Once you know what you're doing, fish is one of the most versatile, delicious, and easy proteins to prepare. But when you are first learning how to to cook, tackling fish is a little bit like having sex for the first time: it's exciting, yet daunting, and you're probably going to screw it up.
The first time I broiled a fish, both the black cod and oven caught on fire. I still have scars from the burns suffered from a fish-frying incident. I've gotten bones stuck in my throat, given myself food poisoning, and eaten countless overcooked salmon fillets. Learn from my mistakes, people. This is what to look for when choosing your fish, how to prepare it, and a breakdown of every cooking style you want to know, from deep-frying to roasting 'em whole.
Shop for fresh, sustainable fish
Your dish is only as good as your ingredients. Shop at a reputable fish market (or grocery store with fish mongers if your city lacks a fish market) that has high traffic, so you can be sure the selection is fresh. Try to pick the most sustainable option available, like wild Alaskan salmon, Alaskan cod, North American swordfish, striped bass, Arctic char, rainbow trout, or red snapper. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Buy domestic or buy frozen.
- Fillets should feel firm and slightly resistant to the touch, not mushy.
- When buying frozen fish, make sure the fish is solid with no signs of freezer burn.
- Fresh fish should smell like the sea, never "fishy."
There's no reason to avoid whole fish
- Whole fish should have brilliant, taut skin with scales firmly in place. Eyes should be shiny and clear. Gills should be bright red and moist. The stomach should be firm and intact.
- Ask the fishmonger to “dress” it for you, which means removing the guts, gills, and scales.
Keep the fish cold and pay attention to the fillet's bones & skin
- If you're traveling far from the market to your home, ask for a bag of ice to keep the fish cold.
- Store your fish in a sealed bag, over a bowl of ice, in the coldest corner of your fridge.
- Cook your fish the day you buy it. It starts to break down pretty quickly.
- If it smells "fishy," toss it.
Nearly all fish are sold already filleted and deboned, but it never hurts to check for pin bones (those small white bones that run through the sides of fish). Run your fingers gently over the surface of the fillet to locate any bones (they will feel like tiny bumps) then pluck them out with tweezers or needle-nose pliers.
Fish may be skinned before cooking, but, if you're working with delicate fillets like flounder or sole, it is useful to leave the skin on because it helps hold the fish together. To prevent curling while cooking, score the skin into hashmarks with a knife. Pat fish dry with paper towels before cooking so it gets nice and crispy.
Consider the type of fish when choosing your cooking method
The cooking method you use is, of course, up to personal preference, but it's also important to consider how the natural flavor, thickness, and fat-level of your fish will work with the preparation. For example, sole is lean and firm, with a flavorful skin, which lends it to pan-frying, while tuna won't cook well this way because it is thick and meaty.
Below, you'll find a guide to each cooking method, plus recommended fish.
Pan-frying (or sautéing)
Try it with: Sole, flounder, salmon, or halibut. These species have thin, flavorful skin. Avoid tuna and swordfish.
Sautéing is probably the easiest way to prepare fish. Whether you coat your fish in a little flour or leave it naked, you want to preheat the skillet (I recommend using cast-iron, stainless-steel, or a heavy nonstick.). Leave the pan on high heat for at least 3 minutes to ensure it gets hot enough. Then, add a thin slick of oil.
When the oil starts smoking, salt the fish fillets and gently place them into the pan, skin side down. If they are thin, you can keep the heat high. If they are thick, turn it down to medium. Then leave it alone! Constant flipping is death to a good crust and will make the fish stick to the pan.
Let the fish cook for about 3 minutes. A crust will form and the fillet will release easily when you do flip it -- just once -- to finish the other side, about 1 minute.
Try it with: Lean fish like tilapia, cod, sole, haddock, snapper, or halibut, as well as fatty fish, like salmon or trout.
Poaching preserves the fish's moisture, while adding flavor by cooking it in a seasoned liquid. To create the poaching liquid, start with white wine or chicken stock and a little water in a pot. Then add herbs (dill, tarragon, parsley), vegetables (carrots, leeks, lemons), or seasonings (garlic cloves, whole peppercorns, saffron). You will want enough liquid to cover your fish.
Bring the liquid to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes to let it reduce a bit and develop the flavors. Then, place the fish gently in the liquid and cook until the fish flakes apart when prodded with a fork, about 6 to 10 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove the fish.
Try it with: Delicate white fish, like pollack.
Another method of poaching fish, albeit with much less liquid, is en papillote: wrapped up in individual little packets. On a large piece of parchment paper or aluminum foil, place some chopped vegetables -- about ½ to ¾ cup per packet. Lay the fish on top of the vegetables, then top with 2 tablespoons of stock, wine, or a marinade. Fold the paper or foil down over the fish and crimp it closed. Put the packets on a baking sheet and bake at 400℉ for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the thickest part measures 140℉ on an instant-read thermometer.
Try it with: Fish that have a heartier texture, like swordfish, salmon, and tuna. Look for steak cuts, which are thick and perfect for the grill.
Start with a medium-high fire and greased grill rack. Brush the fish with oil and season with salt and pepper. If the fillet has skin on, place it on the grill skin side down. The general rule of thumb is to grill the fish about 8-10 minutes total, per inch thickness. In other words, if your salmon fillet is an inch thick, grill it for about 4-5 minutes skin-side down, then flip it to finish. However, if it is not a very thick fillet, you can cover the grill and never lip it at all.
Grilling whole fish
Try it with: Opt for sea bass, red snapper, or trout.
Season the fish's cavity with salt, pepper, lemons, and herbs. Coat the outside of the fish in oil or butter and grill, flipping once, until slightly charred and cooked through, 12 to 15 minutes.
Try it with: Denser cuts of fish, such as Arctic char, sablefish, and halibut.
Brush fillets in a tablespoon of melted butter and sprinkle with herbs of your choice, then cook for 40 to 50 minutes at 250℉. This low-and-slow method will give you tender, moist fillets.
Try it with: Wild black cod or salmon are great for broiling, but pretty much any fish -- excepting very large whole fish (more than 3 pounds, which would be better done roasted) -- will work well.
Preheat the broiler for 10 minutes and position the rack about 3-inches away. Put the fish in a baking sheet or glass dish and broil until browned, about 5 minutes. The method is especially good with glazes, as the high heat will caramelize the fish.
Try it with: Sea bass, trout, or red snapper. This is the best method for whole fish or very large fillets or steaks.
Place fish on a baking sheet or in a roasting pan that has been coated with non-stick spray, and season with salt and pepper. If you're working with a whole fish, stuff the cavity with herbs, tomatoes, or lemons, and tie it closed with kitchen twine. Drizzle olive oil on top and add a little bit of white wine or chicken stock in the pan (just to barely cover the bottom) to add flavor and ensure moistness. Roast at 400℉; depending on the size of the fish, it should take about 20 - 30 minutes. Check it with an instant-read thermometer (140℉).
Try it with: Tilapia, Alaska cod, halibut, Louisiana catfish, or Alaska pollock.
Coat skinless fillets in flour, dredge in whisked eggs, and then dredge in cornmeal or breadcrumbs. Fry in oil heated to 375℉ until brown, about 4 minutes.
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