For home cooks, fish often seems more challenging to prepare than meat. As a more delicate item, it cooks quickly and can easily fall apart or be overpowered by other elements of a dish. In addition, some of the techniques used for beef, pork and poultry simply do not work for fish.
Learning how to cook fish isn't an involved process. Most fish taste best with minimal preparation, usually some light seasoning, breading or a sauce is all it takes for a flavorful meal. Keep reading to learn all the basics about how to cook fish.
Common Cooking Methods
As with meat, fish can be cooked in a number of different ways. Here's an overview of each method.
- Fish can be pan-fried or deep-fried.
- In either method, fish is often dredged in a batter of seasoning and flour or corn meal first.
- For pan-fried fish, butter or oil is placed in a skillet over medium-high heat. When pan is hot, fish can be cooked 3-4 minutes on each side until done.
- For deep-fried fish, fill a heavy pot or deep fryer with oil, filling no more than two-thirds of the pot. Once the oil is hot, add the fish and cook for 3-4 minutes until done. Remove with a slotted spoon and blot off excess oil with a paper towel.
- Searing is similar to pan frying and is used to create a crispy exterior to fish that has skin.
- Heat two tablespoons of oil in a skillet over high heat.
- Season fish and place skin side down in hot skillet.
- If fish begins to curl while cooking, use a spatula to press it flat as needed.
- Let fish cook 5-7 minutes (or longer for thicker fillets).
- When skin is browned and crisp, flip and cook for 2-3 minutes longer until fully done.
- Poaching involves gently cooking fish in a liquid such as water or broth.
- This method works best for delicate fillets.
- For best flavor, heat broth along with herbs, vegetables or other aromatics to a temperature of 150 degrees.
- Add fish and cook until done.
- Whole fish or hearty fillets, such as those from salmon or tuna, can be grilled directly. Other types of fish may be placed in foil packets to be grilled.
- To grill directly, first clean and oil the grill. Then heat.
- Season the fish and add to the grill. Cook 2-3 minutes.
- When it is it time to flip, fish should release from grill easily. If it doesn't, cook for another minute before trying again.
- Remove from the grill about a minute before fish is fully done. It will continue to cook on the way to the table.
- Alternately, you can soak wood planks and grill on those rather than placing fish directly on the grill grates.
- To make fish packets, place seasoned fish, herbs and vegetables on aluminum foil. Fold over two sides of the foil and then bring the other two sides of the foil up until they meet. Roll down together to make a packet. Place on a pre-heated grill and cook over medium heat for 7-10 minutes until done.
- Use heartier types of fish for stew.
- Recipes vary, but may stews call for fish to first be sautéed in oil or a small amount of liquid.
- Once browned, vegetables, broth and herbs are added.
- Cook for about 10 minutes until fish is done.
- Baked fish can be plain or dredged in breading first.
- Preheat oven to 450 degrees for fillets and steaks or 350 degrees for whole fish.
- Season or coat fish and place in backing dish.
- Fillets may be done in as little as 4-6 minutes while whole fish could take up to 10 minutes per half pound.
- Having the highest quality and freshest fish possible is essential to safely enjoy raw fish.
- There are a number of ways to prepare raw fish, called variously crudo, carpaccio, and tartare.
- Carpaccio refers to very thin slices, crudo to thicker pieces, and tartara to small bits.
- All three preparations are traditionally dressed with a few quality ingredients: olive oil, an acid (lemon juice or a vinegar), and salt.
- Fresh herbs and spices may also be added prior to serving.
Which Type of Fish is Best for Each Cooking Method?
Now that you know the basics, you need to match the right cooking method to the right type of fish. While chefs are continually experimenting and innovating new ways of cooking, these recommendations can be helpful for those who are just learning how to cook fish.
- Salmon is a thicker, sturdier fish and holds up to a variety of cooking methods.
- Grilling or pan frying are popular ways to prepare salmon.
- Baking and poaching also work well with salmon.
- Raw salmon can be used in preparations for sushi, and lox is uncooked, brined salmon.
- Like salmon, tuna steaks are thick and lend themselves well to more intense cooking methods.
- Try grilling or pan-frying tuna steaks.
- Tuna is also a popular fish to serve raw or nearly raw.
- As an affordable fish, tilapia is white, lean and flakey.
- Pan-frying can add flavor to tilapia.
- Poaching and grilling in foil packets are also popular methods of cooking tilapia.
- Flounder is a flat fish, as is halibut and sole.
- Traditionally, flounder has been fried in the south.
- It can also be seared or baked.
- Cod is another inexpensive white fish with a mild flavor.
- To enhance its taste, try grilling cod in foil packets containing herbs.
- Battered cod can be deep fried and used in traditional fish 'n chips recipes.
- Poaching and baking are also popular ways to prepare cod.
- As another sturdy fish, trout can be cooked whole or as fillets.
- Skin-on trout fillets benefit from searing to create a crisp, flavorful crust.
- Both whole trout and fillets can be grilled.
- Trout also stands up well to baking, frying and stewing.
- Catfish is often prepared as fillets or nuggets.
- Deep frying catfish is popular in the south
- Pan-frying also results in excellent catfish.
With so many other fish available in stores and markets today, this guide merely scratches the surface of all the different ways of how to cook fish. Want to learn more? Check out the culinary schools below to look for classes that can help you expand your repertoire of fish-cooking skills.
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