Is Frozen Fish Better Then Fresh Fish?


By Chef Bryan Szeliga, September 2011

Imagine the server at your favorite restaurant describing the nightly special, 'tonight we have a previously frozen fillet of pan seared striped bass, with grilled ramps, roasted fingerling potatoes, caramelized Brussels sprouts, topped with warm saffron and d'Espelette emulsion.' Any takers? Replace previously frozen with 'fresh' and the special will be the restaurant’s top seller!

Contrary to popular belief, frozen seafood can be superior to its fresh counterpart.

bigstockphoto_alaskan_fishing_boatWhen we look holistically at sustainable seafood, frozen seafood is often times more sustainable and superior to fresh. Seafood is often harvested far from the consumer and must travel a great distance to reach the marketplace. Fresh fish is shipped by air, which is a high carbon footprint shipping method.  Frozen seafood can be shipped efficiently by boat. 

Another factor contributing to the sustainability of frozen seafood is the fact that wild caught seafood is seasonal. The amount of seafood harvested during a season can be very high and subsequently floods the market with a specific type of fish. This high volume of fish in a short period lowers the price per pound paid to fishermen. Frozen seafood provides a product that has a consistent price throughout the year, eliminating economic peaks and valleys for fishermen and consumers alike.


Why is frozen fish better quality and actually 'fresher' then fresh fish?

Take for example the timeline of Alaska frozen fish vs. Alaska fresh fish. Within 8 to 12 hours post harvest, fish is frozen to minus 30 degrees. The frozen fillet is then placed on a barge and shipped to the lower 48 states for distribution to seafood suppliers.

Conversely the fresh fillet (or whole fish) arrives at the dock 2 to 8 hours after harvest for processing. Once the fish is processed (removal of the intestines and filleted, if not to be shipped whole) it is then packed on ice and flown in the belly of an airplane to the lower 48 states.  The travel time from post harvest to seafood suppliers to restaurants or storefronts could be anywhere between 24 to 72 hours.  It may take the restaurant or store front another 1 to 3 days to sell the product to the consumer. The fresh fish could easily be 5 to 6 days post harvest before it reaches your plate.

The savviest of chefs, Asian markets and high-end distributors are able to procure fresh seafood direct from fishermen and other distribution sources, which can reduce this timeframe.   In these instances the fresh product can be of great quality (however, the carbon impact is most likely greater then its frozen counterpart).

The success of frozen fish is based on post harvest handling (this will be discussed in detail in a future article).

Another key factor is the defrosting method. Great care must be taken when handling frozen fillets. The thawing method is imperative.

The best way to thaw a frozen fillet is to surround the fillet in ice in the refrigerator to thaw slowly.  Ideally, a small fillet (about 9-12 oz) (about the size of 3-4 decks of cards) surrounded in ice would thaw overnight.  A larger fillet (1-5 pounds) or whole fish would take anywhere from 1-3 days.

This slow thawing process allows the frozen cells of the flesh to slowly release water and change size without causing the flesh to tear.  Thawing fish under cold running water or by microwave will cause the cell walls to burst, tearing the flesh and making it mushy.  Frozen fish when processed, frozen, and thawed correctly can create an amazing final product.


Keys to finding high quality frozen seafood:

1)  Look for the code (FAS) Frozen at Sea or ask your fishmonger if the fish has been "frozen at sea."  This is a good method for freezing fish. Any fish product with the FAS code should always be sold as frozen.

2)  The fish should be flash frozen to well below zero degrees as soon as possible after harvest (6 to 12 hours)

3) The fillet should be thawed slowly in a refrigerator.  Microwaves and cold-water baths diminish the quality of frozen fish.

4) Look for mushy flesh or flesh with cracks. These are products of improper treatment during freezing or thawing.


Fishmonger Question:  How was the fish shipped from the harvest location? Was the fish shipped by plane or by a lower carbon impacting method?


Recipe:  Seared Sockeye Salmon with Corn Risotto


Fact:  At Tsukiji (pronounced tsu-KI-ji, rhyming with squeegee) the world's largest fish market located in Japan, 29% of the seafood sold is frozen!


Source: Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World by Theodore C. Bestor, University of California Press, Los Angeles, 2004


Cool Links:

Chefs Collaborative   has an online sustainable seafood-training program for culinary students and chefs called Green Chefs Blue Oceans. Chefs Collaborative is a national chef network that's changing the sustainable food landscape using the power of connections, education and responsible buying decisions.


Chef Bryan Szeliga, an avid fly fisherman and salmon conservationist is currently devoting his time and energy to promote a better understanding of sustainable seafood.