How to Buy the Freshest Meat and Seafood

Master the telltale signs of fresh (and not-so-fresh) meat and seafood so you can shop like a total pro.

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Fresh for the Taking

Dishes made with the freshest food just taste better. If you're lucky enough to have a butcher or fishmonger, you can always ask about what's just arrived. (Checking dates on labels helps, too.) If you're on your own, not to worry. Here's what to look for at the supermarket, farmers market and everywhere else.


Steaks and roasts should be deep red, with bright white fat and bones. As beef gets older and is exposed to the air, it becomes grayish brown and the bones can start to discolor. Ground beef should be red, with uniform flecks of white fat, depending on leanness.


Raw, skinless poultry should be pink and appear wet. Chicken skin can range from white to light yellow. Whatever the color, it should be smooth and free of blemishes. Occasionally, you might find small feathers on your chicken; pluck them off with your fingers or tweezers before cooking. 


Unless you live near the ocean or another large body of water, you are probably buying seafood that has previously been frozen. And that's OK: Most commercial boats flash-freeze their catch on board soon after it's caught, to preserve the fish's texture and flavor. Try to use the fish the day you buy it, or the next day at the latest. Avoid refreezing fish, as it can turn mushy when you defrost it.


For fillets, look for bright, firm flesh without gaping. Fresh fish from the ocean should have a slight salty scent, like a day at the beach. Fish caught in a lake should not have much of a smell at all. Whole fish should have clear and slightly bulging eyes (and hazy, sunken eyes are a sign the fish is not so fresh). The skin should be shiny, with tightly bound scales that cause the flesh to bounce back when poked. Check that the gills are bright red and not brown. 


Shrimp, which are also almost always shipped frozen, should be firm and shiny, with no discoloration or black spots. A lightly salty smell is a good sign; the scent of ammonia or bleach means they're past their prime. Unless you are buying never-frozen or live shrimp, you're better off getting shrimp from the freezer case. (You don't know how long that thawed "fresh" shrimp has been sitting out at the fish counter.) Look for packages marked IQF, which means each shrimp was individually quick-frozen.


Lamb can range in color from pink to dark red; the younger the meat, the lighter the color. Avoid any fat that is beginning to turn yellow. Imported lamb from Australia and New Zealand often has a gamier taste than lamb raised domestically.


Pink, firm flesh with white fat and bones that appear wet but not slimy are signs of freshness. Avoid pork with any brown or greenish discoloration.

Clams, Mussels and Oysters

All three of these shellfish should close tightly when their shells are tapped. Avoid any with chips or cracks. If you're transporting or storing them in a plastic bag, be sure to poke air holes in the bag so that they can breathe. Toss any shellfish that doesn't open after cooking. 

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