Cooking School Day 7: Seafood

Cooking School Day 7: Seafood

Emma Christensen
Oct 14, 2014
(Image credit: Coco Morante)
(Image credit: The Kitchn)
  • Today's Topic: Seafood
  • The Goal: 20 lessons, 20 days to become a better cook at home
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Even when cooked simply with just a squeeze of lemon and some olive oil, fish is an amazing meal. But seafood can be intimidating, right? What fish do you buy for the recipe? How do you know when it's cooked? What the heck are pin bones? Today, let's tackle these issues and help you get confident in the kitchen with fish and shellfish. (Vegetarian friends, stay with us! We'll be back on veg-friendly turf tomorrow!)

(Image credit: Faith Durand)

Day 7 Lesson: Seafood

The Issue of Sustainable Seafood: The whole topic of sustainable fishing practices and sustainable seafood is huge and gnarly. Unfortunately, there is no clear and simple rule of thumb to follow here — wouldn't that be nice?! In reality, some fish is best when farmed, some is best when wild-caught, some kinds of fish should be avoided because they're overfished, while others need some help from seafood lovers to thin their ranks. It basically boils down to this: make smart choices. Read up on the issues (see the "Study" homework option, below). Always buy seafood from reliable sources where the information on source, fishing method, and other concerns is readily available.

Know Your Seafood! Here's a super quick rundown of the most common kinds of fish and shellfish that you'll find in recipes:

  • White Ocean Fish: Cod, flounder, halibut, and sea bass all fall into the category of white ocean fish. These fish are fairly lean and suitable for quick-cooking.
  • Fatty Ocean Fish: Salmon, tuna, mackerel, and swordfish are some of the more common varieties of fatty ocean fish. They have more fat and tend to be more firm in texture. They can also be quickly cooked, but also do well roasted in the oven or grilled.
  • Freshwater Fish: Trout (rainbow trout and brook trout), freshwater bass, tilapia, and catfish are all kinds of freshwater fish. They can be fatty or lean, so cooking can vary.
  • Shellfish: This category includes mollusks (oysters, mussels, clams, and scallops), crustaceans (shrimp, lobster, and crab), and cephalopods (octopus and squid). How each kind of shellfish is cooked can vary, but most varieties of shellfish are fairly quick-cooking and do well steamed, boiled, or quickly sautéed.

Buying Fish: When buying fish fillets, the flesh should look (and feel) firm and glossy, never dull or shredded. If you're buying whole fish, look for bright eyes (never sunken), shiny reflective skin, red gills, and firm flesh. Both fillets and whole fish should smell fresh and pleasantly briny, like the ocean. Fish is also fine to purchase frozen; thaw overnight in the fridge. Fillets refer to long skinless cuts from the sides of the fish, usually with no bones; steaks are a cross-section of the fish, sometimes with bones and usually with the skin still attached. Fish should be cooked within a day or two of purchase.

Buying Shellfish: Oysters, mussels, clams, lobster, and crab should be alive when you purchase them and cooked within a day or two (except for pre-cooked lobster or crab meat). Shrimp, scallops, octopus and squid should look fresh and smell briny like the ocean; they should also be cooked with in a day or two of purchase. Shrimp can also be purchased frozen; thaw overnight in the fridge or under cool running water.

Pro Tip!

Fish bones and shrimp shells are worth saving to make quick and easy seafood stocks. Just rinse them off and simmer for 15 to 30 minutes with enough water to cover and aromatics. Strain and you're left with a tasty base for soups, stews, and bisques. If you strike up a good relationship with your fishmonger, you might even be able to score some free fish bones!

Preparing Seafood for Cooking: Remove any thin pin bones from fish fillets (see how here) and pat them dry before adding any seasoning. If you're cooking whole fish, make sure no scales remain attached to the skin and all internal organs have been removed (the fishmonger should take care of both of these things, but it never hurts to check!). Mollusks like mussels and clams should be scrubbed clean. Also, live oysters, clams, and mussels should all shut tightly when you tap them on the counter — if any don't shut after a few seconds or have cracked shells, discard them. Shrimp can be left with their shells on or you can remove the shells, as you prefer.

Cooking Fish and Shellfish: Both fish and shellfish cook so quickly that it's best to have all the other ingredients for your dish ready to go before the seafood hits the pan. Seafood is also best eaten immediately, so prepare the rest of your meal first and cook the seafood last. Seafood is usually done when the flesh has turned opaque and no longer translucent. Fish fillets will flake easily with a fork; you can also check that the internal temperature has reached 145°F on an instant-read thermometer.

(Image credit: Henry Chen)

Every lesson has three homework options. Maybe you've already got one down, or you just have time for a quick study session. So pick one, and show us by tagging it with #kitchnschool on Instagram or Twitter.

(Image credit: Henry Chen)

Study: Take a few minutes to dive into the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch. This is one of the most dependable sources available for helping you make good choices when buying seafood. They even have an app you can download to your phone for easy reference when you're out shopping.

(Image credit: Henry Chen)

Practice: Try your hand at cooking fish for dinner following this guide: How To Cook Fish on the Stovetop. This is a method you'll go back to again and again for simple everyday meals.

(Image credit: Henry Chen)

Improve: Let's cook some mussels! Steamed mussels feel like a fancy restaurant meal, but are actually very easy to cook at home. Clean and debeard them before cooking, and if you're feeling adventurous, add one extra spice or seasoning to the pot as the mussels steam: How To Cook Mussels on the Stovetop.

The Kitchn Cookbook & Seafood

The Cooking School was inspired by our new book, The Kitchn Cookbook and there's plenty in the book to help your Cooking School experience.

Today's tip: See page 198 for Faith's all-time favorite way to cook salmon: a foolproof method of baking the salmon in olive oil with herbs.

5 Recipes to Practice Cooking Seafood

  1. Roasted Shrimp Scampi
  2. Broiled Salmon with Spiced Butter
  3. Thai Red Curry Mussels
  4. Creamy-Yet-Light Fish Chowder
  5. Scallops with Lime & Cilantro

The Kitchn's Cooking School

The Kitchn's Cooking School is 20 days, 20 lessons to become a better cook at home. Every day we'll tackle an essential cooking topic and explain what you should know. Each lesson has three different homework options, so you can choose the one that teaches you what you need. Whether you want to refresh your skills or start from scratch, come to school with us!

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