These simple tips will help you secure the freshest possible cut of meat or piece of fish every time

Gillie Houston
Updated: March 28, 2019

It’s no secret that great ingredients are the key to great meals. A truly fresh, flavorful piece of meat or fish requires very little effort on behalf of the cook to become a standout dish. However, for most casual home cooks, it can be hard to determine which meat and seafood is genuinely fresh, and which has been sitting around for days.

Buying directly from a butcher or fishmonger at the farmers’ market or grocery counter is the surest way to find meat and seafood that has just been butchered, caught, or defrosted after transport. When buying meat and seafood, ask the butcher or fishmonger for the newest arrivals to guarantee you’re getting the freshest possible product. It also helps to stay up-to-date on the kinds of seafood typically being harvested nearby at any point in the year, just as you might research which vegetables and fruits are in season before hitting the farmers’ market. 

In the case that you aren’t buying directly from a fishmonger or butcher—or aren’t sure if their information is totally reliable—these simple tips will help you secure the freshest possible cut of meat or piece of fish every time. 

Meat

When it comes to red meats like beef, lamb, and pork, the rule of thumb is: the redder the meat, the better. This is due to the process that the meat goes through as it's exposed to oxygen. Fresher meat is bright red, while meat that’s been exposed to more air has a brown or grey tone. It’s especially important to avoid pre-ground and packaged meat that has developed this grey-brown hue, as that’s a sign that the meat was ground a significant amount of time before purchase.  

Meat that has been packaged in a vacuum-sealed bag to extend its shelf life will take on a darker, purple-red color due to the lack of oxygen in the package. In these cases, check for air pockets in the packaging, which is a hint that that meat was likely sealed days before. Another indication is price; if a piece of vacuum-sealed meat seems to have a shockingly low price tag, that’s a good indication that it’s at least a few days old and has been marked down. 

All cuts of beef should be a bright, vibrant red with white marbling throughout. Lamb will be similarly bright in color, ranging from a lighter red to a deep maroon depending on the age of the lamb when it was butchered. If either of these meats has begun to go brown, or if the fat has taken on a yellow hue, that’s an indication that the meat isn’t as fresh as possible. Similar rules apply to pork, which will have firm, light pink skin when fresh and will begin to brown and develop yellow fat the longer it’s exposed to air. 

When it comes to poultry, it can be harder to determine freshness based on appearance alone. Although turkey and chicken skin’s color can range from light pink to yellowish, all poultry skin should be shiny, smooth, and free of significant discolorations or blemishes when at peak freshness. 

If you’re uncertain about the appearance of the meat, rely on another sense: smell. When buying meat from a butcher or farmer’s market, ask to smell the meat before purchasing it. While this might feel awkward, scent is one of the quickest ways to determine if meat is fresh. Use your instinct, and if the meat smells unpleasant or spoiled it’s probably past its prime. 

Seafood

Proximity to a large body of water will obviously factor into the level of freshness you'll be able to reasonably expect from your seafood. While people living in coastal areas in close proximity to fishing zones will have more exposure to the freshest seafood possible, that doesn’t mean that landlocked cooks can’t also find fresh and healthy fish and shellfish.

When purchasing any form of fish, you should always keep an eye out for bright red blood lines and shiny, firm flesh. Blood that has begun to brown and skin that looks sunken or dull are both indications that the fish has been exposed to oxygen for a longer period of time. 

If you’re not one of those lucky coastal dwellers, the majority of the seafood you purchase will be flash-frozen in order to maintain its flavor and texture during transport. While this freezing process won’t have a substantial effect on your fish, you will want to purchase it as soon as possible after your fishmonger or grocer thaws the seafood. When purchasing filets, look for firm and brightly colored flesh; any noticeable discoloration or fading likely means its been sitting for a few days. 

Whole fish should have shiny, firm skin and red gills. If the skin no longer feels pliable when poked, or if the fish eyes are sunken in or have a hazy color, then it's best to avoid that fish. Also keep an eye out for skin that appears to be breaking apart, which indicates that the fish that has begun to decompose on a cellular level. Frozen whole fish should also be opaque in color; if the skin appears somewhat translucent, that likely means it was treated with a chemical preservative to keep it looking fresher longer.  

Shrimp should appear firm, vibrant, and shiny; discolored spots will indicate that the shrimp hasn’t been freshly defrosted. The tell-tale sign of freshness for hard-shelled shellfish, like oysters, mussels, and clams is the tightness of the shells. When tapped or rapped on the counter, each of these kinds of shellfish should close up tight. Any mollusk that doesn’t close its shell when tapped is likely dead and should be disposed of, as consuming it could be dangerous to your health. 

If you’re uncertain about the appearance, let your nose do the judging. While fish caught from lakes and streams should have a super fresh, barely noticeable scent, ocean-caught fish should have a light, briny scent. Shellfish, like mussels, clams, shrimp, and crab should also have a fresh, mild scent that hardly smells like anything at all. In general, avoid buying fish and shellfish that have a noticeably pungent fishy scent or an ammonia-like scent, as that’s a sign of age or rot. 

Once you’ve picked out the perfect fresh filet or cut of meat, put it to good use in one of these 23 Must-Try Fish Dinners, a classic Beef Recipe, or a crowd pleasing Grilled Seafood Appetizer