I’m Afraid to Cook Fish. Here’s What I’m Doing About It.

published Mar 2, 2018
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(Image credit: Ayumi Takahashi)

I have a go-to recipe I affectionately call “third date scallops.” It’s a spin on my friend Neil’s well-heralded recipe for “third date shrimp.” The premise behind the recipe is this: Once you get to the third date with a new potential mate, one of you might offer to cook dinner. You don’t want a meal that’s too heavy or too involved, but you still need to impress. Seafood is good for this. A 90-second sear in a sizzling cast iron pan is all it takes to get perfect scallops, which you can plate with a bit of risotto and frilly greens.

I’ve never had much problem cooking shellfish, probably because it doesn’t require much cooking. With time in the refrigerator and a good dosage of citrus juice, it can become bright and acidic ceviche. Shrimp can be skewered and grilled just until vibrantly pink then slathered with a contrasting shade of chimichurri green. Mussels can be nestled into brothy rice in a skillet and allowed to steam until they open their clenched shell and reveal their tender flesh for our enjoyment. Once a mastery of shucking is achieved, raw oysters need nothing more than a squirt of fresh lemon and a hit of hot sauce before being slurped and swallowed in one effortless movement.

But fish with its fins and visible eyeballs? Oh boy, that makes me nervous.

I love to fish — fly fishing is my ultimate zen move — but everything for me is catch-and-release. The act of cooking fish instills this anxiety-producing pain deep in my chest that feels as though someone is squeezing my lungs together. Fish is expensive and delicate, and if you aren’t confident in cooking it, you (like me) will surely cook it improperly. It can’t be thrown back on the heat (like chicken or pork) and it is rarely passed off as desirable when undercooked (like rare beef).

One variety in particular has always tripped me up: salmon. I’m sure there’s some trick to tackling salmon with ease that I haven’t fully grasped yet. That horrendously chalky texture that salmon develops when it’s not cooked well is hard to erase from prandial memory. I have not given up hope that I can still conquer this kitchen quandary and perfect my salmon technique.

My local fishmonger has been helpful, and brutally honest, in telling me I need to consider this venture as a fishy practicum on my way to a full dissertation. I need to think of this as practice rounds, just as I would in developing other recipes and learning from mistakes. The biggest issue was the psychological barrier in all of this. Tossing a batch of burnt cookies doesn’t irk me nearly as much as destroying a perfectly good piece of meat or fish — that thing was alive once.

The fishmonger told me to rest of my laurels a bit and opt for something of a certain quality while I learned, for a few reasons. First, fish is expensive and it doesn’t feed my family the same way a whole chicken would. That needs to be taken into account. Second, it will encourage me to try new methods while I embark on the upstream salmon journey. That doesn’t mean buying low-quality salmon, though — it just means opting for frozen pre-portioned salmon that I defrost in the fridge instead of getting the fresh wild-caught salmon that tends to be more expensive.

My fish-cooking experience has two settings: raw or high heat. Salmon falls somewhere in the middle. My fishmonger friend says sear it and then let it cook for a few minutes in a moderate heat oven, or try poaching or basting it in flavorful liquids or fat since herbs and butter bring out the nuance of salmon’s fatty flesh.

Cooking it too high (and subsequently overcooking it) was my problem. I was too nervous to undercook it. (Will I get sick? Will I get some sort of parasite and die and be remembered only as a terribly afraid cook who couldn’t even deal with salmon? That’s how my fish-related brain worked.) Fishmongers say salmon is all about the flake. It’s done when you push on the middle with gentle pressure and instead of indenting in like a jumped-on trampoline, it should slightly fall away from your finger in flaky sheets. Go based on this, and not on the opaque appearance of the interior flesh or the amount of caramelized crust on the outside.

For as delicate as those flakes might seem, salmon is a hardy, cold-water fish, and all the heart-healthy Omega-3 that it contains means it can stand up to bold flavors. It is critical to cook it judiciously but flavor it thoroughly. That salmon isn’t the boss of me — I’m the boss of that salmon! And now, thanks to my secret ingredient (a good and honest fishmonger with words of wisdom to share), buying that gorgeous slab of Coho salmon from the fresh fish case will ignite a cooking passion, not extinguish my hopes for a delicious fish dinner. Guess the trick was to just talk about what made me afraid.

Master salmon at home: How To Cook Perfect Salmon Fillets