How to Be a Cook Who Makes Fish Truly Thrilling
Cooking fish and seafood is one of the greatest adventures in the kitchen. Done right, a sweet and flaky fillet of fish is easy and delicious. Scallops are the simplest form of luxury, and shrimp — well, it’s our easy button for a fast and fancy date night. But fish is also a little expensive and can be confusing, right? If you’ve ever hesitated at the fish counter, or read a recipe for fish tacos and wondered how red snapper was different from tilapia, or just simply looked at a dry, unhappy plate of salmon and asked what went wrong, this guide is for you! Here’s what to buy, how to cook it, and more ways to make fish the most confident, thrilling part of your repertoire as a cook.
- Today’s Lesson: Fish and Seafood
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Today we’re going to talk about one of the most delicious and healthiest foods you can eat: fish!
Why fish? Seafood is (along with meat and poultry) one of the Big Three proteins. But it’s also the one most cooks hesitate over. Part of this is the expense (although there are delicious inexpensive options), and part of this is that, because it’s so incredibly lean, it’s also the easiest protein to overcook and/or under-season. And yet, if you’re a busy person looking for delicious and quick last-minute meal options, one of the best things you can do is keep some fillets in your freezer. So let’s learn how to make it!
Start Here: The Basics of Cooking Seafood
Fish is one of the most weeknight-friendly ingredients you can have on hand. It cooks up incredibly quickly on either the stove or in the oven, and depending on how you cook it, doesn’t even need to thaw first!
When to Buy a Whole Fish (Spoiler: Probably Never?)
If you pay attention to culinary school or online tutorials you might think that a standard part of a seafood skill set involves buying whole fish and deboning, skinning, and filleting it. Nope. Don’t do it. It’s not worth the bother. Buying and roasting a whole fish can be fun for a big party, but 98 percent of the time or more, you’re probably going to want to just have the fillets, and any fish counter should be able to do all the work for you. There’s not much you get by doing it yourself other than a headache!
That said, if you do find a pin bone or two the fishmonger missed, don’t fret. Grab a clean pair of tweezers, and simply grab, twist, and pull it out. If there are a lot, get a small bowl of water to drop the bones into — the water will help them come unstuck from the tweezers, and hold them. It’s easier to show than tell, so watch the video, above, for clear instructions.
When to Buy Fresh Fish and When to Buy Frozen
You’ll see fish in two places in the market: in the freezer section, and in a fresh section, often on ice, behind a counter. You might think the unfrozen stuff was fresher, but this isn’t necessarily true. Frozen fish is often flash-frozen on the boat or in the place where it was farmed, at peak freshness. And depending on how close to the water you are, it’s likely that the fish on ice is actually “previously frozen.” Some seafood that is as good (or better) frozen? Shrimp, salmon, tuna, white fish, and scallops.
If you are buying fresh fish, it should look fresh. Fish is legendarily good at telling you when it’s not fresh, so just use your senses: If the flesh is firm and it doesn’t smell bad (it should smell like the fresh ocean!), it’s likely good. But don’t bring it home and leave it in the fridge for a week! Cook it within a day. Hard shellfish like mussels and clams — which are sold still living — are always better fresh. Some seafood that you should only buy fresh? Clams, mussels, oysters, and whole crabs or lobsters.
Cooking Fish in the Oven
One of the easiest and most forgiving methods for cooking fish is by roasting it slowly in the oven. This works especially well with salmon and with thicker white fish like cod, halibut, and striped bass. At low temperatures, like 250°F, a large salmon fillet will take up to half an hour to cook. This longer cooking time gives you plenty of leeway to get it cooked all the way through without overcooking. It also makes it easy to coat the fish in generous amounts of herbs and oil, flavoring the flesh as it cooks — since the oil and herbs are less likely to burn at those temperatures. You can cook salmon at higher temperatures as well, and it will be much faster, but that method requires more precision and attention.
Cooking Fish on the Stove
Stovetop cooking is great for thinner fillets of skin-on white fish. It’s very fast, and results in a crispy-crackly skin that is every bit as tasty as the tender flesh. Because fish cooks so fast, to get the skin crispy, you don’t want to flip it over halfway through cooking — you want to cook it most of the way through (about 2/3 of the total time) skin-side down. Then flip it over and just cook it for the final third skin-side up.
Like we discussed at length in Lesson Two: The most important parts of pan-frying anything are making sure that the pan has gotten properly hot, and making sure the surface of the fish is as dry as possible — even a small amount of water trapped between the fish and pan will steam it instead of searing it, and result in it sticking to the pan. A well-seasoned cast iron pan will also help with this! (We don’t recommend nonstick, as they can’t always be heated high enough, and the nonstick affects how well foods sear.) Here’s a good basic recipe.
One of the easiest and most fun things to make is a big pile of steamed mussels. They’re fast, they’re delicious, they look super fancy (this is perfect date-night food), and if you throw in a little French bread for mopping up the sauce, and some oven-roasted fries, you’ve got an incredibly delicious and simple meal. The rule of thumb with mussels is as follows: Closed when raw, open when cooked. Any mussels that don’t close before they go in the pan, or won’t open after, probably shouldn’t be eaten.
If You Learn Just One Thing Today …
If the thought of overcooking fish has you nervous, it’s understandable: It’s incredibly easy to do. Well-cooked fish should be delicate and flake apart easily, and the flesh should feel firm. The FDA recommends all fish be cooked to 145°F, although many chefs will cook salmon closer to 125°F, which is considered medium. In either instance, it should not be cooked any higher.
So how do you achieve this? By poaching or steaming. (Although slow roasting, as we note above, also works well.) As we talked about on day five, water-cooking methods are much more forgiving. Since the fish isn’t quickly losing moisture the way it is in a higher-heat oven or while pan-frying, you have much more leeway to cook it through while keeping it tender.
To poach, just heat a liquid (wine or tomatoes in their juice, and some water) and other flavoring ingredients. Add the fillet, cover, and let cook. If you want to add a little flavor, you can also sear the fish first, but it’s not necessary. Here’s an easy recipe to get you started.
What You Don’t Need to Learn
We said this above, but it bears repeating: You don’t need to learn how to break down a whole fish. Cutting up and deboning a chicken makes more sense because it not only saves money, but it is also easy to make stock or broth from the leftover parts. Cutting fillets off of a fish, then scaling and deboning them is difficult work, hard to get right, and you save no money buying the whole fish. And while you can, yes, make fish stock, it’s not nearly as versatile in everyday cooking as the poultry and meat varieties.
Level Up! Seafood Pro Tips
Defrosting fish is one of the easiest things you can do. If you are thinking ahead, you simply pull the fillets out of the freezer the night before, and put them in the bottom of the fridge. If you forget to do that, no worries: With as little as 30 minutes to an hour, you can simply put the fish into a clean bowl, put the bowl in the sink, and fill it with cold water. (Either leave the water running slightly, or swap the water every five minutes, to prevent bacteria from growing.)
And if you haven’t planned dinner at all, but you have fillets in the freezer, then you can simply (and quickly!) skip the thawing and cook them straight from the freezer. You’ll need to cook them longer than thawed fish, of course. And the oven is really the best source of heat. But it’s possible to get results that are just as tender and flaky as if it were fully thawed.
Another fantastic way to cook fish, if you have time to plan ahead, is by marinating it. This works particularly well with salmon, and for many of the reasons that poaching is such a success: The marinade adds some moisture and protects the fish to keep it from drying out. But it also lets you dry-cook the fish to get a bit of a crispy exterior. One of the best ways to marinate salmon is with a combination of miso, sugar, oil, and other spices.
Broiling — cooking food under a high heat source in the oven — is a great way to mimic the effects of grilling or open-fire cooking indoors. The food gets very close to a hot source of heat, without a pan or dish in the way. And it’s simple: You turn on the oven’s broiler (on some stoves broiling is done in a separate compartment under the oven), and when it’s hot enough, just slide a tray of fish in, as close to the heat as possible.
One of the best parts of broiling is that it’s very fast. You often cook it in as little as four to six minutes. Combined with a decent marinade, the fillet is less likely to overcook, and the resulting dish can be ethereal. No less a luminary than Jacques Pépin once told us that broiling was “the easiest way to cook” a salmon.
Our Favorite Gear
We have recommendations for basic gear on our equipment checklist, but here are a few more tools that can save time, and frustration.
- A fish spatula is good for more than just fish, but great for getting delicate flesh out of the pan.
- Fish tweezers are bigger and work better if you find yourself pulling lots of pin bones.
- A cast iron pan will sear the fish well on the stovetop, and the seasoning helps prevent the fish from sticking.
5 Essential Seafood Recipes
All of our assignments have three options, depending on how much time you have today. Do what you can; come back for more later!
15-Minute Assignment: Watch & Read
If you haven’t yet, watch the crash course video above. After that, read these basic primers. If you could pick just one thing from all this information, what would you like to try first?
30-Minute Assignment: Practice!
Pan-sear a salmon fillet: Read this and then practice pan-searing a salmon fillet. Start with already-thawed fillets. Watch the video, above, and then search for (and remove, if you find them) any pin bones and/or scales. Make sure the fillets are dry and seasoned, and the pan is hot, and then practice searing (revisit our lesson on heat and oil if you need a refresher). Pay close attention to step eight, and try waiting until the fillet color has lightened the proper amount before flipping, instead of just timing it.
Check your work: If you have a thermometer, check the temperature. How hot is it? Slice into the thickest part: Is the fish cooked all the way through? When searing, did the skin stick to the pan? Was the flesh opaque and flaky when you took it out of the pan? Did you find any bones in the cooked fillet? Taste it: How tender is it?
60-Minute Assignment: Stretch Yourself
Make seafood stew: Read this recipe and try making a poached-seafood stew. Try using tuna or a lean white fish like halibut. Watch the video, above, and then search for (and remove, if you find them) any pin bones, as well as the skin. Much of the flavor from poaching comes from the water, and you’ll notice the water here is very highly spiced.
Alternate: If the above recipe is not to your taste, or you’re unsure about sourcing all the ingredients, read and make this recipe for poached salmon. Any hearty fish should work, as long as it reaches the proper temperature.
Check your work: If you have a thermometer, check the temperature. How hot is it? Slice into the thickest part: Is the fish cooked all the way through? Was the flesh opaque and flaky? Did you find any bones? Taste it: How tender is it?
What It Takes to Be a Seafood Expert
It takes a long time to really master any cooking skill, and with fish, especially, the necessary ingredient is regular practice. Consider making one night a week seafood night, and begin experimenting with seafood recipes. The more you cook, the more you’ll begin to figure out what methods (and flavors) you like best with different kinds of fish.
Meet Your Classmates
You can also join your Kitchn Cooking School cohort in our Kitchn Facebook group, which is devoted to all things Cooking School this month.