People in the United States are generally led to believe that food pulled straight from the earth is the best quality and most nutritious — and in most cases that’s true. Frozen food doesn’t garner the same gushing approval. A slab of fish crusted over with ice simply isn’t as appealing as a vivid orange salmon recently plucked from its home in the river. This fresh over frozen thinking is often extended to sushi, too. Yet frozen can’t always be equated with low quality at a sushi counter. In fact, in some cases, previously frozen fish is healthier and safer to eat.
Outside of some Michelin-starred sushi restaurants that fly fish in daily from Japan, much, if not all, of the raw fish you eat at sushi restaurants is previously frozen. These techniques are what allow restaurants in landlocked areas serve seafood that’s just as good as restaurants right on the ocean.
“Most consumers misunderstand what fresh versus frozen really means,” David Tam, co-founder of the Manhattan-based sushi restaurant ROLLN tells me.
The first thing you should know is that the Food and Drug Administration requires certain types of fish — most wild-caught salmon (like sockeye and coho) and freshwater fish — always be frozen before serving at a restaurant. In fact, in a 2004 article for The New York Times, then-director of the FDA’s Office of Seafood George Hoskin said, “I would desperately hope that all the sushi we eat is frozen.”
Chef David Chang put it more bluntly on an episode of his podcast The Hottest Take: “Freshness in a sushi restaurant is literally marketing,” he says on the show. “It’s a lie. You don’t want to eat a fresh fish. A lot of the sushi fish that you get — it’s frozen.”
It’s not all for health reasons. In some cases, freezing can enhance flavor, too. Take tuna for example, a prized fish at any sushi restaurant. Most tuna fishing boats are out on the water for days or weeks at a time. Using a system called superfreezing, fishermen immediately freeze their tuna catch at negative 60 degrees Fahrenheit or less. This stops spoilage and keeps the flesh of the fish from acquiring off flavors and losing protein and fat, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Studies cited by the FAO found that fish are 60 to 80 percent water, and quickly freezing creates ice crystals that maintain the flavor and texture of fresh fish.
Tam, of ROLLN, uses tuna as an example to illustrate the difference in the types of freshness.
“If we get frozen piece of tuna this morning from our supplier and we defrost it and serve it that night, that’s fresh,” he says. “That’s going to be way fresher and better tasting than a piece of tuna that’s never been frozen, but has just been sitting there for four days.”
That’s why Tam thinks fresh versus frozen isn’t the best guideline when you’re measuring the quality of fish.
“The best guideline — if you’re buying it yourself, it’s having a good relationship from the people you’re buying the fish from, being able to look at the fish, smell it, see it, touch it, taste it — that’s how you’re going to make sure that you’re getting great quality fish,” explains Tam.
That’s great advice if you’re preparing your own sushi at home, but the average person is going out on the town for their sushi. If you’re concerned about the freshness of your sushi at a restaurant, you’re better off at looking at elements like the color and texture of your dish.
“It should be firm and should have a bouncy kind of texture,” continues Tam. “With most fish, you don’t want soft and mushy. It should be firm and clean and not fishy tasting. There should be a little bit of that sweetness and that freshness from the ocean. When you smell it, it shouldn’t smell fishy at all. If you’re able to press on the meat, it should kind of bounce back. You shouldn’t be able to leave an indent in there.”
If you love sushi but you’re skeptical of frozen food, that’s understandable. But the science (and experts) prove there’s nothing to fear when it comes to frozen.