Seafood 103: cooking it! The third installment in my Fish 101 series. In this post, I go into some basic techniques for cooking fish. This should help you get a little more familiar with different preparation methods. And, if, say, you have a fillet of halibut in your freezer, you may have a better idea of what to do with it.
Please also see Fish 101 – fish, from the culinary point of view and Fish 102, categorization of seafood
How to cook or prepare fish:
The best fish dishes are where the fish is simply prepared. It should begin with good quality ingredients. Fish and seafood are relatively delicate and easily overcooked, so becoming familiar with various handling and cooking techniques will help ensure your seafood is always moist and delicious.
Grilled, poached, baked, roasted, pan-fried, sautéed, or deep-fried are common cooking methods for fish. To lower fat content in your diet, enjoy fish baked or grilled, not deep-fried, and choose low-sodium, low-fat seasonings such as spices, herbs, lemon juice and other flavorings.
Timing gives an approximate sense of when a fish is likely to be done. But, as with any food, I recommend testing it as you cook it. Fish is done when the texture is firm, it becomes flaky, and the flesh has an opaque white look to it. The two best ways to determine if fish is done: interior appearance and interior temperature. When a fish is opaque throughout, it’s done. When you think the fish is nearing doneness, take a small knife and gently prod between the flakes. Remove the fish just before it’s done, as it will continue to cook between the kitchen and the table.
An accurate instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the flesh will also give an accurate reading of doneness. Fish is cooked through at 137°F. Again, take the fish out a little early, at 135°F to allow for final cooking and it will allow the fish to be more moist. If you are looking for medium-rare on say a tuna steak, try cooking it to 120°F and see if that reaches your liking.
Broiling and grilling are ideal simple techniques for cooking many fish. The intense heat complements the flavor of the fish by charring its surface, therefore you can keep seasonings to a minimum. The best fish for grilling are thicker heartier fish like thick steaks of tuna, salmon, and swordfish. Also, small firm whole fish work well for grilling like mackerel, red snapper, and many shellfish.
Generally, you’ll want to grill over high heat. When applicable, start grilling the fish skin side down, let the skin firm up for a couple of minutes before turning the fish. A fish grilling basket can also make grilling fish easier. Broiling is basically grilling but indoors and the heat comes from the top rather than the bottom. Preheat your broiler for 15 minutes. Position the rack as close to the heat as possible. Use a lightly oiled baking sheet. And, unless the fish is more than an inch thick, you won’t even need to turn the fish, as there’s enough ambient heat in the oven to cook the fish through.
Baking implies a more moderate heat like 350°F or less. Roasting is generally 450°F or higher. Both baking and roasting are great for fish. Baking will help preserve the moisture in the fish, and will allow a little more flexibility in cooking times. Roasting will give a nice crust to the fish by browning it.
Fish can also be cooked with liquid, such as stews, steaming, braising, poaching, and en papillote (or in parchment paper packets). Cooking fish in liquid doesn’t give a crust to the fish, but it’s a flexible cooking method that will help eliminate dry fish or the need for extra fat.
Sautéing fish is a simple process. Generally the fish is coated with breadcrumbs or batter and both sides of the fish are seared in hot fat. For thick pieces of fish that take longer to cook, sear both sides and finish the fish in the oven. Sautéing is one of the best methods for fillets, which can dry out when roasted or grilled.
There are the more unusual techniques for “cooking” like ceviche, which is raw fish marinated in citrus juice. Though it isn’t technically cooked, it does turn opaque and firm. Be sure to use only the freshest ocean fish. Ceviche can be made with grouper, halibut, flounder, snapper, shrimp, or scallops. Gravlax is salmon cured with salt, sugar, and dill, and is a traditional Swedish method of curing. Again, use only fresh fish. Escabeche is a Spanish pickle of fish in spices, vinegar, and oil. The fish is fried and submerged in the marinade. Gefilte fish is a dish of fish skins stuffed with ground fish mixture and formed into balls. Fish cakes are a great way to use a high-fat oily fish like tuna or crab. And, sushi and sashimi are raw Japanese style fish.
Finally, most everyone is familiar with deep-fried fish. I would say that if you are going to eat something like fish and chips, just do it occasionally and do at it a great restaurant like Ivar’s or Tin-fish.
Funny, when I started this post, I thought it would be interesting to learn new information. Little did I know how much info was out there. Little did I know what type of rabbit hole I was going down. Little did I know how long this would end up being!
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P.S. I went to the sustainable seafood day/ Best of the West Chowderfest presented by Seafood for the Future over the weekend. It was fabulous. The chowders were amazing. The atmosphere was friendly and welcoming. And, I learned so much from the people there. Here’s one of the things I learned about: NOAA’s (National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration) fishwatch website. FishWatch can help you make informed decisions about the seafood you eat by providing the most accurate and up-to-date information on seafood available in the U.S. Please go to their site and browse a bit. Please enjoy!
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