For shaky chefs with a finny phobia, here are some great fish cooking tips and fish recipes.
Cooking Fish and Fish Recipes
Last summer, when MOTHER’S editor in chief returned from
North Carolina’s Outer Banks with a freezerful of yellowfin
tuna, he shared his catch with the editorial staff.
Everyone applauded his skill and praised his generosity.
Then, all afternoon, editors and illustrators skulked into
my office, muttering, “How do you cook this stuff?”
There’s nothing like raw fish for intimidating perfectly
competent cooks. Assured with soufflés, blasé
with béarnaise, they shrink from a sea bass. And no
wonder: Fish is badly cooked so consistently that the means
of preparing it can seem as unfathomable as the waters it
Actually, fixing fish requires neither elaborate equipment
nor complicated technique. If you can bake, broil, fry and
simmer, you can produce superb seafood. When dinner goes
awry, it’s usually because 1) the fish isn’t fresh, 2) the
cooking method doesn’t match the species or 3) the fish
overcooks. All these pitfalls are easy to avoid.
Fresh or Foul Fish?
Fish is the most perishable of foods–delightful on
Monday, rank on Thursday. The “fishy flavor” that keeps so
many people loyal to pork chops is the taste of
old fish. And once fish has turned, no sauce can
disguise its taste.
If you reel in your own dinner, the rule is simple: Cook it
(or freeze it) the day you catch it–or the next day
at the latest. But if you’re casting about for supper in a
supermarket, things get more complicated; you don’t know
how long that fish has been out of water. How can you tell
if it’s edible before you buy it?
There are several ways to judge whether fish is fresh (see
above). But the best way is to smell it. Fresh fish has
either no odor at all or a pleasant, briny scent. Fish with
a strong odor is too old to buy; it will taste the way it
smells, no matter how you cook it.
Fat or Lean Fish?
A) FLESH should be firm and spring back when poked.
B) EYES should be bright and clear.
C) SCALES should be anchored to the skin.
Basically, there are two kinds of fish and four ways to
cook them. The trick is to match the former with the
Whether freshwater or saltwater, fish are either lean or
fat. Most are lean. Whatever oil they have is concentrated
in the liver (hence cod-liver oil). With little fat in the
flesh, lean fish are white or light-colored and mild in
flavor. Examples: perch, pike, bass, cod, flounder, haddock
and red snapper.
In fat fish, oil is distributed throughout the flesh, which
is darker or pink, with a more pronounced flavor.
Whitefish, bluefish, mackerel, tuna and some salmon are
popular fat fish. (Don’t be put off by that term. Even the
oiliest fish are only about 10% fat; ground beef weighs in
at 30%. And researchers are investigating the possibility
that fatty omega-3 acids deter heart disease.)
Once you know a fish’s fat content, you can decide on an
appropriate cooking technique: baking, broiling, frying or
poaching (simmering in a liquid). With lean fish, the
critical problem is to keep it from drying out. Thus, it
lends itself to the wet-heat methods–poaching and
frying-which add moisture or fat. Lean fish also bakes
well, as long as it’s covered with a sauce or basted with
an oil-based marinade. Broiling is chancy. The intense,
direct heat dries and toughens. If you must broil lean
fish, watch it like a fish hawk and slather it with fat.
Fat fish, on the other hand, thrives under dry heat; it
bakes and broils extremely well. It’s less successful when
fried (super-greasy) or poached (except for salmon, the
classic poached fish). However it’s cooked, fat fish can
taste oily unless it’s prepared with an acid ingredient:
citrus, vinegar or wine.
The weather and the food distribution system being what
they are, it’s hard to predict what will be caught and
delivered. So it’s best to shop for a type of fish, rather
than for a particular species. While the fish in each
category are not identical, they are largely
interchangeable. If your recipe calls for orange
roughy–a lean New Zealand import–and there’s
none to be had, substitute any lean variety that’s fresh
Is the Fish Done or Devastated?
In preparing fish, the single most important factor is not
how you cook it but when you stop. Badly cooked usually
means over-cooked–a sweet, succulent fish made dry,
tasteless and tough. There are three ways to tell when it’s
The Canadian method. Lay the fish on the
counter and measure it at its thickest part. Then,
regardless of cut or cooking technique, cook it 10 minutes
per inch, even if it’s stuffed or rolled. The only
exceptions: 15 minutes per inch if cooked in foil, 20
minutes if frozen.
Nothing so simple should work so well. Devised by the
Canadian Department of Fisheries, the system is almost
infallible. Occasionally, fish will overcook, so it’s wise
to check it shortly before its time is up, using the two
methods listed below.
Opacity. When fish is done, it changes
from translucent to opaque. Insert a thin knife into the
thickest part of the fish, and look. The flesh should also
be moist and shiny. Opacity is the most accurate measure of
The flake test. Virtually every cookbook
ever written says to cook fish “until done, or until it
flakes easily with a fork.” This is helpful if you have
ever seen a fish actually “flake,” useless if you haven’t.
Most people visualize the fish disintegrating into chips
the size of soap flakes–and, if cooked long enough, it will
oblige. Unfortunately, at that point it’s inedible.
When fish is cooked, it doesn’t so much flake as chunk, or
break apart. Insert a fork into the thickest part–it
should enter easily, with little resistance–and twist
gently; the fish should crack apart. Although the best
known of the three, the flake test is the least reliable.
By the time some varieties flake–especially solid,
meaty ones like salmon and tuna–they’re overdone.
Once you’ve eaten well-cooked fish, you’ll know it when you
see it, touch it and taste it. But if, like many people,
you’ve never eaten it any way but overcooked, your primary
problem will be convincing yourself that it really is done
when it meets the three tests. Until all this is second
nature, you might try these rules of thumb: If the fish
looks half-raw, stay alert; it’s almost ready. If you can’t
decide whether it’s done, it is. If you’re absolutely
certain it’s fully cooked, call the cat. Everyone else will
be eating hamburger.
The Four Fish Cooking Techniques
Baking. Baking is one of the simplest,
easiest and safest ways to cook fish. Preheat the oven to
450 degrees Fahrenheit and wipe the fish with paper towels. Oil a baking
pan, or coat it with nonstick spray. Place the fish in the
pan, and brush with a mixture of equal parts lemon juice
and melted butter. Bake 10 minutes per inch, basting twice
and checking for doneness 1 or 2 minutes earlier.
Broiling. Preheat the broiler for 10
minutes. Oil a broiling pan (or coat it with nonstick
spray), place the fish on the rack, brush with butter or
oil (or butter and lemon juice) and broil 2 to 4 inches
from the heat for 10 minutes per inch, basting and checking
for doneness frequently. Only very thick pieces should be
turned during cooking.
Poaching. Texture largely determines
whether a fish poaches well. Soft-textured
fish–bluefish, for example–disintegrate in a
simmering liquid. Firm fish–perch, trout, salmon,
swordfish, snapper, in fact most fish–hold their
The traditional poaching liquid is a court bouillon (“coor
boo-yon”), a vegetable-and-wine broth that varies with the
cook. A typical list of ingredients: 6-1/2 cups water; 1-1/2 cups dry white wine; 1 large carrot, sliced; 1 rib
celery, sliced; 1/2 lemon, sliced; 2 sprigs parsley; 6
black peppercorns; 1 bay leaf. Simmer the ingredients for
10 to 15 minutes to combine the flavors.
To poach fish, prepare the court bouillon (or use a liquid
of your own devising) in a large pot. Wipe the fish with
paper towels, place it on a rack and lower it into boiling
liquid. Cover the pot. When the liquid returns to a boil,
immediately reduce the heat until the liquid quivers but
does not boil. (Small bubbles should rise gently from the
bottom.) Cook 10 minutes per inch, checking for doneness 1
or 2 minutes earlier.
Plain poached fish can be rather bland. Plan to serve it
with a sauce or condiment.
Frying. Fish can be pan-fried (in a little
oil) or deep-fried (in a lot).
Pan-frying: Heat 1/8 to 1/4 inch vegetable oil in
a heavy skillet until oil is medium hot (a drop of water
should sizzle when dropped into the oil). Wipe the fish
with paper towels, dust with seasoned flour (a mix of
flour, salt and pepper) and fry 10 minutes per inch,
dividing the time between the two sides and checking for
doneness 1 or 2 minutes earlier. Don’t crowd the fish while
they’re cooking, or the oil will cool and the fish will be
soggy. Drain on paper towels and serve immediately.
Deep-frying: Make a batter and chill it. (Any
flour-based batter will do. One example: Combine 1 cup
flour, 3 tablespoons cornstarch, l teaspoon salt, dash
nutmeg and 1/8 teaspoon pepper. Add 1 cup beer and 1
tablespoon oil and mix until smooth.)
Chill the fish, which should be in relatively small pieces.
Heat 2 to 3 inches oil in deep-fryer or deep skillet to
375 degrees Fahrenheit (a 1-inch cube of bread should brown in 30
seconds). Don’t fill the pan more than half full, or the
oil will overflow when hot. Pat the fish pieces dry with
paper towels, dip them in chilled batter and drop them into
the oil. Don’t crowd them, or the oil will cool. Fry 10
minutes per inch, turning once and checking 1 or 2 minutes
before time is up. The outside should be crisp and brown,
the inside moist and opaque. The batter should form a crust
and seal the fat out.
Three Fine Kettles of Fish Recipes
Baked, Stuffed Red Snapper Recipe
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons melted butter or margarine,
1 quart dry bread cubes
1/2 cup sour cream
1/4 cup diced, peeled lemon
2 tablespoons grated lemon rind
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon salt
1 whole, dressed red snapper (or other lean fish), about 4
Cook celery and onion in 1/4 cup butter until tender.
Combine with bread cubes, sour cream, lemon, rind and
Clean, wash and dry fish. Stuff fish loosely. If desired,
close opening with small skewers or toothpicks. Place in
well-greased baking pan, brush with some of the remaining
butter and bake until done, basting occasionally with
butter. Remove skewers and serve. Serves 6.
Fillets in Caper-Mustard Sauce Recipe
4 teaspoons butter or margarine, divided
1 teaspoon flour
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons dry white wine
1 teaspoon Dijon-style mustard
1 teaspoon drained capers
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon rind
Freshly ground pepper
2 lean fish fillets, 5 to 6 ounces each
2 teaspoons lemon juice
Salt to taste
Melt 2 teaspoons butter or margarine in small saucepan. Mix
in flour and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, for 1
minute. Remove from heat; stir in water, wine and mustard.
Return to heat and bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer,
stirring constantly, until thickened. Add capers, lemon
rind and pepper to taste; remove from heat and keep warm.
Melt remaining butter and add lemon juice. Brush fillets
with lemon butter and broil or bake until done. Place
fillets on serving plate, add salt to taste and spoon sauce
over them. Serves 2.
Rocky Mountain Trout Recipe
Enjoy this treat by a stream or re-create the river-outing
atmosphere in your home.
1/2 pound bacon slices
2 white onions, thinly sliced, separated into rings
1/3 cup yellow cornmeal
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
4 8-ounce trout, cleaned and scaled
In a large skillet, fry bacon until crisp. Remove from
skillet; drain on paper towels. Crumble into large pieces.
Reserve 2 tablespoons bacon drippings in skillet. Reserve
remaining drippings. Add onion rings to drippings in
skillet; saute until soft and transparent. Remove from
skillet; set aside. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons reserved
drippings to skillet; heat. In a shallow dish, combine
cornmeal, flour, salt and pepper. Rinse trout; shake dry.
Dip rinsed trout in cornmeal mixture, thoroughly coating
both sides. Pan-fry coated trout in hot bacon drippings 6 to
8 minutes, turning once, until coating is crisp and fish
tests done. Spoon sauteed onions and crumbled bacon around
fish. Serve immediately from skillet.
Once you become a fearless fish cook, you’ll find that
seafood preparation is the easiest and fastest cooking you
can do. And you won’t be unnerved when your boss comes to
work with yellowfin tuna. Just broil it, basting with a
mixture of lemon juice, Tabasco and melted butter. It’s a
good recipe. I got it from our editor in chief.
Carol Taylor is the MOTHER EARTH NEWS food editor.