6 Chef-Approved Tips for Cooking the Best Fish Ever

published Jul 6, 2022
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Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn

We are all told we should eat more fish. It’s quick-cooking and delicious. But unless you’ve worked in a seafood restaurant, cooking fish can be daunting. Just one overcooked, stuck-on fillet can discourage any home cook for good. I worked for years as a line cook in the seafood-rich Pacific Northwest — here are the six key things I learned that will turn you into a fish pro like me.  

1. Buy the best, leave the rest.

Fish is delicate, so your best bet is buy it from purveyors that handle it correctly and go through a lot of fish quickly. Look for whole fish that have clear (not cloudy) eyes — clear eyes are a sign of freshness.

When buying fillets, look for firm fillets without gaps in the flesh — gaps are a sign that the fish was manhandled, and it will almost certainly be mushy when cooked. Never buy fish that’s sitting in a tray of its own defrosting liquid — this is a surefire sign it will taste “fishy.” Look for fish stored on (or slightly under) crushed ice instead. Once you get the fish home, use it within a day or two.

2. Leave the skin on.

Skin acts as a natural insulator and helps to keep the fish moist when you’re cooking it. In some cases, like salmon, sea bass, and herring, the crispy cooked fish skin is delicious. To get the crispest skin, pat the fish dry thoroughly and season liberally with salt before cooking. If you’re not into eating the skin, simply slip a spatula between the skin and the fish and discard it before putting the fish on your plate.

3. Prime the pan (or grill).

Fish flesh is delicate and will tear easily, so it’s especially important to preheat the pan or grill before adding the fish.

Put a sauté pan or nonstick pan on the stove over medium-high heat and leave it for a minute or two. Flick some cold water at the pan; if the water beads and dances in the pan, it’s ready. Add a little high smoke-point oil to the pan or brush the oil directly on the fish. For grilling fish, I moisten a rolled-up kitchen towel with neutral flavored oil and rub the grill grates with it before preheating over medium high heat.  

4. Put the fish in the pan and leave it be.

When searing or grilling fish fillets, put the fish flesh-side down on the hot surface and then then don’t touch it for a few minutes. It needs to sear and set the proteins. If you try to move the fish too early, you’ll wind up with nice crust you just formed stuck to the pan.  Resist the urge to flip until the fish releases easily when you gently wedge a thin spatula under the fillets.

5. Don’t overcook it.

There’s a very general rule that you sear or grill fish fillets 10 minutes per inch of thickness, flipping once during this time. For example, if you have a piece of salmon fillet that’s 1/2-inch thick, that’s 2 1/2 minutes per side. That’s general, but it gives you an idea of how fast fish can overcook. But don’t take that as a prescription; you need to test for doneness. Which leads me to my last tip.

6. Feel, don’t flake.

Flaking fish to check for doneness messes up the looks of a nice piece of fish, plus if it’s truly flaky, it’s probably overdone. Instead, insert a thin-bladed steak knife into the thickest part of the fillet and count “1-Mississippi, 2-Mississippi, 3-Mississippi.”

If the knife comes out cold to the touch, the fish is still rare in the center (good for tuna). If the knife is hot, the fish is well-done (think: tilapia and halibut). If the knife is warm-ish, you’ve got medium-rare to medium fish (my preferred temp for wild fish like salmon and steelhead trout). You can also use a thermometer to test fish for doneness.