Your grocery store might sell premade sushi, but if you want the adventure of making your own, then you need to find fresh fish. An obvious place is your store’s fish section, but is it safe to use fish from there?
You can make sushi with fish from the grocery store if they sell sushi-grade fish. Sushi-grade fish should be flash-frozen according to FDA recommended guidelines. When buying sushi from a supermarket, make sure they are following best practices to avoid cross-contamination.
Once you understand the FDA guidelines for how fish needs to be prepared, you will understand why you can use grocery store fish to make sushi. If you’re ready to find out the safest fish to buy and the signs of healthy fish, read on.
What Fish Is Safe for Homemade Sushi?
Certain fish are safer for homemade sushi because the risk of them harboring bacteria is lower. Those include many farm-raised fish, shellfish, albacore, bluefin, or yellowfin tuna.
Salmon is not considered safe unless it is farmed. Any farmed fish will be less likely to have bacteria or parasites.
Other fish that should be safe, especially if they are sushi-grade, are those commonly used in sushi restaurants:
- Halibut or flounder (hirame)
- Mackerel (saba or aji)
- Sea Bass and snapper (tai or Suzuki)
Freshwater fish that have not been frozen to FDA standards for sushi-grade should not be used for fresh sushi. Fish, such as trout or largemouth bass, often have tapeworms. Unlike other parasites that typically cause temporary gastric symptoms of food poisoning, tapeworms can take up permanent residence.
Freshwater fish are host to many other parasites and diseases—check out these parasites that raw freshwater fish can have. Unless you are certain that freshwater fish was flash-frozen to meet FDA sushi-fish guidelines, avoid using it.
What Is Sushi-Grade Fish?
The answer to this question depends on who you ask. Sushi or sashimi-grade fish is supposed to mean fish that is considered safe to eat raw. Unfortunately, there are no agreed-upon standards that everyone agrees to. The FDA standards are considered “guidelines” to follow.
Those guidelines focus on time and temperature. Fish can be:
- Frozen and stored at -4 °F (-20 °C) for 7 days
- Frozen at -31 °F (-35 °C). The frozen fish can then be stored at -4 °F (-20 °C) for 24 hours
- Frozen at -31 °F (-35 °C). If kept frozen at that temperature, only 15 hours of storage time are required.
To meet the FDA guidelines, fishermen have eight hours to prepare the fish and flash freeze it.
The FDA guidelines are not always the final word in fish processing. Individual states or even jurisdictions can have their own health regulations for what kind of food can be called sushi-grade. In most cases, those regulations formalize the FDA guidelines.
How to Tell if Fish Is Fresh
Most fish in a grocery store are not genuinely fresh but were caught, flash-frozen, processed, and delivered to the store. What you want to know is if the fish is fresh enough that it can be eaten raw. What are some signs you can look for?
- Eyes: The eyes should be clear and plump. Be cautious if the fish has sunken, cloudy eyes.
- Flesh: When pressed down, the flesh should spring back. If you see the indentation from your finger, it is not fresh.
- Color: The gills should be red, and the flesh is bright red. Do not use fish with gray flesh for sushi.
It’s good to ask questions, but keep in mind that often people who sell fish in stores do not realize that most fish called fresh was flash-frozen when first caught. If the fishmonger can tell you where and when the fish was caught, that’s a plus. You can also ask to see the logs that show when the fish was frozen. If they can’t, then rely on the physical signs of the fish.
Also, make sure your fishmonger is using best practices to avoid cross-contamination. If they chop their sushi-grade fish on the same cutting boards as their other fish or not changing gloves or knives, that is a red flag. If they buy the fish pre-filleted, that means you must rely on the supplier’s handling of the fish as well as theirs.
Freezing Grocery Store Fish
You can freeze fish from a grocery store, but why would you do that when you can buy deep-frozen fish? Deep frozen fish should have met the FDA guidelines for 7 days at -4 °F (-20 °C). It will also make better sushi than fish that was frozen, thawed, and then frozen again.
If you do want to freeze supermarket fish, then it should be flash-frozen with dry ice. Your freezer will not be cold enough, so buy some dry ice. Put a layer on the bottom of the cooler, wrap your fish, and then a layer of dry ice on top. Follow the guidelines your dry ice supplier gives you for proper handling and storage of dry ice.
How to Spot Parasites
Knowing what to look for can help you spot parasites:
- If you bought cod, haddock, hake, or pollock, you should look for cod worms. You will easily spot these white worms that can be up to an inch long (2.5 cm).
- Seal worms, which are typically light brown, can be found in halibut, mackerel, and flounders. These can also be spotted—if you are looking for them.
You can also take advantage of several techniques professional chefs use:
- Candling: Fishmongers put fillets over a candling table. The fluorescent lights under the light reveal the worms. Holding up the fillet in front of a light source that makes it translucent has a similar effect. You could also use a bright flashlight.
- Slice thin: Sushi chefs cut the fish into ¼ to ½ inch (0.64 to 1.27 cm) slices. This is easier to do with the proper knives. If you are interested in buying a knife for your sushi, consider sashimi, a knife made specifically for cutting fish. Try to avoid stainless-steel and make sure the blade has a single beveled edge.
Safety Preparation Tips
In our focus on the fish, we sometimes forget about the other ingredients. Take rice, for example.
Sushi chefs do not add rice wine vinegar just for the flavor. The rice vinegar adds an acidity level that prevents warm rice from becoming infected with Bacillus cereus bacteria, which can lead to diarrhea, abdominal pain, and other symptoms of food poisoning.
The pH level of prepared sushi rice should be lower than 4.6. The levels of rice vinegar in most recipes should be adequate. If you are concerned about your rice or just want to entertain friends, food-grade pH testing strips—like the Bartovation pH 3-6 Short Range Test Strips—can be purchased.
Another best practice for safety is to avoid cross-contamination.
- Store raw fish separate from other uncooked foods that you intend to cook. For example, you should not store sushi-grade fish in containers that hold fish you intend to broil, bake, or fry.
- Have a chopping board dedicated to handling sushi. Restaurants have spaces designated for sushi preparation, but that is not practical in a typical kitchen. If you plan to make sushi regularly, a chopping board specifically for raw fish is a must-have.
- Don’t forget—wash your hands. Any germs on your hands before you start preparing sushi will be in the sushi.
You can certainly make sushi with fish from a grocery store. Ideally, you want sushi-grade fish such as tuna. Look for farmed salmon and avoid all freshwater fish. Know the signs for healthy fish, what to look for when you prepare your sushi, and avoid cross-contamination. Remember that you want to be cautious, but millions of people eat sushi, and only a few ever get sick.
- Food and Wine: How I Conquered My Fear of Eating Raw Fish at Home
- Serious Eats: What Is “Sushi-Grade,” Anyway? A Guide to Eating Raw Fish at Home
- Safebee: 5 Surprising Sushi Do’s and Don’ts
- Science Direct: Bacillus cereus
- FDA: Understanding the Potential Hazards
- Huffpost: There’s A Good Chance Your Sushi Was Made With Previously Frozen Fish
- Outdoor Life: 10 Common Parasites and Diseases Found in Game Fish (and What You Need to Know About Them)