Comparing Frozen Fish to Fresh

My mother is addicted to the supermarket Trader Joe's. For those unfamiliar with Trader Joe's, all you need to know for the purpose of this article is that, in addition to a variety of vegetables, cheese, and other groceries, they sell frozen foods. It was through Trader Joe's that my mother, and by extension, I, was introduced to flash frozen fish.

"Flash frozen" refers to foods that have been frozen very quickly, in a matter of seconds, and is often performed on the fishing boat. This (supposedly) allows all of the freshness to be maintained, sealed in ice until the consumer defrosts the item for use in his/her kitchen. Since fish often sits on ice in the hold of a fishing boat for hours, if not days, before arriving at port, buying flash frozen fish is often touted as a means to get "fresher" fish.

My mother is a regular purchaser of flash frozen fish at Trader Joe's, and she swears it's as good as fresh. I was unconvinced, and decided to put her statements to the test: could flash frozen fish taste as good as fresh local fish from the Greenmarket (the New York City equivalent of a farmer’s market) or even fresh fish from a local supermarket?

I began this experiment by scoping out the frozen fish selection at both Trader Joe's and Whole Foods (who also sell flash frozen fish) to ascertain what varieties were available. My plan was to compare a local fish (Atlantic cold water New York region fish) to something frozen. Both Trader Joe's and Whole Foods seemed to offer mostly Pacific fish (Alaskan salmon, halibut) or warm-water fish (Red Snapper), which put an immediate crimp on my plan. But then I spotted Whole Foods frozen (albeit Alaskan) cod in the case. On a reconnaissance trip to the Greenmarket I'd spotted cod, so when I saw frozen cod, and fresh cod behind the Whole Foods fish counter, it was clear what we’d be eating. Cod!

My husband and I invited two friends to join us for our dinner experiment to compare fish. They didn't know what kind of fish they'd be getting, but they knew one would be some would be fresh and some would be frozen.

The morning of the experiment I hustled over to the Greenmarket, eagerly anticipating the evening's culinary comparison. I walked over to the stand for Blue Moon Fresh Fish out of Mattituck, NY and looked up on the white board. Listed in black was "cod", but it was crossed out! When the woman approached to take my order, I asked about the cod. But it was sold out. Turns out, it was the last day of the cod season and they only had one small fish that had just been sold. Cod wouldn't be back until the fall.

My mind reeled, my plan, destroyed. Panicked, I couldn't leave empty-handed. I needed to have fish to feed four for dinner that evening. So I bought a pound of sea trout – something I'd never tried before but was told it was oily like bluefish – and headed despondently to another vendor for the remainder of the meal. Fresh New Jersey asparagus lifted my spirits slightly, and I purchased a large bunch. Then I spied a mound of ramps and tiny new potatoes as small as my thumbnail and imagined the yummy roasted combo that could accompany my fish. Accompaniments in hand, my spirit restored, I concocted a new plan. Perhaps my guests wouldn't notice that one of the fish was a totally different kind of fish?

At Whole Foods, I bough a package of frozen Alaskan cod and a piece of fresh cod. The guy behind the fish counter told me the cod was fresh that morning, just arrived. From where? I asked, but he did not know. At home I set the Whole Foods fish to thawing, according to the directions on the package. When it was time to prepare the meal, I made a lemon beurre blanc, tossed the potatoes and ramps in the oven, and steamed the asparagus. For the fish, I cooked all three filets at the same time on my cast iron griddle in a little butter. I wanted minimal preparation so as not to over-shadow the flavor of the fish. And I wanted them all cooked at the same time for the same amount of time (as close as I could get to any sort of 'control' for this experiment).

Plated and on the table, everyone began with examination, and the first comment: one fish sure looks different from the other two! The sea trout was suspect! But I didn't share my secret immediately. Everyone tasted each fish and then we discussed the results: 3 out of 4 preferred the fresh sea trout. Only my husband liked the frozen cod more than the fresh sea trout. But that's because he doesn’t like fish that much, so he preferred the mild flavor of the cod to the fishier flavor of the sea trout. Conclusion? Hard to report: I found both pieces of cod rather tasteless, mushy, and too water-logged to consider eating ever again. But whether that's an issue of fresh vs. frozen or simply the cod, this experiment cannot say.

The more important lesson learned through this experiment is what food distributor Horizon Food claims in their FAQ:

And, thanks to flash freezing, the availability of fish and seafood is never a problem.

When we make a decision to eat seasonal, local food, we give up our ability to control what that food is, to a certain extent. The unrealized, perhaps almost forgotten, miracle of our modern food production system is our ability to get nearly anything we want whenever we want it (even if strawberries in January are a bad idea). Flash frozen fish allows you to eat "fresh" red snapper in New England, or Pacific salmon in Arizona. And for many that can be a great thing. Moving to a local seasonal model leaves you at the mercy of not only the seasons but of the fisherman’s luck that morning out on the waters.

Ultimately this experiment failed to determine if flash frozen fish is a good as fresh but it reminded me of the unanticipated pleasures that result from relinquishing total control over my food. The joy of trying a new fish, like sea trout; of savoring something fleeting, like ramps and tiny baby potatoes and just dug asparagus. We ate a nearly seasonal, nearly local dinner, and it tasted mighty good – even though we could have gotten asparagus from Peru and the fish from the Pacific and planned the whole menu a month in advance.