Ahi and Tuna Grading for Chefs and Restaurants

Ahi and Tuna Grading for Chefs and Restaurants

Also known as Big Eye Tuna — and erroneously known as “ahi tuna”– Ahi is a sought after source of protein for chefs across the country. When sushi became en vogue, so did tuna, and it’s now permanently embedded onto the collective American palate.

Ahi is the Hawaiian word for “tuna” which refers to both Yellowtail tuna and Big Eye tuna. However, many consumers and foodies know very little about how to correctly buy tuna, resulting in some very unfortunate mishaps in home kitchens. Mostly, they’re just happy to eat it in restaurants like yours, and tend to know where they enjoy it the most.

As chefs, it’s our responsibility to stay educated about food — someone has to do it. As tuna is a premium product, it comes in grades, much like when you’re buying wagyu or other gourmet indulgences. Initial appearances of the fish may help to indicate quality, but it doesn’t dictate the final result.

How is Ahi Tuna Graded?

Every fishmonger has their own grading system. For all-natural ahi, there is more than simply color at play, when deciding if a piece of fish is sushi grade or not.

When fish is brought in from the boat, the heads and tails are removed, and samples are taken for the initial grading. The fishermen pass on their report to the auction, along with the fish, and then samples are taken from the flesh. First they take a sample from the tail, and then a larger piece is taken from underneath the fin, going through the belly.

Color and clarity are the two initial qualities they’re looking for, upon inspection. All ahi has a beautiful variant of red which is an excellent indicator of health, but not all tuna makes the cut based on color, alone.

Inspectors look for excellence in four other factors including water content, fat content, translucency, and pH levels. These factors helps determine what the fish will taste like and how long they will keep fresh.

Fat content helps determine what your flavor experience will be like, as fat gives tuna the buttery sweetness we all desire when it’s ordered. The second indicator of flavor would be pH levels, which dictates flavor balance; too low means minimal flavor, and too high means a more burnt/bitter flavor.

Translucency helps us determine how clean their environment is, while water content shows how hearty the flesh is and can help us determine what the shelf life will be like. With proper water content, you can get 7-10 days out of a fish, if stored properly!

How to Store Ahi

Did you know that Big Eye tuna has a longer shelf life than Yellowtail?

There is a reason tuna, and all fish, is delivered to restaurants on ice. If not, you have the wrong fish monger. John Kaneko of the Hawaii Seafood Council has his own set of recommendations, and suggests that transporting fresh raw ahi in an ice filled cooler is ideal. Once it’s in your kitchen and fabricated, store it tightly in plastic bags (some chefs go as far as wrapping individual strips in plastic wrap) and store it on ice in the walk-in.

Tuna is a very sensitive fish to both temperature and to the oils in your hands. If not handled carefully, the beautiful red color can easily get tainted.

When you’re handling it, ensure you and your cooks do so with gloved hands and a very sharp knife; else you’ll get taco meat. Not that there are no uses for shredded raw ahi in sushi, but that’s not usually what we’re going for on our plates.


Ultimately, if tuna is on your mind and you’re a chef, you’ve come to the right place for quality. As a company, we have spent over 20 years cultivating knowledge and relationships with fish mongers that handle their inspections and shipping to the Jet Fresh standard.

We ship directly from the Hawaiian auction, and ship FREE overnight  to restaurants nationally. Learn more about how to get started, and how to enhance your seafood program the Jet Fresh way.