6 Questions You Should Be Asking Your Fishmonger

January 29, 2016

If you have felt apprehensive upon approaching the fish counter—whether you don't have much experience cooking fish or you just made eye contact with a finned fellow lying there on the ice—you're not alone.

"I would say [people feel] terrified," Mark Usewicz, one of the founders of the Brooklyn seafood shop Mermaid's Garden, told me, for a few reasons: They're worried about their house smelling fishy, or they don't know what to expect from a certain fish. Or they just feel uninformed about what cooking seafood entails beyond the occasional filet of salmon or halibut.

The first steps to bolstering your fish-counter courage? Find a fishmonger you trust and "Ask your fishmonger questions," Mark said. And these are the ones you should start with:

Photo by James Ransom

1. What's in season?

"A lot of people don't realize that most fish have seasons," Mark said. Right now, for example, if you live in the Northeast, you should look into monkfish and skate, which aren't as good once the water warms up.

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This might mean that you have to adapt a recipe—but luckily, most recipes adapt easily to other varieties of fish. This comes with the added benefit of having an opportunity to try a lot of different kinds of fish. "We don't sell farmed salmon, so we only have salmon from late spring to early fall," Mark said. But there are lots of seasonal, responsibly farmed fish that make great stand-ins for salmon, like red rainbow trout and arctic char. "They're both in the salmon family, and they'll cook the same way," said Mark.

Photo by James Ransom

2. When was this caught? By whom?

These questions are a good way to gauge both how fresh the fish is and how knowledgable your fishmonger is. Don't be afraid to ask where the fish came from and how it was caught (by spear? by net? by trawl?). Ask if it came in from a big industrial fishing fleet, or a fisherman-owned boat. "A lot of big boats go out for weeks at a time, while the little guys go out overnight," Mark added—so that will affect how long it's been since your fish was pulled out of the water.

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“It will show you who caught the fish, what type of fish, where it was caught, what vessel it was caught on, if the earstone was removed for science (age of the fish). There is so much information available on the site. ”
— Vicky

While you're thinking about freshness, check out the fish case: Is there a fishy smell in the air? (If so, bad news.) The fish filets should look firm. The whole fish should look shiny, with clear, bright eyes; the gills should be reddish. Mark advised that you should "be suspect if the gills are pulled out of whole fish"—it's a sign the seller is trying to hide how fresh the fish is.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

3. What would you recommend?

If you don't know where to start (or just want to try something new), your fishmonger likely has a recommendation for you—or can tell you about something that they believe isn't getting the love it deserves. For Mark, that's albacore tuna, which is plentiful in the fall. Albacore isn't as commercially desirable as yellowfin tuna is, but, said Mark, it's delicious, and has a lighter, more delicate flavor.

A good fishmonger should also be able to to clue you in to varieties of local fish that are abundant, cheap, and delicious. "Like porgy," Mark told me. "They're great fish. If we called it sea bream—it is a kind of sea bream—we'd probably sell a lot more of it.

Finally, they should be able to give you a recommendation for fish that are more sustainable and/or less overfished than their better-known counterparts. Shellfish, for example, have a very low environmental impact. And you can substitute overfished cod for haddock, hake, or pollock.

4. What do I do with this?

Many fishmongers can offer suggestions on how to cook a fish—or how to substitute one fish for another. "We ask if they [the customer] want something firm and meaty or light and flakey. And then we suggest something seasonal based on that," Mark said. But the simplest thing you can do, which is what Mark recommends if you're not so familiar cooking fish, is rub a bit of oil on both sides of the fish, sprinkle on salt and pepper, bake or broil the fish, and serve with lemon. Pan-frying is another excellent, simple option.

Photo by James Ransom

5. Can you help me do X?

Ask for advice! Whether you just need them to scale, gut, and filet a whole fish or are looking for a fish that won't make your house smell, they should be able to help.

6. How should I store it until I cook it?

Plan to cook the fish a day or two after you buy it—and just leave it in the packaging your monger wraps it in.

If you need to take it out of the packaging, place it in a zip-top plastic bag, squeezing the air out and sealing the bag. Place the bag between two layers of ice in a colander set over a bowl, and put the whole thing in the refrigerator.

What are the questions you ask at the fish counter? What's proved helpful? Tell us in the comments.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Wilhelmina Sims
    Wilhelmina Sims
  • Vicky
  • S.v. Halona
    S.v. Halona
  • Justyna
  • ChefJune
Writing and cooking in Brooklyn.


Wilhelmina S. October 15, 2019
My fishmonger! MASTIC FISH MARKET!1s0x89e85a67e8d83209%3A0x484e22fa5e45592!3m1!7e115!!5smastic%20fish%20market%20-%20Google%20Search!15sCAQ&imagekey=!1e10!2sAF1QipPPxbGipdc6eBGB7DMCCjRYTE0NAtMa1iKS3G8r&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjXzq3ruJ_lAhXxxoUKHUAbAmoQoiowCnoECA8QBg
Vicky February 5, 2016
My husband is a fishmonger and fisherman. He fishes under the brand of Gulf Wild. In order to fish for the brand he is required to fish sustainably and sign conservation covenants. Each fish has a tag with a social security number that can be looked up on Gulf Wilds Web site. It will show you who caught the fish, what type of fish, where it was caught, what vessel it was caught on, if the earstone was removed for science (age of the fish). There is so much information available on the site.
S.v. H. January 31, 2016
We had two fishmarkets in our town for a while - one for real and the other part of a chain. The chain was selling "Fresh Wild Farm Salmon" .. Huh? One, it was frozen, two you can't be wild and come from a farm. Asked the other fishmarket about the tag line and was told, they get to say that if (!!!) they release the adult salmon out of the farm, just long enough to be in free water before being netted and caught "In the wild". Caveat Emptor.
Justyna January 30, 2016
Re: storing seafood before cooking - I was told not to keep any mussels/clams in plastic bags (or else they won't be able to breathe and will die). Just put them in a bowl and place on the lowest shelf of your fridge =))
ChefJune January 30, 2016
Great article. The local scallops are also in season in the Northeast - through February. And if you like scallops, these are the ne plus ultra of scallops. Almost unbearably sweet, and really delicious raw.
Yes many folks are afraid of fish. that it won't be fresh; that they won't store it right; untold numbers of questions. That's a big reason why I've always focused on fish in my teaching.
Monkeywoman January 29, 2016
Ha ha...i can just imagine asking who caught the fish:-). Reminds of the Portlandia episode when the couple asks for the "papers" for the chicken they're ordering. Great suggestions!
lilroseglow January 29, 2016
I loved that episode. Too funny.
Sam1148 January 30, 2016
I'm pretty sure the answer to the 'who caught the fish' is exactly what you want to hear.