Frozen is the new fresh

salmon filet

From Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

When it comes to seafood, sometimes there’s nothing better than frozen.

If this sounds peculiar, think again. Frozen seafood has a lot going for it. Although the term “fresh” has connotations of better quality wild fish is frozen within just hours of leaving the water.

This means that the quality of frozen fish is now extremely high, and operators can offer customers wild seafood year-round at consistent prices. That spells opportunity for restaurants—according to researcher Datassential, consumers overwhelmingly prefer wild-caught seafood over farmed seafood, so offering these types of options year-round can boost seafood sales.

“Frozen seafood carries better prices,” says Barton Seaver, an author, speaker and chef who specializes in sustainability and health issues. “When wild salmon are running in the tens of millions, the market can’t absorb all that fresh fish. Freezing not only guarantees year-round availability, but it also ensures stable pricing for both the fisherman and the food service operator. It makes every fish count.”

Seaver adds that for operators looking to create a uniform menu they can train around, price consistently and always be sure of product availability, frozen seafood is the way to go. “Using frozen takes away a lot of cost—not just in the price of the product itself, but also time and money spent training, sourcing and adapting menus to changing availability.”

Jose Martinez is certainly a believer. The senior executive chef for Residential Cal Dining at the University of California, Berkeley, Martinez supervises four residential dining facilities that collectively serve about 80,000 pounds of fish and shellfish a semester. With at least one different seafood option at lunch and dinner in all four facilities, plus seafood choices for concepts such as the Mongolian Grill and a taco bar, “we go through a lot of seafood,” says Martinez. Frozen seafood is the most convenient, available and affordable option. “And believe me, frozen seafood loses none of the quality and flavor of fresh.”

In fact, at Cal Dining, with its sophisticated, health-conscious customer base, seafood is the second most popular option after chicken, whether it’s in the guise of traditional fish-and-chips or roasted and served with olive tapenade. Popular species in rotation include the favored salmon, as well cod, rockfish, shrimp, scallops, mussels and clams.

For catering and at frequent “sea-to-table” events, when Cal Dining seeks to educate students about seafood sustainability, Martinez and his colleagues will bring in special items such as lobster, black cod and hamachi. But for day-to-day menuing needs, frozen products answer the need. “They have tremendous value and versatility,” he says. “We forecast as much as possible, but frozen allows us to slack, prep and rotate fish with a minimum of waste.”

To accommodate the high volume of seafood usage, Martinez shares several handling techniques. Over a three-day period, fish is defrosted in perforated pans in the walk-in, then dried and prepped. Leaner, white-fleshed fish is treated to a marinade that adds flavor, firms the texture slightly and allows the surface of the fish to caramelize in the heat of a 400-degree oven, just as it would if it were pan-seared—a technique that’s impossible when cooking hundreds of pieces of fish at a time.

By the 2017 academic year, Cal Dining will be serving even more fish, as the Café 3 facility is transitioned a vegetarian/vegan concept where the only animal protein with be on the Carving Station in the form of chicken, lamb, beef and seafood. “We’ll be serving more different kinds of fish, more often,” says Martinez.

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