked shortly after death since their meat tends to rot very quickly. Lobster meat can go bad within hours if left uncooked. This is the main reason why they are commonly cooked alive. The meat can last for a few days in the refrigerator when cooked or several months when frozen. Lobster meat that is not fresh has a soft consistency and a cottage cheese flavor. It also has a very strong odor. 

Lobsters, crabs, and crayfish only turn the familiar bright orange to red after they have been cooked. The best tools for preparing lobster and other seafood are hard-anodized cookware. They are light, durable, non-stick with good heat conductivity. This is essential since seafood has to be thoroughly cooked to prevent illness.



Fresh clams



You should always purchase raw shellfish very carefully. Only buy raw clams, mussels, and oysters from reputable markets. The clams, mussels, and oysters in the shell are alive and the shells close very tightly when tapped. 

A gaping shell indicates that the shellfish are dead and therefore not edible. Freshly shucked oysters are plump with a natural creamy color and clear nectar or liquid. They also have a slightly mild odor.




Fresh scallops


Scallops have become quite a popular seafood in recent years. Fresh scallops have a pleasant sweetish odor and do not contain excess liquid when packaged. 

The large sea scallops have flesh that is white, pink or light orange. Smaller calico and bay scallops are white, pinkish and light tan. Any color that deviates from the norm may indicate that the scallops are aged.


If you are used to cooking your own meals at home, when shopping for seafood, it’s important to base the seafood you purchase on quality. In most cases, packed frozen seafood have expiry date labels. So, check and ensure that you use it before the stipulated expiry date to prevent yourself from becoming a victim of food poisoning.


A lover of fish and seafood? Did you know that Asia has some of the freshest seafood in the world? Indulge in plenty of delicious seafood on a food tour in Asia & Oceania!

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