The one question to ask when buying seafood, according to the founder of Red’s Best

Jared Auerbach also told us why you don't have to follow your fish recipes to a letter.

Red's Best at the Boston Public Market
Red's Best at the Boston Public Market. –Melissa DiPalma

Jared Auerbach is obsessed with fishing.

The Newton native grew up near a lake but had limited experience with the ocean, only going out on a charter boat a handful of times during his childhood. Still, he said, for as long as he can remember he dreamed about catching fish, eating them, and feeding his family. After graduating from college in Colorado, Auerbach found his way onto a commercial fishing boat in Alaska, determined to learn everything he could about the industry — and he’s never turned back.

In 2008, Auerbach founded Red’s Best, which sells daily catches and pays the fishermen a price per pound based on the market. The success of Red’s, which is headquartered on Boston’s Fish Pier and has a retail store at the Boston Public Market, has, in part, been attributed to the company’s traceability technology — web-based software that tracks each catch and offers customers data on the daily haul, from where the fish were caught and who they were caught by to information about each species. The technology is also available to fisherman, and helps them keep track of their fishing quota mandated by the Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, whose tenets also include protecting fish habitats, conserving fishery resources, and promoting fishing alongside conservation principles.

Advertisement

For the average consumer buying fish for the week, it can be hard to know whether you’re making sustainable seafood choices. In between waxing poetic about the fishing industry and his love of the Boston Harbor, Auerbach shared some of his tips on buying the best possible piece of fish at your local market.

1. Ask “What should I eat?”

For Auerbach, the first — and arguably only — question you need to ask when shopping for local seafood is: “What should I eat?”

Allowing the fishmonger, who knows exactly what has come in that day and from whom, to guide your purchase will result in consumers paying a better price for a quality product, said Auerbach.

“If you go to our shop, our hope is that you decide what your fish is going to be when you get there, not before you get there,” he said. “You rely on mother nature to guide that. The best fishermen in the world don’t know what they’re going to catch when they go out to catch it. That’s the romance. That’s the draw.”

2. Don’t let price define your purchase.

Red's Best
A produce display at Red’s Best at the Boston Public Market. —Craig F. Walker / Globe Staff

Auerbach talks a lot about supply and demand, the day-to-day puzzle that he and his team are constantly trying to solve by matching their fishermen’s supply with demands from across the country. It’s also, he said, what defines how much fish costs — and you shouldn’t pay much attention to it.

Advertisement

“Often the demand is skewed,” he said. “There’s demand for things that people think they want, things like halibut or Chilean sea bass.”

For a long time, Auerbach said he tried to figure out why underutilized fish — species like skate, redfish, and mackerel, often dubbed “trash fish” — were priced so much lower than high-demand fish like salmon, cod, swordfish, and tuna.

“What I realized is that the biological shelf life is the common denominator,” he explained. “If you and I go fishing on Boston Harbor and we catch a striped bass and a mackerel at the same time, that mackerel is going to deteriorate a lot quicker than the striped bass, especially if you mishandle it.”

Technology has extended that mackerel’s shelf life, but 50 years ago that wasn’t the case, Auerbach said. It created a consumer bias toward fish with a longer natural shelf life, leading many consumers, he believed, to see some fish as more valuable than others. Now, he encourages shoppers to stop equating a higher price point with better quality fish.

“Just buy what’s abundant and local and inexpensive, and the world will be great,” Auerbach said.

3. Be flexible with your dinner plans

Is the fish you had in mind not available when you get to the market? Don’t completely scrap your dinner plans.

Auerbach is on a mission to convince buyers that their go-to seafood recipes can be flexible, and he pointed to the relationship between Harvard University Dining Services and Red’s Best as proof.

“For years we were working with Harvard on tweaking the food system so that Harvard could sell local fish,” he said, explaining how, when overfishing was a more prevalent issue, larger institutions like Harvard used to request mass quantities of a particular fish months in advance. “When we stopped overfishing, we lost the ability to [fulfill those requests] with local fish. So that supply chain got replaced by easy substitutes from abroad like Alaskan cod, farmed salmon, shrimp, tilapia.”

Advertisement

But Harvard didn’t want to use tilapia or farmed fish. They also needed fixed prices and the ability to print menus ahead of time. So in 2015, the two worked together to create a “Catch of the Week” program, in which Harvard buys a set amount of fish but Red’s Best is able to choose exactly what they get.

“Their mind has been opened,” Auerbach said. “Four years later, they’re selling dogfish, skate, redfish, scruff, all these items you’d never think a university would be able to handle. The chefs love it.”

And, he said, consumers can learn to love it to.

“Haddock or hake? C’mon, same recipe,” he said.