For Beginner Fish Chefs

When Jon and I got married, we were given Betty Crocker’s Cookbook as a wedding gift.  It was probably one of the most helpful wedding gifts we received.  It taught me how to cook.  It has a glossary of cooking terms that not only gives you a description of what it means but also pictures that show you exactly what it means.  For example, it tells you how to slice, julienne, cube, chop, snip, and cut up.  Before I began cooking, those terms would have all meant the same thing to me.  If a recipe said to chop, or to cube, or to cut up – it would have all looked the same under my knife.  The glossary shows you with pictures what the end result of each of these terms should look like.  This was so helpful in understanding why my recipes maybe didn’t look the same in the end!  Every category of the cookbook is full of these helpful how-to’s {people, it even shows you how your water should look when it’s boiling and how it should look when simmering!},

So this is where I started when I first began cooking fish.  There are some helpful things to know when cooking fish so that’s what this post is about.  If you’ve been cooking fish then feel free to skip this one and go to the next which will be the first of tried and true fish recipes!

1. Buying Fish:  Fresh fish should smell fresh and mild – not fishy or like ammonia.  It should be shiny and firm not slimy and browning.  Also, check out the eyes.  They should be clear and bright not cloudy.  But honestly, unless you live close to the ocean don’t buy fresh fish.  You’re better off buying it freshly frozen.  When you live in Missouri and it says “fresh” you know that can only be relative…  Also, just like everything else in the darn food industry of America, there is something fishy about the fish business.  Honestly, I haven’t done a lot of reading on the issues because I just lean on Trader Joe’s to do what’s right.  They are up to date on this issue and have made sure that all their seafood is sustainable.  I suggest you buy your fish from them.  To read more on their practices click here.  Anyways, there are different cuts of fish like in any other kind of meat.  Most of the time, they will call for filets (it’s like the boneless, skinless, chicken breast of fish cuts).  You typically want 1/3 pound per serving (unless you’ve got a hungry man and then adjust accordingly – you know if you have one of those).  The second most common type of cut is a steak (good for grilling) which you also want to allow about 1/3 pound per serving.

2. Know Your Types of Fish.  You see, when a recipe calls for chicken it doesn’t have to name a type {usually just it’s cut – like wings or boneless breasts}.  Each type of fish changes how it’s cooked {or really just how long}.  So don’t let that detour or overwhelm you.  Use this guide {you will pay attention to the textures and then the flavor is determined by your preference}.

Delicate Texture:
Mild Flavor:
Alaska Pollock, Catfish, Flounder, Orange Roughy, Skate, Sole, Walleye Pike
Moderate Flavor:
Lingcod, Pink Salmon, Whitefish, Whiting
Full Flavor:
Butterfish, Herring/Sardines, Smelt

Medium-Firm Texture:
Mild Flavor: Cod, Cusk, Grouper, Haddock, Sea Bass, Snapper, Tilapia, Tilefish
Moderate Flavor: Amberjack, Drum, Mahi Mahi, Ocean Perch, Pompano, Redfish, Rockfish, Shad, Rainbow Trout
Full Flavor: Bluefish, Carp, Mackerel, Sablefish, Salmon (Atlantic, King, Sockeye versions), Wahoo

Firm Texture:
Mild Flavor: Halibut, Monkfish
Moderate Flavor: Shark, Sturgeon
Full Flavor: Marlin, Swordfish, Tuna

Here’s how you use these guides.  As you find fish recipes, they’re going to name a fish for ya, like in – “Chipotle Haddock”.  You go to the store but you can’t find “haddock”.  No biggie.  Just replace it with any other Medium-Firm Texture fish (like in this scenario, with good ‘ole, easy-to-find, cheap Tilapia) found in this guide and continue with the recipe as is.  Now, every once in awhile I do jump categories but then I have to adjust the recipe a bit.  A delicate texture fish is going to cook much faster than a medium-firm.  So if the recipe calls for a medium-firm fish and you use a delicate, check it much earlier as you won’t cook it as long.  Also, you won’t want to put a delicate texture fish straight on the grill like you would a firm texture.  It would fall apart and get lost in the grill.  So, you would want to make sure you used foil packets or a fish grilling tool.  After you’ve been cooking fish for awhile, you’ll begin to know which fish your store of choice carries.  That guide doesn’t have all types of fish in it {especially for you freshwater fishermen}.  But again, after awhile you’ll be able to just look at the fillets and know if they’re going to work for a specific recipe.

3.  Ways to Cook Fish.  You can bake, broil, fry, grill, steam, and even slow-cook fish.  We’re going to try a bunch of different ways in posts to come.  I’m especially excited to try a crock-pot recipe.  I would have never thought of cooking fish in a crock-pot.

4.  How to Tell When it’s Done.  This is usually the biggest question and rightfully so.  I cannot say this enough so it will be in bold and all caps.  WHEN FISH IS OVERCOOKED IT SMELLS AND TASTES REALLY “FISHY.”  Honestly.  I’m convinced that people who say they hate the taste of fish have had badly cooked fish.  Here’s the paragraph from Betty Crocker on determining when fish is done.

Fish is delicate and tender; overcooking makes it dry and tough.  Fish is done when you can flake it easily with a fork.  Test this by inserting a fork at an angle into the thickest part of the fish and twisting gently.  The flesh and any juices should be opaque.

It doesn’t take long, at all, to cook fish (one of my favorite things about cooking it!).  They say about 8-10 minutes per inch of thickness in the thickest part (most fish are only 1-1.5 inches thick unless it’s a steak).  But as you’re doing your twist test, look inside.  Fish uncooked is transparent {that’s fancy for clear or you can see through it}; fish cooked is opaque {that’s fancy for white or you can’t see through it}.  The exception to this is salmon which doesn’t become white when cooked it gets more pink.

Finally, I would like to say to those who say they only like the taste of salmon- salmon is one of the fullest flavor fish there is!  It doesn’t get much more fishy than that {ok- maybe sardines}.  So go ahead and try some others!

Here is a printable version of the fish texture guide – while you’re learning, take it with you to the store and in your shopping list just write down {from the recipe} the texture type you need.  When you’re at the store you can see which from this guide they have.

Other posts on fish:
The Vegetarian Meat


4 thoughts on “For Beginner Fish Chefs

    • Salmon also looks glossy or transparent when it’s raw. When it’s cooked it will look more pink but will be solid through {does not look glossy when you flake the thickest part}. Wish I had some salmon to cook so I could just take some pics to show. Some of my recipes to try will be salmon so I will do it. 🙂

  1. Awesome post!! I was JUST thinking you needed a printable guide…and then I came to the bottom of the post. Very cool. Also, so funny that all this time I was (mistakenly) thinking that salmon was one of the milder-tasting fish! We could have been enjoying other fish the whole time! Can’t wait to hear how some of your recipes come out.

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