Fish: A Culinary Quandary

Fish: A Culinary Quandary

a test kitchen dossier

Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing it is not fish they are after.
Henry David Thoreau

Foodstuff: Fish

Etymology: From the German fisch

Fish are slippery little fellows — not only are they tricky to catch, clean and cook, but they’re also difficult to categorize and describe. There are almost as many ways to classify fish as there are kinds of fish, and while the quantity of fish facts may seem endless, don’t despair: We don’t all have to become zoologists in order to feel comfortable and confident when selecting and preparing this delectable protein. Below you’ll find some information about different kinds of fish, how to buy them, and how to prepare them. Remember, there is a lot of conflicting information, even from scientists, about the health benefits and hazards of eating fish. It’s important to gather information, but ultimately, you have to decide whom you want to listen to and what you’re comfortable eating.

Selecting Fish
The most important tool in selecting fish is to find a reputable supplier you can trust. Whether it’s at a supermarket, a farmer’s market or a fish monger, people who sell fish for a living can provide a level of expertise that the rest of us can only dream about. If you are wondering how you are supposed to know whether a supplier is reputable, here are a few tips: The more signs there are the better – fish labels should include the name of the fish, whether it is farmed or wild, where it is from, whether or not it was previously frozen, and the cut (filet, steak, whole, etc.). Fish should smell like the ocean, not like ammonia. Gills should be pink, eyes should be bulging, and flesh should be firm and resilient (though the flesh of farmed fish tends to be softer). Scales should be firmly attached. Today, most fish is sold in filets and steaks, so smell is definitely going to be your best indicator of freshness.

Of course, once you’ve decided where to buy your fish, there’s still the tricky question of what kind to buy. Many people may feel overwhelmed by the number of fish to cook and the number of ways to cook them. There are not hard and fast rules for which fish to cook in which way. There are some classic preparations to use as a guide (for example, sole is almost always sautéed), but in general we are all guided by our own tastes. Some very general guidelines suggest that milder fish should be paired with milder flavors, and should not be overwhelmed by fat. Meatier fish can stand up to more aggressive cooking techniques like grilling, and you probably wouldn’t deep-fry an expensive fish like escolar or red snapper.

Since sushi fish is generally not cooked, it must be extremely fresh and of the highest quality, both for reasons of flavor and of safety. It is essential to buy fish labeled sushi-grade or sashimi-grade, because these products have been commercially frozen in order to eliminate certain parasites. The only exceptions are certain species of tuna which are certified parasite-free without being frozen.

Farmed vs. Wild
This topic tends to incite a lot of conflict. Some insist there is no appreciable difference between farmed and wild fish, while others swear that farmed fish is not only less delicious, but also more dangerous for our health. While scientists have yet to settle the debate, here are a few facts that can help you decide for yourself:

Wild Fish

Pros: Wild fish tend to have firmer flesh and more flavor, and are often lower in mercury than comparative farmed fish. Most scientists agree that young children and women who may be or plan to be pregnant should avoid consuming fish high in mercury.

Cons: Wild fish can be extremely expensive, primarily because they are growing rarer and rarer. If we continue to consume wild fish without instituting checks, our oceans, lakes and rivers may run out of fish in the distant if not near future. Also, since mercury run-off has polluted many lakes and rivers, wild fish almost always contain some mercury, and some contain it at the same levels as farmed fish.

Farmed Fish

Pros: Farmed fish are much cheaper, making it more financially viable for us to incorporate fish into our diets. Furthermore, eating farmed fish helps take the pressure off wild fish species, giving them time to repopulate.

Cons: Many consumers believe that farmed fish has inferior flavor and soft flesh, making it slightly more difficult to work with. Farmed fish are often high in mercury because they are generally fed a diet consisting of ground-up fish – ones which are often much larger than the farmed fish’s natural prey. Larger fish tend to have higher mercury levels because of their greater age and the type of prey they eat, so smaller farmed fish may then build up unnaturally high levels of mercury.

Determining what kind of fish are high in mercury, whether wild or farmed, can be confusing. (Then try remembering what you’ve learned the next time you’re at the market!) The Environmental Defense Organization provides a useful chart showing how many times a month different people can eat most seafood. Note: Lists of seafood’s contaminants don’t provide information about over-fishing or other habitat damage. Pocket guides for eco-friendly seafood choices are also provided by the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Cooking Fish
By far the most common mistake when preparing fish is overcooking. It may often be difficult to tell when some meats — such as bone-in chicken — are done, but determining the doneness of fish is actually very easy. When the fish has become opaque rather than translucent, and when the flesh has just started to flake, it is cooked; if the flesh becomes visibly divided into flakes, the fish is probably overcooked. Of course some fish, such as tuna or salmon, are typically preferred rare in the center. When planning to serve raw or rare fish, be especially careful in the quality of the fish you select (for more, see information about Sushi below).

Most fish are suitable for baking, and this technique is simple, reliable and easy to adapt in a number of ways. Since baking is a dry-heat method, it is a good idea to add some moisture to the fish such as olive oil, butter, lemon juice, white wine, tomatoes, or stock.

Pan- and Deep-frying
Frying gets a bad rap, as people see all that oil and assume that fried food must be incredibly fattening. The truth is, when food is fried properly, it doesn’t absorb very much oil. Pan-frying means cooking food in hot oil that goes about half-way up the sides of the food, while deep-frying means the food is completely submerged in hot oil. Fish that is going to be pan-fried should be coated in some kind of batter or breading. The standard breading procedure is to lightly coat the food in flour, then egg-wash (beaten egg and water), then breadcrumbs. Remember, the food needs to be entirely coated or it will absorb excess oil and become greasy. The oil should be heated to about 350°F — extremely hot but not smoking. As long as the oil doesn’t cool down too much, the moisture in the fish will turn to steam, pushing against the oil that is cooking the outside of the fish. In order to maintain proper temperatures, make sure you don’t crowd the pan, and give the temperature time to recover between batches. Also, make sure the pieces of fish are fairly thin, or the crust will get too brown before the fish is done cooking. You can always put the fish in a 350° F oven for a few minutes if you think it isn’t done yet.

While most fish are suitable for sautéing, filets rather than steaks or whole fish are the best cut for this type of preparation. You want the fish to cook very quickly or it will become dried out. Many classic dishes such as Sole Meunière or Sole Véronique are prepared by sautéing the fish in a very hot pan, then using the same pan to make a simple sauce which is spooned over the filets.

Shallow or deep poaching are both excellent methods for cooking many types of fish. Generally poached fish are served cold or at room temperature, making the cooking method ideal for summer weather; since poaching means cooking in liquid that is just below a simmer, it won’t heat up your kitchen too much. It’s fun to experiment with poaching liquids — just remember that the fish is going to take on whatever flavor is in the liquid, so you want to stick with flavors that complement the rest of your meal.

En Papillote
Also known as cartoccio in Italy, this healhful and delicious technique involves steaming fish, seafood or even vegetables by sealing them in parchment envelopes filled with a little oil, some lemon juice, stock, or white wine, and aromatics such as herbs and spices. Traditionally, the packet is cut open tableside, allowing the guest to inhale the wonderful aromas that burst from the envelope. Try our Sea Bass en Papillote with Sweet Chile Hoisin Broth.

Fat Poaching
This method involves cooking a layer of seafood and flavorings by completely immersing it in olive oil or butter and heating gently until the fish is just cooked through. The moisture in the food maintains a low cooking temperature, which allows the fish to become wonderfully moist and flavorful. Try our Olive Oil Poached Sablefish with Citrus and Thyme for a wonderful introduction to this technique.

Direct heat grilling is suitable for firmer, meatier cuts of fish, especially fish that is typically served rare. Fish can also be grilled over indirect heat in tin-foil envelopes in a preparation similar to en papillote.


Olive Oil Poached Sablefish with Citrus and Thyme
Trout Filets with Hot Buttered Champagne Sauce
Salmon with Lemon-Thyme Persillade Crust and Spiced Parsley Mayonnaise
Smoked Trout with Horseradish Crème Fraîche
Pistachio-Crusted Salmon with Bailey’s Irish Cream Sauce
Grilled Teriyaki Salmon Bites
Citrus Tea Rubbed Halibut
Sea Bass en Papillote with Sweet Chile Hoisin Broth
Moroccan Spiced Smoked Salmon
Salmon Fettucini with Creamy Lemon Vinaigrette
Hoi Polloi Salmon
Epiphany Cocktail
Woods Hole Science Aquarium and Northeast Fisheries Science Center
Boulder County Colorado Sushi Safety Fact Sheet

Photo by Kelly Cline
Dossier by China Millman