Fish and seafood are two of the most commonly consumed foods, not just by the human race, but also much of the animal population.
Since the dawn of man, fish has been a food source that was high in protein and capable of sustaining man for much of the day. It’s relatively simple to eat as it doesn’t require much in the way of butchering as some other animals such as cows and pigs do. In addition, they’re far easier to hunt and less likely to be capable of fighting back.
I myself have always enjoyed fish and seafood, from the classics like salmon and tuna to the rarities like shark and eel. I’ve never met a fish or sea creature that I wouldn’t eat and I can’t think of any that I’ve tried that weren’t capable of being delicious.
You may ask yourself why I chose to use the word “capable”. It’s because despite fish and seafood being such an easily sustainable food source, in order for them to taste good, they need to be properly cooked. Despite being a prominent part of our world’s menu, it’s shocking how few men actually know how to properly prepare and cook fish and seafood.
Even professional restaurant chefs have difficulty preparing fish properly and consistently. How many times have you been to a restaurant and were served fish that was overcooked, undercooked or terribly seasoned? How often do you watch reality television about food when chefs get ridiculed or yelled at by the likes of Gordon Ramsay for not properly cooking fish?
The fact is that fish is not easy to cook and does take some practice. A few seconds can sometimes mean the difference between a properly cooked filet and one that’s overdone and inedible. Fortunately for you, I am here to help. I am not a professional chef. However, I have written my fair share of restaurant reviews, am passionate about good food and spend a considerable amount of my personal time cooking for my family and my friends. I’ll admit that fish troubled me for some time. For a significant period of time I actually refused to cook it because I couldn’t consistently get it right. I’m a perfectionist and not being able to cook something as simple as a fish really bothered me. Finally, I decided it was time to learn how to cook fish and seafood, not just well, but impeccably well. After all, how could I judge someone else’s cooking in an article if I wasn’t capable of doing it myself?
Types of Fish
Not all fish are the same. This is a common mistake made by many home cooks and even some well trained chefs. A lot of people assume a fish is a fish and therefore we can prep, season and cook them all the same. Not true.
There are many types of fish from various families and each type has its own requirements when it comes to cooking. In order to be able to successfully cook a fish, you need to first understand what type of fish you’re going to prepare.
Rather than breaking them up into families and going over all of the various types of fish and seafood, let’s streamline it and put them into broader categories based on flavors and textures.
There are three main textures that most fish and seafood fit into: Delicate textures, medium textures and firm textures. In addition to textures, there are also three flavor profiles that fish and seafood fit into: those are mild, moderate and full flavored. Using these six categories we can group the most commonly consumed fish and seafood in an effort to understand how to properly cook them.
Delicate Textured Fish & Seafood
When it comes to delicate fish, it’s easy to understand that one must be… well, delicate when handling and preparing them. The first flavor profile for delicate fish is of course mild flavor.
Mild Flavored Delicate Fish & Seafood
This group of fish consists of basa, flounder, hake, scup, smelt, rainbow trout, hardshell clam, blue crab, peekytoe crab, spanner crab, cuttlefish, eastern oyster, and Pacific oyster.
Moderate Flavored Delicate Fish & Seafood
Anchovy, herring, lingcod, moi, orange roughy, Atlantic ocean perch, Lake Victoria perch, yellow perch, European oyster, sea urchin
Full Flavored Delicate Fish & Seafood
Medium Textured Fish & Seafood
The next texture grouping we talk about is medium textured fish and seafood.
Mild Flavored Medium Textured Fish & Seafood
Black sea bass, European sea bass, hybrid striped bass, bream, cod, drum, haddock, hoki, Alaska pollock, rockfish, pink salmon, snapper, tilapia, turbot, walleye, lake whitefish, wolffish, hardshell clam, surf clam, cockle, Jonah crab, snow crab, crayfish, bay scallop, Chinese white shrimp
Moderate Flavored Medium Textured Fish & Seafood
Eablefish, Atlantic salmon, coho salmon, skate, dungeness crab, king crab, blue mussel, greenshell mussel, pink shrimp
Full Flavored Medium Textured Fish & Seafood
Escolar, chinook salmon, chum salmon, American shad
Firm Textured Fish & Seafood
These fish are much meatier and firmer than the last two types. They require a different style of cooking and preparation and often need more seasoning to bring out the flavor.
Mild Flavored Firm Textured Fish & Seafood
Arctic char, carp, catfish, dory, grouper, halibut, monkfish, pompano, Dover sole, sturgeon, tilefish, wahoo, yellowtail, Abalone, conch, stone crab, American lobster, spiny lobster, octopus, black tiger shrimp, freshwater shrimp, gulf shrimp, Pacific white shrimp, squid
Moderate Flavored Firm Textured Fish & Seafood
Barramundi, cusk, dogfish, kingklip, mahimahi, opah, mako shark, swordfish, albacore tuna, yellowfin tuna, geoduck clam, squat lobster, sea scallop, rock shrimp
Full Flavored Firm Textured Fish & Seafood
Barracuda, Chilean sea bass, cobia, croaker, eel, blue marlin, mullet, sockeye salmon, bluefin tuna
It’s important to note that even in these categories, the various fish need to be cooked at different times and temperatures in order to achieve maximum flavor potential.
Preparing Fish & Seafood
There are basically only two ways to buy fish and seafood. Fresh and frozen. Personally, I only purchase fresh fish. If I plan to cook fish I’ll buy it that day or, at worst, the night before. Fish doesn’t typically take very long to cook so you don’t need to store it for any significant period of time. If you leave work at 5pm and eat dinner at 6:30 you can easily pick up a fish on the way home from work and still have time to prepare it – depending of course on how long it takes you to commute.
Most people buy their fish at the grocery store. However, if you really want to get the best fish, it’s important to buy your fish at a fish market, or if you’re fortunate to live by water, right at the dock after it’s caught.
Not all fish are considered equal. While many fish are very healthy and nutritious to eat, some are not and should be avoided if you’re on a weight loss regimen. It’s important to research the type of fish you want to eat if diet and nutrition is important to you. Of course, other factors to consider are mercury levels and the water the fish is sourced from.
Sashimi or Sushi Grade Fish
In recent years, consuming raw fish has become quite favorable amongst foodies the world over. I myself prefer raw fish to cooked and enjoy preparing it at home as much as I like eating it at a restaurant.
If you are looking to buy fish that is sushi grade you need to understand the types of fish that are less prone to parasites and bacteria. While almost all fish and seafood is edible when cooked, not all fish and seafood can be eaten raw.
There are actually few fish that should be eaten raw. These include tuna, salmon, clams, scallops, abalone, yellowtail, halibut, flounder, squid, gizzard shad, mackerel, seabags, snapper, and almost any other farmed fish from the United States, Britain, New Zealand, Canada, Japan or Norway due to high standards of cleanliness.
Now, this doesn’t mean that you can eat any of the above fish just because you see it at the grocer. Sashimi grade fish and seafood need to be caught very quickly, bled immediately after they’re caught, gutted and packed with ice as fast as humanely possible. It’s this process that ensures that bacteria can’t grow on the fish and it’s the only way to keep you and your family safe while eating it.
Of course, you’re placing your trust in the fisherman that caught it, but should you be a fisherman yourself and want to properly prepare the fish for eating raw, here’s a step by step process for doing it:
First, ensure that the fish you caught is one of the fish listed above. You don’t want to make the mistake of mis-identifying the fish and getting sick. Trust me.
Once you’ve caught it you want to speed up the fight and get it off the hook as soon as possible. This isn’t the time to wrestle it. As soon as the fish is off the hook, slice through the gills and cut a slice from the tail all the way up the backbone to bleed it. It’s important that this is done immediately on the boat. Most of the parasites or worms that are found in fish will leave the gut and migrate to the flesh once it dies. Speed gutting the fish prevents this from occurring. Once it’s gutted, pack the fish in ice. Even if it’s freezing cold outside, it’s important to use ice, and lots of it. Bring as much as you can.
One very important step that I recently learned after my editor, Sven Raphael Schneider returned from a trip to Asia, is that most sushi chefs freeze the fish before they prepare it. By freezing the fish, you are helping to kill any leftover bacteria that might be found in it. This is just one last step to ensure that the fish is safe for you and your family to eat raw.
No article about food is complete without a few recipes. These are some of my own personal recipes that I hope you’ll enjoy. They’re ones that I believe any home cook can make and will hopefully help ensure that you don’t overcook or undercook your fish and seafood.
Perfectly Seared Scallops
Scallops are one of the easiest foods to prepare and yet, one that many skilled chefs still foul up. In fact, recently during a trip with Sven Raphael Schneider to Detroit, we had the pleasure of dining at celebrity chef Michael Symon’s Roast in the lobby of our hotel. Roast is one of, if not the most well respected restaurant in Detroit so it goes without saying that I was looking forward to enjoying a delicious meal there. For my entree, I ordered the scallops and, much to my chagrin, was very disappointed in them. It wasn’t that they weren’t cooked well. It was that they weren’t properly cleaned. There’s nothing worse than biting down on a scallop and getting sand in your mouth.
There’s also an art to buying them.
First and foremost, never buy frozen scallops. Always buy them fresh. You can tell the good ones from the bad as the good will be ivory colored and smell clean, not fishy. Second, you want to make sure they’re dry, or what some chefs call “undipped”. These scallops haven’t been treated with a preservative that allows them to take on water. Scallops that do take on water will sweat when they cook and will never properly sear.
It’s important, as I mentioned above to clean your scallops of any sand or debris. Once you’re comfortable that they’ve been fully cleaned, blot them dry with paper towel and season one side with salt. You’ll want to make sure you use a large sauté pan to give the scallops lots of room. Once the pan is hot, add oil until the pan is well coated. It’s important that the pan is very hot or you won’t be able to achieve the perfect cook. After the oil is in the pan, raise the heat as high as it will go and place the scallops – salt side down – in the pan. Making sure the scallops have room and aren’t clustered together, let them sear for about 2-4 minutes until the underside is nicely browned. Then, season the top side with salt and flip them, allowing the scallops to sear on the other side for about a minute or two. Well cooked scallops should be bouncy but still very tender. At this time, you can plate the scallops and add any sauce of your choosing. I personally enjoy a light butter or wine based sauce with my scallops.
Cold Grilled Octopus
One of my favorite foods to enjoy is octopus. When it’s cooked properly, it’s decadent and sublime. This is a recipe that I’ve been using for the last couple of years that I hope you’ll enjoy as much as I do.
After properly preparing the octopus as shown in the video above, cut it into smaller pieces and place it in a large prep bowl. I personally enjoy using baby octopus as I find it easier to handle. Drizzle the octopus with high quality extra-virgin olive oil and toss to coat it completely. At this time you want to prepare your outdoor grill. If you don’t have a solid cooking surface, you’ll need to use a grill plate or griddle that’s preheated.
Place the octopus on the grill and turn it frequently for about 4-5 minutes until the flesh darkens and the tentacles curl up. Once cooked, place it in a bowl and add another splash of oil, fresh parsley, fresh lemon juice, about a tablespoon of red wine vinegar, minced garlic and smoked paprika. Toss it again to coat. Season the octopus with salt and pepper to taste, cover it with plastic wrap and place it in the fridge overnight.
Take the octopus out of the fridge about 15 minutes before serving and you’ll have a wonderful appetizer or side dish to serve with your meal.
Salt Crusted Fish
One of my favorite ways to prepare fish is to bake it in salt. It’s often revered as a complicated and technical dish to make, but it’s one that really isn’t all that difficult with some practice.
The most important part is selecting a fish that suits a salt bake. I recommend using sea bass, red snapper, or barramundi. My favorite is the sea bass. This is another recipe I really enjoy cooking on my outdoor grill. For this particular recipe, I prefer using my charcoal grill over gas as it’s easier to control the flame and temperature. Of course, you can easily prepare it indoors using an oven.
The first step is to preheat your grill or oven. You want to get it pretty hot and I usually set mine to about 400°F. Rinse the fish under cold running water, making sure that you clean its cavity well. Then, pat it dry with paper towel.
I like to stuff my fish to give it extra flavor. It doesn’t need anything wild as the fish is tasty on its own, but I usually stuff the cavity with sliced lemon, fresh thyme, oregano, rosemary and some sliced garlic. Then I give the fish a massage with butter to evenly coat the outside. Make sure you also season it with salt and pepper.
This is where the salt comes in and surprisingly you need quite a bit. You’re going to want about five or six pounds of table salt which you want to pour into a large bowl. Add about a cup of water and mix it to moisten the salt and compact it.
Using a large roasting pan, spread about one third of the salt mixture making a layer on the bottom that’s about 1/2 inch thick. At this point you can opt to cut off the fish head or leave it on. I do recommend trimming it as needed though. Lay the fish on top of the salt and cover it with the remaining salt mixture. This is what creates the crust and it’s important that it’s completely covered and packed firmly.
If you’re using the grill for this, make sure that you cook it over indirect heat if it’s charcoal, or direct heat if it’s gas. Bake it for about 40 minutes. After it’s done, remove the pan from the grill or oven and let it rest for another ten minutes. Now it’s show time. Crack the salt crust and break it away to expose the beautiful fish. Remove the entire fish and dust off any of the remaining salt. Serve it immediately and with a smile on your face. This might just be the most succulent fish you’ll ever eat.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this quick primer on fish and seafood. Once you’ve cooked it to perfection there’s no going back. Of course it may take some practice but anything worth doing is worth doing right. You can find many more recipes for fish and seafood online or at your local book store. Do you have a favorite recipe or tip? Share it below in the comment section.