Tips On Buying And Handling Raw Seafood

I've heard fear expressed from even the most devout of seafood lovers on the subject of preparing raw fish, and I'm surprised. It's way harder to cook fish properly than to serve it raw properly. Key word: properly. When serving fish raw, the best advice I can give is to find the freshest, highest-grade product possible, then practice a million times or until your checking account runs dry.

You've seen the precision swipes of sushi chefs' knives, slicing perfect little translucent rectangles for sashimi or nigiri. These guys are beyond pros, so, quite frankly, fake it til you make it. You'll definitely mangle some expensive fish, but once you get the hang of it, sushi, sashimi, tartare and crudo (Italy's sashimi) are literally at your fingertips. Here are some easy tips for purchasing and not-mangling.

Choose your beast wisely

Never made a raw fish dish before? Stick to sturdy user-friendly fish like salmon and tuna you can easily dice for ceviche or tartare, rather than starting with delicate fluke or scallops.

Keep your cool

Any fish warmer than "chilled" will be near-impossible to slice thinly — just think of the sushi bar, where the chefs keep the slabs of fish in those little refrigerated cases to ensure a thin and even slice. Keep yours in the fridge until the second you're ready to slice or you'll be stuck with mushy, misshapen slices nobody will want to eat.

Use a very, very, VERY sharp knife

Find the sharpest knife in your kitchen. Sharper. Sharper than that. Okay, now throw it away. Fine, don't throw it away unless it's that IKEA serrated-edged plastic-handled nonsense. But if you've always had that fantasy in the back of your head about sharpening your samurai sword, invest in a Japanese-style whetstone and indulge. Stroke your beard thoughtfully if you like. You cannot hope to cut sashimi, crudo or gravlax-like slices with anything other than a razor-sharp blade (and knowing how to hold a knife).

Don't buy it pre-sliced

Most Asian markets sell pre-sliced sashimi for those of you who can't adhere to the previous tip. Don't buy it; the more surface area that's exposed for longer, the less fresh your fish will taste. First master the art of the pre-trimmed slab of tuna or salmon, save a few bucks and reap the benefits.

Sniff for the ocean, not for the fish smell

Most saltwater fish should only smell like the ocean. Even mackerel, king of the fishy fish, should only smell slightly fishy. Anything more than that, and skip it for raw applications.

A few extra tips:

  • Scallops should be dry and labeled as such, meaning no water has been added during the shipping process to extend their lives. They'll be literally dry and slightly sticky to the touch, not slimy at all.
  • If you're serving any fish or shellfish raw, the supermarket is not the place to pick it up. My brother once called me from the bathroom an hour after eating supermarket tilapia and shrimp ceviche demanding to know what he'd done wrong. I just sat there silently on the phone — long, dramatic pause-style.
  • To ensure you're getting sashimi-grade fish, hit up an Asian market or support your local fishmonger — I guarantee he's a good dude. Strike up a conversation and he might even save you some fish collar or salmon skin.
  • Don't get fancy trying to make little salmon roses — the respectable folks who can do that have been at it for years and that's why theirs don't look like freakish knots of perfectly innocent raw fish.

Use these tips with Food Republic recipes:

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