What the Fish (Part I)

What The Fish

Despite living so close to the Gulf of Mexico, I don’t see a lot of people buying or eating fish. Maybe it’s the fear of the fishiness of fish.

There are many applications for fish – poach, fry, grilled and sauté to name a few. One of my favorite applications for fish is to steam it and serve some kind of sauce, either a soy based sauce or a Teochew style sour sauce, but that’s another post. Since steamed fish is cooked so delicately, it is paramount that the fish tastes fresh.

Which brings me to combating the fishiness of fish.

The Fishiness of Fish

The problem with salt-water fish is that they have a rather short shelf life and taste best when fresh. We’re all too familiar with that ‘fishy’ smell that comes with old, poorly stored fish.

The fishy smell stems from bacteria and other enzymes converting a largely tasteless amine called TMAO (trimethylamine oxide) into TMA (trimethylamine).

Fortunately, with care, TMA can be reduced at each step of the process.


Buy fresh fish. Fortunately, I have my fish guys, PJ and Billy at the Louisiana Foods Total Catch Market on Saturday mornings. As mentioned before, these guys know their stuff and I trust them. Most Asian markets tend to have pretty good quality fish too.

Although it may take some careful examination, your chain grocery stores are not exempt from good fish either. One thing I would watch out for is that some stores thaw out their fish when placing them in display cases. They may appear ‘fresh’ but they’ve gone through the freezing and thawing process. There’s nothing wrong with cooking that fish right away but I would avoid freezing them again to avoid degrading the quality of meat (and depending on how long the meat was thawed to begin with, food safety since you are effectively thawing the meat twice and exposing it to more time in a warmer environment if you re-freeze it.)

When selecting  fresh fish, they should smell of the ocean. If you stick your nose up to it, it should be fairly odorless. There are other rough indicators too. Their gills, if still intact, should be a bright red and not pale. Their eyes ought to be clear and not cloudy. The latter though is a rule of thumb but not an absolute.


First off, wash the fish. Don’t worry, you’re not removing flavor. I mean, fish live in water anyway. Washing rinses away a lot of surface bacteria and any of their by-products. Dry it off, then wrap it with wax paper or cling wrap to reduce oxygen exposure.

Also, freezing fish actually converts some of the TMA into a less smelly amine, DMA (dimethylamine). So yes, freezing your fish isn’t a bad thing.

When storing in the fridge, I usually rest it on the fish’s belly surrounded by ice. Resting on the fish’s belly is just a little tip I picked up from Thomas Keller. His rationale is to store fish in the same ‘posture’ as they would be swimming. Makes sense to me. In Japan, the side of tuna that is rested on is worth less than the side facing up as the weight of the fish compresses the meat and degrades the flesh. It’s a rather minor detail though but I personally like taking note of minor details when cooking.

Cold salt-water fish tend to go bad faster than warmer salt-water fish, which in turn goes bad sooner than fresh-water fish. I personally don’t store salt-water fish in the fridge for much longer than 2-3 days on a bed of ice because they were probably sitting on the boat/shelves for a couple of days anyway.


Prior to cooking, TMA on the surface of fish can also be rinsed off with tap water, or with the aid of some acidic ingredients such as citrus juice or vinegar. The acid reacts with the TMA to convert it into a less stinky and more palatable chemical.

Do you have any other tips or thoughts on selecting and storing fish?


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