Learning how to cook seafood is one of the most useful things you can do. First of all, fish is the healthiest animal product that you can eat. It’s also incredibly rewarding to cook: The variety of flavors and textures is astounding, yet you need to know only a few basic techniques to cook them all. And seafood rarely takes more than 10 minutes of heat, so those rewards come fast. Simple, quick, healthy, and never boring: What could be better than that?

   The frustrating truth is that buying fish and shellfish is much harder than cooking it. We know that many types are endangered, and we know that many are farm-raised; it’s often impossible for us to tell which fish are wild, which are sustainable, which are farmed, or which came from local waters and which were shipped from the other side of the world.

   Once you have quality seafood in your kitchen, the possibilities are unlimited. Here you’ll learn a variety of ways to cook seafood simply and quickly—from grilling and broiling to frying and roasting to steaming and boiling. You’ll also learn how to group similar kinds of fish into categories—like steaks, thick fillets, thin fillets, and shellfish —and how to tell when each of them is cooked just the way you like.

   After you learn which methods and cooking times work for which kinds of fish, you’ll be able to perfectly cook almost anything you can find in the sea.

Fish Basics

5 Rules for Buying and Storing Seafood

1. Follow Your Nose Buy fish from a clean store that doesn’t smell bad, where the fish is displayed on ice, not in packages. This might be the counter at a supermarket or a fishmonger. Once you find that place, make friends.

Be Flexible For every fish you can think of, there are others much like it; they’re interchangeable. So instead of focusing on individual species, think of fish in the three groups, then choose what looks best in each category.

Be Picky Buy what smells briny and sweet—like the sea—not stinky or acrid like chemicals. Avoid anything mushy, dried out, or “gaping —where the flesh is separating. If you’re not sure, ask your new friend behind the counter to let you have a whiff and a close look.

Choose Safe and Sustainable Seafood Many species of seafood have been overfished or polluted to near extinction, and farmed fish isn’t always the best alternative. Several reputable organizations can help you decide what fish and shellfish to avoid, using lists that fluctuate along with the fish populations themselves.

5. Keep Seafood Cold To help maintain good quality, hurry home (or have the store pack the fish in ice); cook thawed seafood within a day. Frozen seafood degrades with time, so eat it within a couple months.

Think of Fish in Groups

When you cook fish, the species matters less than the type and thickness of the cut.

Thick Fish Fillets A good place for beginners to start: All should be at least 1 inch thick—sturdy enough to turn during cooking if you need to. Sometimes the skin is still on and helps hold the fillet together. A piece cut from the tail end may not be totally uniform, so just remember that one part will cook faster than the other. But in general, figure a total of 8 to 10 minutes of cooking time per inch of thickness.

Thin Fish Fillets Some of the fish on this list, most notably the so called flatfish (like flounder and sole) are about ¼ inch thick and cook in as little as 2 minutes; others are a little thicker. You can always substitute the sturdier fillets in recipes that call for a thin cut (just cook them a little longer). But if you try to treat these delicate fish like the sturdy thick ones, they will break apart during cooking.

Fish Steaks When the fish is cut all the way through into a piece that’s essentially a cross section, this is what you get. With really large fish like tuna and swordfish—a steak is boneless. With smaller species like salmon or halibut—there will be bones and skin. Steaks are fairly sturdy (some more than others), which means that they’ll hold up on the grill, and since they’re of uniform thickness, they usually cook evenly, at a rate of 8 to 10 minutes per inch of thickness.

Three Groups of Fish

Different species may be cooked the same way within groups, but their flavor and texture vary. Here’s a quick summary of the most common kinds:

Thick Fish Fillets

SALMON Same flavor as steaks.
HALIBUT Mild flavored with a firm, large flake.
STRIPED BASS Medium flavored, meaty, and flaky.
COD Mild flavored with big flakes and fairly firm flesh.
CATFISH Dense texture, strong (some say muddy) flavor.
SEA BASS (Thick and thin fillets.) Medium flavored, quite firm. (Red snapper is similar.)
MACKEREL Dark, fatty, flavorful.

Thin Fish Fillets

SOLE Mild, almost sweet, and delicate.
FLOUNDER Tender (sometimes soft) and mild flavored.
TROUT Sturdy, like a light, freshwater version of salmon.
SEA BASS (Thick and thin fillets.) Medium flavored, very firm flesh. (Red snapper is similar.)
TILAPIA Farm-raised, increasingly available, but uninteresting flavor and texture.

Fish Steaks

SALMON Distinctive strong flavor, usually pleasantly fatty; wild is preferable to farmed.
HALIBUT Sturdy and mild flavored.
COD More delicate; a good substitute for halibut.
SWORDFISH Meaty and flavorful.
TUNA Often eaten raw or rare. Meaty but tender, almost sweet flavor.

Fish and Doneness

Fish dries out quickly, so it’s better to undercook it—and take peeks inside—than to overcook it: Most species are best cooked to medium, so the interior is still a little translucent and just beginning to break into flakes. Some—like high-quality tuna—are even better cooked rare, so that the inside still looks raw. Each recipe will help you determine doneness case by case until you get the hang of it.
    The more you cook fish, the better you’ll become at visually recognizing doneness before you decide to nick-and-peek. Eventually you’ll get to the point where you can determine doneness by poking the thickest part with your finger.

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