Seafood educator and chef Barton Seaver says the least sustainable fish in any kitchen is the fish that gets tossed because it went bad before it was eaten. Buying frozen seafood, then, can help prevent waste, among the ways it is a sound, sustainable choice.

But is it as good as the great fresh seafood we have access to here in Maine? A long-standing myth about frozen seafood purports that it is of poor quality because freezing is the seafood industry’s way to prevent aging fish from going bad.

“But the technology of freezing seafood has evolved to the point where [the quality] of frozen seafood is comparable to, if not better than, fresh fish,” Seaver said, adding that because frozen seafood can be shipped by land or sea instead of air, its environmental costs are even lower. A bonus? Frozen seafood may cost less, as the industry passes on to the consumer cost-savings from cheaper transportation and less food waste. (Full disclosure: I work with Seaver, who lives in South Freeport, to produce print, on-line and multi-media seafood educational materials.)

In Maine, it’s easy to get spoiled by our access to fresh, wild-caught and farmed seafood up and down the coast. If you get to fishmongers regularly – either freestanding stores or counters within grocery stores – and cook the fresh seafood within a day or two of your purchase, you get kudos for your patronage and your planning, and are duly rewarded on your plate.

But for many home cooks, even in Maine, frozen seafood is the more convenient option because they can buy a large amount at once and cook portions as needed without wasting any. Industry efforts are afoot to incorporate greener freezer technologies, making frozen not only convenient but also sustainable.

There are three main reasons to freeze seafood, explains Peter Handy, president and CEO of Bristol Seafood in Portland.

The first is to lock in flavor. The term frozen-at-sea (FAS) means the fish are pulled from the water and frozen right on the fishing vessel. “[Fish] are flash-frozen (at -65 degrees Fahrenheit) at sea literally within hours of being pulled from the water,” Handy said.

The second is to manage the ebb and flow of seasonality. One of Bristol’s flagship products is frozen-at-sea Norwegian haddock. “Haddock caught in winter yield thicker and juicier fillets than the fish caught in summer when they are spawning and using all of their energy stores to produce more haddock,” Handy said. Harvesting and freezing winter haddock lets consumers buy quality haddock at other times of year. (Bristol’s frozen-at-sea haddock is sold regularly in most Hannaford stores.)

The third reason is to decrease the environmental impacts of shipping food from place to place. “You have to admit that some seafood is really tasty, but it comes from far away,” Handy said, citing Pacific Northwest wild salmon and New England sea scallops. Transporting such fresh seafood inland typically requires packing it with heavy, frozen gel packs in an abundance of Styrofoam and putting it on a plane, all of which amounts to a larger carbon footprint for those items. But frozen fish can take the slow boat (or train) in freezer containers to get to its destination, Handy said.

Handy acknowledges that freezing seafood requires energy, most of it derived from burning fossil fuel. But he counters that the frozen seafood industry works to conserve energy. And he points to evolving technology, like that included in Bristol’s new tunnel freezing system, which freezes scallops in just five minutes using what is called transcritical refrigeration. The process uses recycled CO2 instead of more environmentally damaging refrigerants to produce cold air.

I’ve started buying half of my seafood frozen. I opt to buy frozen fish that’s still frozen (as opposed to frozen fish that is thawed at the market and presented in the fresh fish case) because then I can better control when it gets thawed. Just as the quality of fresh fish decreases as it sits, so does the quality of frozen fish once thawed.

For many home cooks, frozen fish is a more convenient option and can be very fresh tasting, particularly if the fish was frozen at sea within hours of being caught. Photo by Christine Burns Rudalevige

To maintain its good quality, all frozen seafood should be held at 0 degrees F at every point in the supply chain. Signs that indicate improper handling include packaging that is torn or crushed on the edges; pieces that are frozen together in a single mass; or signs of ice crystals or frost. Once you get it home, immediately place the frozen seafood in the back of your own freezer.

When you are ready to use it, thaw the frozen seafood in the refrigerator. Take the portions you intend to cook, unwrap them and thaw them on a covered plate for 6-8 hours, depending on thickness. If, like me, you forget to take your seafood out of the freezer to thaw properly, you can speed up the process by removing it from its original packaging, putting it in a zip-top bag, sealing the bag and placing it under cool running water for 15 minutes to an hour, depending on the thickness.

But that seems like a lot of wasted water and an unnecessary use of a plastic bag, especially when you can just cook the fish from frozen. I get good results if I follow a few guidelines: First, I allow about 10 minutes more cooking time than I would if using fresh fish. Next, I add a bit more fat – butter or olive oil – to help keep the outside of the seafood supple during the longer cook time needed to let the center cook through. And I use gentler cooking methods – steaming (see Scallops en Papillote recipe), poaching or slow roasting at around 300 degrees F.

Given my proximity to the shore and my obligation to support local fishermen by buying their fresh catch of the day, I don’t see a total conversion to frozen fish. But I’m happy to have it in the rotation as a sustainable seafood option.

ABOUT THE WRITER

CHRISTINE BURNS RUDALEVIGE is a food writer, recipe developer and tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at [email protected]