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Fresh vs. Frozen Seafood

Fish Assortment on Ice

“Is frozen fish as good as fresh? What’s the difference between frozen seafood and fresh?” These are among our most frequently asked questions as seafood experts. The fresh-or-frozen conundrum has challenged seafood shoppers since ancient civilizations buried their catch in snow and ice as a means of preservation. Before modern refrigeration and in lieu of natural ice or snow, seafood was also preserved by smoking, salting, pickling, canning, or drying in order to halt the bacteria growth and oxidation that cause seafood to spoil. Although these preservation methods are still globally used today, the innovations of modern refrigeration, freezing, ice-making, and transportation have dramatically expanded the reach and accessibility of fresh and frozen seafood.

In our over 200-year history, we at Fulton Fish Market have greatly benefited from the evolutions of transportation and cold storage. Originally, our seafood selection was limited to live local catch from the New York area, allowing just hours of peak quality and a reach of only New York shoppers. The advancements of commercial freight in the late 1800s, home freezers in the 1920s, and cryogenic freezers in the 1960s have since allowed us to receive diverse seafood from across the globe and deliver it nationwide without compromising and often improving on quality, whether fresh or frozen.

So Which is Better, Fresh or Frozen Fish?

There is no definitive answer to this age-old question of fresh versus frozen seafood since finding the highest quality should be your top priority. Understanding what makes for great-tasting seafood can help you decide based on your preferences. In this article, we'll explain the factors that influence seafood’s quality in various fresh and frozen formats, so you can determine which is best for you.

What is Frozen Seafood?

Frozen seafood refers to any seafood that has been frozen for preservation after harvest. The most common commercial methods for freezing seafood quickly chill it to subzero temperatures to lock in quality and nutrition for up to 2 years. Frozen seafood offers convenience, allowing seafood to be easily stored for long periods and transported worldwide, providing year-round availability and variety without being limited by natural seasons or geographic origins.

How is Seafood Frozen?

Commercial seafood freezing processes chill seafood well below 0°F. Quick freezing methods like blast freezing and flash freezing are used to maintain the seafood’s overall quality and texture and improve shelf life when compared to slow freezing methods. This is because quick freezing methods preserve the texture and flavor of the seafood, whereas the slower freezing processes form large ice crystals that damage cell walls and negatively impact the texture of the seafood.

At Fulton Fish Market, we select world-class fish and choose seafood that has gone through an optimal freezing process. If you would like to try freezing fresh seafood at home, check out How To Freeze and Thaw Fish Safely. For more information on how seafood is frozen check out the FAQs and Glossary at the bottom of this article.

Is Frozen Fish Good? Should I Buy Frozen Seafood?

Frozen seafood is a great choice, especially if you purchase it from a trusted source. High-quality frozen seafood is a convenient option for shoppers who want out-of-season species or simply don't plan to eat it all right away and want to have delicious seafood on hand.

Many sushi restaurants, from take-out stalls to the Michelin-starred, take advantage of frozen seafood's many benefits. In addition to its convenience and year-round availability, high-quality frozen seafood allows customers to enjoy sushi at its peak flavors and textures while reducing bacteria and parasite risks that come with consuming raw seafood.

In most cases, frozen seafood is even more reliable than fresh seafood. For example, many shrimp species are sold almost exclusively frozen or fresh with additives due to the species' extremely perishable nature when fresh. Since they can spoil very quickly, it is difficult to transport fresh shrimp without them losing their quality. Frozen shrimp, on the other hand, can be transported and stored for long periods of time without losing their freshness. Frozen seafood may also be advantageous versus a local grocery store's fresh selection. Because some stores let their seafood sit out past its peak freshness, the seafood will not taste as good or be as safe to eat as frozen seafood that has been properly handled.

However, not all frozen seafood is created equal. Poor seafood selection, freezing, and handling practices can give all frozen seafood an unfairly bad reputation. When seafood is frozen after its peak freshness, poorly frozen, frozen multiple times or handled improperly, the result is a low-quality product that can cause texture and flavor issues. For this reason, it is important to purchase frozen seafood from a trusted source.

What Are the Signs of High-Quality Frozen Seafood?

High-quality frozen seafood has no signs of freezer burn or ice crystals on the well-sealed, undamaged packaging. The color of the seafood inside appears uniform and natural, rather than spotty. Bad quality frozen seafood may show freezer burn or ice on old packaging and the product inside can look discolored, dried out, or frosty.

Exceptional frozen seafood begins with selecting high-quality seafood and then rapidly freezing the seafood shortly after harvest. Quick freezing prevents large ice crystals from forming and harming the cell structure. Always check that your frozen seafood does not show signs of freezer burn. If it is supposed to be vacuum-sealed, make sure that the seal is intact as well. Lastly, only buy frozen seafood from a reputable supplier to ensure proper freezing and handling processes before it reaches you. Here at Fulton Fish Market, we guarantee that you only receive the highest quality frozen seafood.

Is Frozen Fish Good For You?

When handled properly, frozen fish has terrific health benefits just as fresh seafood does. Processors that freeze seafood at subzero temperatures prevent spoilage without degrading the proteins, healthy fats, vitamins, or minerals inherent in seafood. Both fresh and frozen seafood provide similar health benefits like omega-3s and high-quality protein. The key is ensuring that you are getting the highest quality seafood, regardless of whether the final product is fresh or frozen.

What is Fresh Seafood

Fresh seafood refers to seafood sold in its raw natural state, either chilled or on ice. Truly fresh seafood has never been frozen before reaching the market. At its best, fresh seafood boasts fantastic taste, texture, and versatility for cooking. It does not need to be thawed before cooking. Fresh wild seafood typically reflects seasonal harvests, allowing you to enjoy a species in its peak season, whereas fresh farmed seafood is often harvested and available year-round.

What Makes Fresh Seafood High Quality?

Maintaining quality in fresh seafood starts the moment it is harvested at its source. Immediately chilling the catch at 32-38°F is critical to slowing decomposition, bacteria growth, and enzyme activity that degrades the texture, flavor, and safety of the seafood. Gentle handling also preserves seafood’s freshness, as rough treatment can bruise the delicate flesh. When fresh seafood is chilled promptly and consistently, handled with care, and rapidly makes it to the end consumer the result is mouthwatering flavor, ideal texture, and high nutritional value.

However, your definition of fresh seafood vs. the technical definition of fresh seafood may not align. The fish on display at supermarkets may technically be fresh (never frozen) but it can be up to two weeks old due to processing, distribution and the amount of time on the shelf.

What Are the Signs of High-Quality Fresh Seafood?

High-quality fresh fish smells mildly briny or like an ocean breeze, never “fishy.” Whole fish have clear, rounded eyes and bright red gills. Fillets and portions feel firm and springy when pressed, not mushy. They will not show discoloration or drying around the edges. Bad seafood smells ammonia-like or “fishy” and may be discolored or mushy. Cloudy eyes, brown gills and discolored, bruised flesh are red flags for whole fish. Live shellfish should have tightly closed shells, or shells that immediately close up if you tap on them. Shellfish with cracked shells or shells that don't close are dead and should not be consumed.

We recommend always buying your seafood from a trusted source and inspecting the seafood before consuming it. For more shelf life guidelines, visit our Seafood Storage Instructions and the Storage & Prep sections of our product pages.

Can Seafood Be Too Fresh?

Yes, seafood can be too fresh! All animals undergo a process called rigor mortis after death. For fish, rigor mortis stiffens their muscles due to chemical changes in their bodies. Smaller fish, such as mackerel, typically complete rigor mortis within just a few hours, while larger species like tuna can take 2-3 days to fully set. Consuming fish too early in rigor mortis leads to overly firm, sour, or bitter-tasting meat due to lactic acid buildup in the tissues.

Not only is this “too-fresh” seafood an extreme rarity as a shopper, but it is also only an issue if you intend to consume it immediately. If your seafood is showing signs of rigor mortis like twitching or extreme stiffness, simply let it rest in your refrigerator until those signs disappear.

Some chefs and specialty markets even seek out fish still in rigor mortis to prepare it for dry-aging, a process of storing meat or seafood in a careful temperature- and humidity-controlled environment to extend its shelf life and unlock new flavors. Dry aging releases excess moisture in the fish, which slows spoilage and concentrates the fish’s flavors. The process also slowly breaks a fish’s tougher muscle tissues down into fat, resulting in a uniquely tender and umami-packed bite. Dry aging has been ever-popular for steaks in fancy steakhouses and butcher shops due to the fantastic, often expensive, resulting flavors. Only recently has dry-aging fish become an equally delicious trend, where fish may be dry-aged for 1 to over 60 days, depending on the specific fish and its preparations.

What is Refreshed Seafood?

Refreshed seafood describes seafood that was previously frozen to retain its peak quality, then thawed to sell as if fresh. You may see it labeled as either refreshed or previously frozen wherever you shop. High-quality refreshed seafood comes with the cooking-ready benefits of never-frozen fresh seafood, as well as the year-round and/or global accessibility benefits of frozen seafood.

Since refreshed seafood is handled as both fresh and frozen at points in its travel to your plate, be sure to inspect it closely for signs of proper handling: no discoloration, firm and resilient flesh, a fresh and mildly oceanic or briny aroma, as well as clear eyes and deep red gills for a whole fish.

Should I Buy Refreshed Seafood?

Refreshed seafood is a terrific choice if you are looking to eat a far-traveled species, a wild fish outside of its season, or simply want to enjoy its convenience. We recommend enjoying refreshed seafood promptly as its shelf life is very limited once thawed.

Is Fresh or Frozen Seafood More Sustainable?

Whether seafood is fresh or frozen does not solely determine its sustainability. Sustainable seafood relies on responsible practices including using safe harvesting methods for the species and environment, managing species populations, and reducing bycatch in wild species. You can make sustainable choices by selecting seafood from well-managed fisheries and responsible suppliers.

With that said, frozen seafood has less waste involved than fresh seafood at all segments of the supply chain so it has a slight edge when it comes to sustainability.

We are proud to be a responsible seafood supplier, committed to providing you with seafood exclusively from well-managed wild fisheries and sustainable producers. You can read more about our sustainability practices and sustainability FAQs here.

Is Fresh or Frozen Seafood a More Consistent Choice?

Both fresh and frozen seafood offer excellent options when sourced from reliable suppliers. If you don't plan to consume fresh seafood immediately after purchase, opting for frozen seafood is advisable. Even the highest quality fresh seafood can suffer when frozen at home. In contrast, frozen seafood from trusted sources maintains its integrity through controlled, rapid freezing methods, resulting in a higher quality product with optimal texture and flavor. With its convenience, dependability, and retained nutritional value, frozen seafood emerges as the preferred choice over fresh if not consumed immediately or if the fresh seafood is purchased from a sub-par source.

FAQ & Glossary

How long does frozen fish last?

High-quality frozen seafood that is continuously maintained at 0°F or below can safely last in the freezer for 2 years in commercial freezers before deteriorating. Learn more about our home storage recommendations from our Seafood Storage & Handling Instructions.

Can I refreeze previously frozen seafood?

Freezing any seafood a second time can damage the product’s texture and flavor. To learn more about refreezing seafood, click here

Can I cook fish from frozen?

While it is possible to cook frozen fish directly without thawing, we highly recommend thawing it first. Refer to How to Freeze and Thaw Fish Safely for more information.

Can I eat frozen clams, oysters, or mussels raw?

Previously frozen oysters, clams, and mussels should always be cooked rather than eaten raw. Learn more about this in our article How to Freeze Shellfish.

Frozen Seafood Glossary:

Here are some helpful terms that may help you to better understand the different freezing methods used for seafood:

Once Frozen: Seafood that has been frozen one time. Because freezing seafood a second time can compromise its quality and flavors, we recommend only purchasing once-frozen seafood.

Twice Frozen: Seafood that has been frozen, thawed, and then frozen a second time. Twice-freezing can compromise seafood quality, so we typically recommend against purchasing twice-frozen seafood.

IQF: Individual Quick Freezing, a method of quickly freezing seafood and other food as individual pieces. IQF is often used for freezing single pieces of shellfish or pre-portioned fish. With small products such as shrimp a water glaze is often applied at the end to help protect the product.

Block Frozen: Block-frozen products are frozen together in large blocks instead of having each piece individually frozen. This is often seen in shrimp. It is more cost-effective but harder to portion out the exact amount you need for a dish.

Slow Frozen: the general term for using temperatures typically found in home freezers to freeze seafood (usually 0° up to 10°F). Slow freezing seafood can compromise its quality because the seafood spends a longer period of time as it moves through the 32° to 23°F stage. This is when most ice crystals form, expand and damage cells walls. Due to this we recommend purchasing seafood that has been flash frozen.

Flash Frozen: the general term for using subzero temperatures to quickly freeze food products like seafood. It usually involves blasting cold air to circulate around the seafood and is used by high quality providers such as Fulton Fish Market.

Super-frozen, Blast Frozen: While these are not industry regulated terms, they typically refer to flash freezing at extremely low temperatures up to and beyond -70°F. Super-freezing the seafood at peak freshness is used to lock in the textures, flavors and nutrients. Super-freezing is superior to slow freezing because it moves seafood extremely quickly through the 32° to 23°F stage (when most ice crystals form, expand and damage cells walls). This means only very small ice crystals are formed, which is why it maintains incredible quality and is often found at top sushi restaurants.

Contact Frozen: leveraging freezing plates to create more contact between the freezer and bulk products like whole fish, resulting in a quick, thorough freeze.

FAS: Frozen At Sea, which is seafood frozen immediately after being caught and processed aboard fishing vessels. FAS seafood is flash-frozen whole, rather than in blocks or fillets. Like other commercial freezing processes, FAS works to quickly preserve the seafood’s maximum flavor, texture, and nutrients. Because the freezing process happens on the ship, FAS seafood delivers an exceptionally high-quality final product, as long as it’s properly handled throughout the rest of its journey to your home of course. However, most products that are frozen at sea are thawed for further processing and then refrozen. This is still advantageous when compared to the typical twice-frozen process.

Impact of Rigor Mortis: It is typically best to process and freeze fish after it has gone through rigor mortis. This will help improve the texture, appearance and quality of the fish. There is an exception if seafood is held at super-frozen temperatures (-70°F) however, most consumers do not have access to this so we ensure that we are processing and freezing seafood after it has passed through rigor mortis and selecting only the highest quality seafood.

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